Law Portrayed as a Double-Edged
Sword in Cape Fear
By Leesa Sylyski
The two versions of Cape Fear (Universal/Amblin/Cappa/Tribeca
1991, directed by Martin Scorsese), (Universal-International/Melville-Talbot
1962, directed by J. Lee Thompson), although similar in story
line, are very different. This inevitably leads to different
representations and critiques of the legal system. The characters
in the films are unique as reflected in their interactions with
the legal system. How is the legal system portrayed? In both
films, the legal system is criticized by exposing its nature
as a double-edged sword that is easily manipulated and inverted,
becoming both a tyrant and a protector. However, the '91 film
further depicts the legal system as fundamentally flawed when
it is asked to provide justice and protection from dysfunction.
I will deal with the two films separately.
The premise of the
'62 film is that a lawyer, Sam, witnessed an assault on a woman
in a parking lot as he walked by one evening. Sam testified against
Max Cady and thus, helped to send Cady to jail for 14 years.
Cady is finally released, blames Sam for his conviction, and
sets out to terrorize Sam's family in order to deal Sam the same
type of loss Max feels Sam gave him.
The '62 film shows how the legal system is not equally accessible
to all. It is a tyrant that is used to harass Cady. It does not
protect the rights against abuse and intimidation that citizens
are afforded in theory. The law is used at the discretion of
the Sheriff, at Sam's request. The legal system is criticized
by highlighting its availability to powerful people, such as
Sam, who have connections inside the police force. It is easily
manipulated and thereby transformed from being a protector to
Cady is arrested for suspicion of being poor, a criticism of
how the law does, at this point in time, discriminate against
the poor. However, he is not actually poor and so cannot be charged
with vagrancy. He is also repeatedly brought into the station
to be questioned, however paltry the excuse. Indeed, the police
target him. Yet, they can go only so far in harassing Cady. The
legal system is shown to be very flexible, but only to a point,
as it eventually protects Cady when the police refuse to arrest
him for what he might do. Thus, the double-edge is shown. For
Cady, the legal system is inverted and is at once the tyrant
Cady responds then by using the law to his favor. He is protected
by it as he harasses Sam by appearing too often in the presence
of Sam's family. Cady uses it to disentitle Sam from protection.
He pushes Sam until Sam can no longer find protection, and moves
outside of the law to care for his family himself. Cady never
actually does anything to physically hurt the family before he
appears at Cape Fear, except possibly poison the family's dog.
Sam tries to bribe Cady into leaving town, but is unsuccessful.
Thugs are hired then to convince Cady to leave town one way or
another, also to no avail. There simply is no legal reason why
Cady needs to leave town. However, these acts lead to Sam's disbarment
hearing. The legal community would likely not stand for one of
its members to be acting outside the law in this manner. There
is no professional or legal protection for Sam. He faces the
law as his tyrant.
In a further criticism of the law, Sam was seeking protection
and due to his connections had his own "hired gun",
a police officer, come to Cape Fear. It is unlikely that an ordinary
citizen could call the police and be provided with a private
guard due to mere suspicion of the possibility of harm.
The law becomes a destructive force for Sam, until he employs
elements of natural justice to protect his family. These elements
include the right to defend one's self and family from harm.
In doing so, he brings himself back into the fold of the legal
system. The double-edge works both for and against Sam. At the
end of the film, Sam does not kill Cady; he leaves punishment
to the legal system. The viewer is left with the hope that the
legal system is just and will punish wrongdoers. Sherwin states
that "[l]aw clearly has its limitation; it cannot insulate
us completely from the risk of antisocial violence. But it can
do justice when such violence ultimately erupts" (R. K.
Sherwin, "Cape Fear: Law's Inversion and Cathartic Justice"
(1996) 30 University of San Francisco Law Review at 1025 [hereinafter,
Sherwin]). The double-edged sword is left as a protector.
The '91 film contains
the same elements of inversion, tyranny, and protection as are
found in the '62 version. However, the double-edged sword is
not only portrayed visually, by Cady's tattoo, but also symbolically
in Cady. The critique of the legal system in the '91 version
depicts it to be fundamentally flawed, as it cannot provide justice
or protection from dysfunction.
Sam lives in a shadowy world where he chose in withholding evidence,
not to zealously represent his client. Sam stated "Fourteen
years ago, in this case, I had a report on the victim. . . .
rape and aggravated sexual battery. Anyway I had a report on
this victim and it came back that she was promiscuous. And I
buried it . . . I didn't show it to the client, I didn't show
it to the prosecution. But if you had seen what this guy had
done to this girl. . . ." Nevins explains the legal background
when he states [t]raditionally, when a man was charged with
rape, all information about the woman's prior sexual activity
was admissible either to show consent or to impeach her credibility
as a witness. She could be cross-examined about sexual contact
with the defendant or any third party, previous sexual partners
could testify about their own affairs with her, and the defendant
could introduce evidence as to her sexual reputation within the
community. (F.M Nevins, "Cape Fear Dead Ahead: Transforming
A Thrice-Told Tale Of Lawyers And Law" (2000) 24 Legal Studies
Forum, online: Law in Popular Culture Collection - E-texts <http://www.law.utexas.edu/lpop/etext/lsf/nevinscape24.htm>
(Date accessed: 4 March 2003) [hereinafter Nevins]).
