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“Your Reminiscence”: Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear”, Nostalgia, and Parental Anxiety…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Goodfellas. This week, we’ll looking at Casino. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but the season skips over large swathes of Scorsese’s filmography. So I thought it might be worth taking a look back at Cape Fear.

Cape Fear is often overlooked in terms of Martin Scorsese’s filmography.

It falls in the gap between the instant classic Goodfellas and the sleeper masterpiece Casino. It shares that gap with The Age of Innocence, which is one of the films in Scorsese’s filmography that has been begging for a reappraisal and seems more likely to receive critical attention than a trashy remake of a pulpy sixties thriller. (The Age of Innocence recently received a re-release as part of the high-end Criterion Collection.) Indeed, Cape Fear seems designed to be seen as disposable in the context of Scorsese’s filmography.

At best, Cape Fear is typically seen as a curiosity – and potentially a worrying one. While Roger Ebert praised the film, he lamented “a certain impersonality in a film by this most personal of directors.” There was a whiff of moral panic to Kenneth Turan’s review, which asked, “Are we, perhaps, too quick to heap praise on films just because they are expertly done, shrugging off the troubling nature of the content? Is an audience’s increasing avid addiction to increasingly twisted thrills any justification for cheering on the people who provide them?”

However, there’s a lot interesting happening in Cape Fear. Most obviously, the film is a vehicle for Scorsese’s love of a certain style of directorial technique. The original Cape Fear had been directed by J. Lee Thompson, who had worked as a dialogue coach under Alfred Hitchcock. The film arrived two years after Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the influence of Hitchcock is obvious on Thompson’s work; it’s scored by Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann, editted by Hitchcock veteran George Tomasini and features art direction from Robert Boyle and Alexander Golitzen.

However, what’s particularly interesting about Cape Fear is the way in which it actively translates the original movie from the early sixties to the early nineties, playing not only on the same underlying fears that informed the original, but also understanding that they existed in a different context during the nineties. It’s a movie that cannily and shrewdly transposes those two times, tapping into the same fears, but in a way that demonstrates both how those fears have evolved – and also how they haven’t.

Cape Fear is a lurid b-movie thriller, but in the most interesting and unsettling ways. It is a film fascinated by what lurks beneath the surface.

Cape Fear is a film that is very engaged with the idea of sex and sexual violence. The threat that Max Cady poses to Sam Bowden is framed in those terms. He brutally rapes Sam’s work colleague Lori. He poses as a theatre instructor to seduce Sam’s daughter Danny. At the climax, he sexually assaults Sam’s wife Leigh, while forcing Sam to watch. Max is undoubtedly a physical threat capable of violence towards men – he beats three armed goons at one point, and murders a private detective later on – but Cape Fear is especially interested in how he victimises women.

This is a stock thriller cliché. The threat of sexual violence against women is a recurring motif in thrillers and horrors. After all, the entire slasher genre has been discussed in those terms – whether critiqued as inherently misogynistic or praised as subversively feminist. It’s common for this violence against women to be used as emotional leverage against a male protagonist, a variation on what Gail Simone labelled “women in refrigerators.” On the surface, Cape Fear fits within those sorts of parameters. Max’s primary objective in brutalising these women is to hurt and humiliate Sam.

However, there is something more interesting going on beneath the surface of Cape Fear. The film isn’t just indulging in these tropes and conventions as a matter of formula. Instead, it’s approaching and interrogating them in a variety of interesting ways. Cape Fear is a film that is very pointedly and very astutely aware of its context, and how these standard thriller tropes operate in this context.

Most notably, Cape Fear works hard to contextualise this sexual violence in a broader social context. Cape Fear is extremely preoccupied with not just the horror of this violence, but how this violence is perceived and processed – not just by the individual characters, but by the world in which they move. This is most obvious even within Max’s vendetta against Sam. In the original Cape Fear, Max terrorised Sam because Sam had interrupted the attack and testified against him. In the remake, Max terrorises Sam because Sam worked as his lawyer.

At one point, Sam wonders why Max would so specifically target the lawyer who defended him in court – who actually helped to negotiate down his prison sentence. Why not target the district attorney who prosecuted or the judge who presided? Max responds, “Best I remember, they was just doin’ right by their job.” Max’s objection is that Sam sabotaged his defense against a rape conviction, by suppressing a report into the victim’s alleged promiscuity. Such promiscuity could have been used to defend Max against the charge of rape.