In an inversion of the legal
system, Sam by not submitting the requisite evidence and having
the law deal with Cady, became judge and jury rather than the
lawyer. Thus, Sam exists outside the legal system when it suits
him. He is an inversion of protection and is thereby the tyrant.
These scenes portray the legal system as an unjust system where
a rapist would once again go free. There is no legal justice
for the rape victims, however natural justice, which is the finding
of guilt due to Sam's intervention, prevails. It is interesting
to note that the law has not been this way since the 1970's,
thus this premise is a gross misrepresentation of the law in
Cady soon manages to rattle Sam enough that Sam tries to persuade
Cady to leave town by offering him money. Cady refuses and then
proceeds to tape-record Sam's threat of harm. Sam does not want
to hire thugs to dispense of Cady, believing this would be wrong,
but the audience has already witnessed Sam's use of the legal
system at his convenience. At this point in time, the system
is not to his liking and so engages the thugs. This act, of course,
is once again outside the bounds of the legal system, allowing
Cady to come under the protection of the law and gain a restraining
order against Sam.
Cady wants to impose his own sense of biblical justice on Sam
and is facilitated by the restraining order. Sam looks to be
completely wrong and states: "It's all fucked up
mean, the law considers me more of a loose cannon than Max Cady."
Sam is faced with an inversion of the law that is not his choice.
He is tyrannized by the legal system while Cady's acts are enabled.
He, rather than Cady, is now the criminal.
In the '91 film, Sam is a morally reprehensible character. His
relationship with his wife and daughter are repugnant and they
"are up to their necks in barely repressed, at times irrepressible,
violence" (Sherwin, supra at 1031). Instead of Sam being
the loving husband he was in the '61 version, he is now inverted
and is the tyrant of his wife, Leigh. The viewer is shown that
his wife knows he has had affairs at least twice. Leigh has previously
suffered from depression, and sometimes lashes out physically
at him when instead of acknowledging that he could be the cause
of her depression, he blames her for having been in a poor emotional
state. For Leigh, there is no justice for Sam's deceit.
In two scenes, the viewer is shown the barely repressed tension
between Sam and his daughter, Danny. Firstly, when at the beginning
of the film, the family is getting a snack after watching a movie.
Sam playfully wrestles with his daughter, until his arm becomes
wrapped too tightly around Danny's neck and she begins to cough.
Secondly, in a scene in Danny's room, Sam tells her to "put
on some clothes" as she is no longer a child. As Danny smiles,
he roughly pushes his hand over her mouth and presses her into
the bed. She starts to cry and Sam leaves the room. Sam is not
the protective father he was in the '61 version. Sherwin asks
the reader to "[c]onsider Danny's relationship with her
father, a relationship that is blocked on the one hand by his
repressed eroticized and aggressive impulses toward her,
hampered on the other by his repressed guilt, a guilt that may
well be driven, at least in part, by Sam's own impermissible
attraction to his daughter's raw sexuality" (Sherwin, supra
at 1031). He is now inverted and is the incestuous tyrant. There
is no protection or justice for Danny against these repulsive
The legal system is demonstrated as completely inadequate to
deal with the reprehensible dealings of a man with his family.
Indeed, the system was never intended to deal with these types
of actions. There is certainly no one for the daughter and wife
to complain to about Sam's acts. The legal system has no method
to return the trust that Sam has robbed from them. There is no
justice, no evening the score.
The family finds Sam vile, as does Cady. In Cady's own mind,
justice would be served by punishing Sam for his loss. Cady believes
he had lost his family when he was sent to jail and thus seeks
to take away Sam's family. He intends to impose a biblical eye-for-an-eye
type of justice on Sam. It is depicted to be necessary to resort
to another type of justice to punish Sam's failings, for the
satisfaction of both the family and Cady.
The final scenes are of very powerful struggles between Sam,
Cady, and the family. They can also be seen as conflict between
natural justice for Sam (ie. the death of Cady and salvation
of the family), biblical justice for Cady (ie. the death of Sam
and/or violation of his family), and the legal system that completely
failed the family. The scenes clearly demonstrate how the legal
system fails in dealing with morally reprehensible acts, yet
shows that other means of dealing with vile acts are not necessarily
any better. The outcome of biblical justice would not serve the
family, as it would not deal with the questionable morals of
Sam and the family would still be violated. The outcome of natural
justice, which with speculating, may have been to have Cady drowned,
would be insufficient for the family, as Sam would again escape
punishment. The film shows the difficulty of imposing a suitable
a solution for Cady, Sam, and the family.
Cady is saved from being killed by Sam by a sudden shift of the
wind, and instead is drowned at sea. Sherwin states that "[i]n
the end we are left with fateful justice, justice as chance"(Sherwin,
supra at 1042). The viewer is left unsatisfied. The double-edged
sword remains a tool of justice, but not a provider of justice
or protection. It is easily manipulated and inverted, becoming
both a tyrant and a protector. There are no answers to the failings
of the legal system.
Posted April 15, 2003