This is an interesting angle, which gets at the movie’s complicated sexual politics. One of the big challenges in securing a conviction for rape or sexual assault is the way in which the system often seems to put the victim on trial. It is possible for an assailant to avoid conviction based on their victim’s sexual history, their consumption of alcohol, or even what they were wearing. It is notable that these defenses only apply in cases of sexual assault. There is no equivalent justification offered for homicide based on the perception of the victim.

Cape Fear makes it clear that Sam suppressed that report because he could not in good conscience allow Max to avoid a rape conviction because of the sexual history of his victim, and because Sam understood that the trial took place in the larger social context that frequently blames women for their sexual assaults. It’s notable that Florida no longer allows admission of the victim’s sexual history in rape trials, a tacit acknowledgement that Sam made the right choice (at least morally) within Cape Fear.

The film brings this up again in the context of Lori, the first woman that Max assaults after his release from prison. Sam tries to convince Lori to file charges against Max. She refuses, for fear of being blamed for her own assault. “Sam, I know how it works,” she explains. “I see it every day. Only this time, I’m on the other side. I don’t want to explain why I was in a bar, and how much I had to drink, and what I was wearing; not by the people I work with – not by the guys that I see cross-examine other people on the stand. Just crucify ’em. They just laugh about it later.”

As such, Cape Fear is a movie that is very much engaged in a larger discussion about the sexual politics at play within the genre, rather than simply reiterating them for cheap thrills. In this context, it’s notable how much attention Cape Fear pays to Sam’s reaction to this threat of sexual violence. Cape Fear is as interested in Sam’s reaction to the threat posed by Max as it is in the threat that Max poses. Cape Fear returns time and again to Sam’s masculinity, in ways that are rarely flattering.

Max is played by Robert DeNiro. DeNiro underwent one of his customary body transformations for the part, albeit nothing as radical as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Instead, DeNiro bulks up. Max is presented as a highly defined and muscled figure. He is strong, decisive and resourceful. Max is sufficiently charming to lure Lori away from the bar. Max is also skilled enough to defeat three armed goons in a parking lot ambush. The film fetishises Max’s muscled body, the way that he has honed his body during his time in prison.

In contrast, Sam appears less impressive and less conventionally masculine. When he suggests getting a gun to defend his family against Max, private detective Claude Kersek is not convinced that this is a workable idea. “Sam, I give you a gun, you pull it on Cady, it’s gonna dawn on you that shootin’ a man is different than blowing holes in trees,” Kersek extrapolates. “Next thing, you don’t have my gun. Cady does.” The film repeatedly underscores that Sam is no physical threat to Max, needing other men to take charge against the felon.

At one point, Sam tries to lure Max into an ambush with Kersek. However, in order to convince Max to make his move, Sam has to hide. He pretends to leave Florida for work. He then sneakily returns home, and hides in the shadows. During an argument with Danny, Sam is literally unable to stand up to her because he might be seen through the windows of the house. “You’re not allowed to stand up, Dad,” Danny taunts. “Remember?” The subtext is not especially subtle.

The fear that permeates Cape Fear for Sam is the fear of emasculation – the fear that he cannot protect the women in his life. Interestingly, both adaptations of Cape Fear focus on the male patriarch of an otherwise female household, writing out the young son who appears in John D. MacDonald’s source novel The Executioners. Kersek even frames Sam’s fear as a larger cultural force finding expression through him. “The South evolved in fear: fear of the Indian, fear of the slave, fear of the damn Union. The South has a fine tradition of savouring fear.”

Max and Sam do not exist in a vacuum. Cape Fear devotes considerable time and effort to explaining how its sensibilities fit into the bigger picture. Sam and Max repeatedly work both inside and outside the system against one another, but the film is always careful to position them in relation to the legal and social norms. Max seeks to avenge himself on Sam because Sam refused to exploit the legal system to get him off a rape conviction. Similarly, Lori refuses to testify against Max because she has seen how lawyers and court rooms treat rape victims.

“He knew that she wouldn’t testify, that she wouldn’t press charges, because she knows the system,” Sam explains. Similarly, Sam tries ever legal and illegal means at his disposal to stop Max. He attempts to file a restraining order, only do discover that Max has beaten him to the hiring of Lee Heller and manages to get his own restraining order. Despite the fact that Sam is a lawyer with years of experience, he finds himself consistently and thoroughly outmanoeuvred by Max.

At one point, a police officer advises Sam to step outside the law. Of course, the suggestion is very carefully and very coyly worded. “I’m a law officer,” Lieutenant Elgart warns Sam. “It would be unethical of me to advise a citizen to take the law into his own hands. So, I suppose you must’ve misunderstood me.” However, Sam contacts Kersek to help solve the problem. Kersek advises Sam, “The system is set up to handle generalised problems, like burglary and robbery. But if some lone creep targets you for some obscure reason, the system’s slow and sceptical.”

Again, this taps into the idea of Sam’s masculinity. It allows Sam to position himself as an outlaw vigilante, a man strong enough to protect his family when the system isn’t. Again, as with its treatment of sexual violence, Cape Fear is not just rehashing familiar genre tropes. It contextualises them. Cape Fear invites the audience to consider the system that Max exploits, and the way in which Sam tries to step outside it when it ceases to favour him.

Of course, Cape Fear does not indulge Sam’s vigilante fantasies. Quite the opposite. When Sam steps outside the system, Max even more deftly defeats his lawyer. Cape Fear treats Sam’s attempts to play at masculinity as inherently absurd – hiding behind a dumpster as three men that he paid try (and fail) to brutalise Max, crouching in the shadows in his own home. More than that, Sam’s lack of forethought and judgment repeatedly allows Max to get the better of him. Sam’s ill-advised posturing is recorded by Max and entered into evidence against him.

In this context, it’s notable that so much of Cape Fear is rooted in nostalgia. Kersel’s speech event anchors it in a particularly American nostalgia, arguing in favour of the fear of violence that the white settlers used to justify the genocide of the Native Americans and the horror of slavery. It’s a very masculine fear. So it’s interesting that, although driven by Max and Sam, the film is actually introduced by Danny. Speaking directly to the camera, Danny frames Cape Fear as a reminiscence.

The film later provides context for this framing device, explaining that that Danny has been assigned the book Look Homeward, Angel, and been asked “to attempt something in the same style.” “What’s it about?” Sam asks his daughter. “Your reminiscence?” She explains that she was thinking about framing it around the houseboat. This sparks a similar nostalgia in Sam, who almost immediately proposes to Leigh that they “ought to take two weeks off and go up to Wilmington, like the old times.”

Of course, Sam and his family ultimately make that nostalgic pilgrimage to the house boat. They just do so under very different circumstances than they intended. What had been a romantic fantasy becomes a waking nightmare, in much the same way that Sam’s fantasy of frontier violence (arguably comparable to that fear of the slave and the Native American) transforms into a horrific and monstrous reality.

“I always thought that for such a lovely river the name is mystifying,” Danny ruminates on  the name ‘Cape Fear’ in the introduction to the film. “When the only thing to fear on those enchanted summer nights was that the magic would end and real life would come crashing in.” This gulf between the memory of the past and the nightmare of the present simmers throughout Cape Fear, with Scorsese heightening the dissonance. There’s a recurring sense that nostalgia and memory cloud or obscure reality.

Of course, Cape Fear is an exercise in nostalgia of itself. It is a remake of a sixties film. It is notable that Steven Spielberg was originally attached to direct the remake, and it’s easy enough see certain elements of the film fitting comfortably within Spielberg’s oeuvre. After all, from Danny’s perspective, Cape Fear exists in that twilight space between childhood and adulthood in which Spielberg operates very well. At the same time, it is difficult to image Spielberg handling the film’s sexual politics as aggressively as Scorsese does.

Even then, there is something to Cape Fear‘s brief history as a Spielberg project. If Catch Me If You Can is the closest that Spielberg has come to directing a Martin Scorsese film, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role and the implicit cynicism about capitalism, then perhaps Cape Fear is the closest that Scorsese has come to directing a Steven Spielberg film. Scorsese deals with nostalgia in a number of his films, especially later works like Hugo and The Irishman, but never with such emphasis on the actual experience of coming of age.

Cape Fear is undoubtedly a Scorsese film. To pick a small example, it’s notable that Max first intrudes into Sam’s life in the sacred space of a cinema. Still, Scorsese actively leans into the nostalgia. He shoots the film as a Hitchcock homage, often leaning into old-fashioned techniques like Dutch angles and sharp sounds to through the audience off-balance. This approach has led some observers to treat Cape Fear as nothing more than an exercise in style, an excuse for Scorsese to pay homage to the directorial technique of his obvious influence.

There’s certainly some merit in that argument. Scrosese’s appreciation for both the original and for classic cinema is in evidence throughout. Publicity photos placed lead actors Nick Nolte and Robert DeNiro in a faithful recreation of an iconic shot of Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. Scorsese uses old-fashioned techniques like model work to pull off some of the special effects. However, there’s something interesting simmering beneath all this.

Cape Fear doesn’t just reference the past. It repeatedly and consciously recontextualises it. The film uses Bernard Herrmann’s original score, but with an arrangement adapted by Elmer Bernstein. Scorsese borrows the opening credits design from frequent Hitchcock collaborator Saul Bass, but uses imagery from Bass’ own directorial effort Phase IV. The result is to suggest a somewhat uncanny invocation of what came before.

Scorsese includes cameos for both Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, but he cleverly plays off audience expectations in doing so. Gregory Peck played Sam in the original film, another principled lawyer to compare with his iconic role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. As such, there’s something slightly subversive in the decision to cast Peck as Lee Heller, Max’s somewhat shady and cynical lawyer. Similarly, Robert Mitchum played Max in the original, but Scorsese casts him in the role of Elgart, the friendly police officer trying to help Sam deal with the problem.

In this context, it is perhaps interesting to compare Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear in 1991 with Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho in 1998. The comparison makes sense, given that Thompson’s original Cape Fear is often mentioned in terms of its relationship to Hitchcock’s 1960 classic. Van Sant tried to literally transpose Psycho from the sixties to the nineties, the the point that his version of Psycho is often discussed as a “shot-for-shot” remake of the original.

Van Sant’s Psycho offered little acknowledgement of how times had changed in the intervening thirty-eight years, beyond inflating the figures mentioned during the film and having Lila Crane listen to a walk man. What had seemed radical in the original Psycho now seemed tame. Not just in terms of the violence, but even in terms of the social context. It’s a lot harder to buy the idea of Marion Crane being shamed by her relationship to Sam Loomis in 1998 as compared to 1960, and Van Sant makes no effort to contextualise that or update it. He plays it relatively straight.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made that this is the entire point of Van Sant’s remake, that Van Sant is cannily illustrating that it is impossible to move a cultural artifact like a classic film through time and assume that – given the same script, the same framing, the same composition, the same music – it will result in a perfect replica. In this interpretation, Psycho is an experiment designed to have a negative outcome. Still, it’s interesting to compare it with Cape Fear, which knows better than to try to map the original to the present day overly faithfully.

Indeed, when outdated and old-fashioned elements appear, they are consciously designed to jar. Early in the film, Sam takes his family out for milkshakes and movie, an incredibly (and almost absurdly) wholesome image that looks like it was lifted directly from a fifties television advertisement. The incongruity of this sequence is the point. It underscores that Sam’s image of his family is markedly different from the reality of it, that he has crafted a nostalgic image of family life that does not reflect reality.

Instead of recreating memory, Cape Fear becomes a film that is about memory. More specifically, it is a film about the relationship between the present and the past. Much is made of Sam and Leigh’s concerns about their daughter’s emerging sexual identity. When Leigh suggests that Danny remain indoors because Max is about, Danny protests. “Well, is it because he’s like a flasher or just a peeper?” she asks. Leigh responds, “What do you know about that? A flasher?” Danny sighs, “You think I haven’t been flashed before?”

It’s repeatedly suggested that Sam and Leigh are worried about how fast their daughter is developing. Coming into his daughter’s room, Sam protests, “Put some clothes on. You’re not a little kid anymore.” This is a classic parental anxiety – the worry that children are maturing too fast, or gaining too much life experience too quickly. There is a sense of nostalgia underpinning this. Just as Danny recalls the innocence of the houseboat, Sam and Leigh recall the innocence of her childhood. It, like those magical evenings, appears to be ending so the real world can come crashing in.

What makes Cape Fear so interesting is the sense in which understands that these fears and anxieties are both pointless and hypocritical. In order to protect Leigh and Danny from the threat posed by Max, Sam tries to confine them to the relative security of the house. “This isn’t gonna work, you know,” Danny protests. “Locking us in,hiding us from the world.” However, it’s all that Sam knows to do in the face of the threat that Max represents.

There is admittedly something of a double-standard at play here. Early in the film, Danny is busted for smoking marijuana and forced to attend summer school as punishment. Privately, Sam and Leigh acknowledge the absurdity of punishing her. “Why’d they have to make such a stink, like she was on heroin or something?” Sam asks. “I mean, what’s marijuana? You and I smoked dope in our time. In some cultures, it’s considered almost a sacrament. I realise in ours it’s forbidden…”

This mirroring continues throughout the film. As Sam and Leigh grow increasingly wary of the emergence of Danny’s sexual identity, they deal with their own sexual issues. That discussion of marijuana develops into some sexual play. However, later on it becomes clear that Sam and Leigh have their own histories of sexual indiscretions and that maybe they aren’t the ones to be casting stones at Danny’s development – that perhaps they’d do better to acknowledge it rather than try to ignore or repress it. They are trapping Danny in a fantasy that does not reflect reality.

Sam’s previous affair almost destroyed the family. Leigh reflects on “the humiliation [they] went through confessing [their] dirty secrets in those horrible sessions with Dr. Hackett.” Sam protests, “We talked that one damn incident to death.” Leigh laments, “Why did you bother with you and me? With the marriage? Uprooting me and Danny, moving?” The scars of that indiscretion linger, to the point that Leigh clearly doesn’t trust that her husband wasn’t having an affair with Lori.

Max is a predator with a keen eye for human weakness. He is able to find Lori at her lowest ebb and zero in on her emotional vulnerabilities. Posing as Danny’s drama teacher, Max is similarly able to manipulate the teenager by pointing out the hypocrisy of her parents. “Your parents don’t want you to achieve adulthood,” he tells her. “That’s natural. They know the pitfalls of adulthood, all that freedom. They know it only too well. Temptation to stray, deflecting their guilt and anger onto you for a crime that’s not even a crime – for smokin’ grass.”

As with the cultural context for Cape Fear‘s handling of sexual assault, it’s worth reflecting on the broader context of its handling of sex and sexuality in early 1990s America. The 1980s had seen a resurgence in cultural conservatism and the ascent of the religious right, largely down to Ronald Reagan’s savvy incorporation of such social conservatism into the “three-legged stool” that formed the Republican electoral alliance.

By 1991, Reagan was no longer President of the United States. He had been succeeded by his own Vice-President, George H.W. Bush. Bush continued to champion an aggressive social conservatism that was especially worried about the influence of wider culture on children. In 1989, the Federal Bureau of Investigation plastered the warning “winners don’t use drugs” in video game arcades across America. At the Republican National Convention in 1992, Bush would lament that American families should be “more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.”

This was particularly true in the arena of sexual awareness. The HIV and AIDs crisis of the 1990s had forced schools to commit to providing sexual education for students. This upset social conservatives, who pressed for “abstinence education” instead. These programmes would come to dominate sexual education from 1992 to 2005. Given that studies largely suggest that abstinence-only sexual education is both ineffective and uninformative, this approach is clearly pushed from a political and moral perspective rather than any actual health concerns.

This ties back into Cape Fear in the sense that this reactionary cultural conservatism was clearly framed as a strong reaction against the perceived social and sexual liberation of the sixties. The sixties were seen as a decade defined by both drug experimentation and sexual revolution, notably the two adult transgressions that Danny undertakes on her journey out of childhood. In this context, it’s worth stressing how much of Cape Fear is framed is explicitly nostalgic.

This cultural conflict over the legacy of the sixties would become more pronounced later in the decade. Forrest Gump would win the Best Picture Oscar in March 1995, just two months after the Republican Party had formally taken control of both the House and the Senate after the “Republican Revolution” of November 1994. Forrest Gump was seen as a repudiation of the liberalism of the sixties, contrasting the title character’s wholesome experience of American history with his beloved’s turbulent engagement with a dangerous counterculture.

The success of Forrest Gump was also seen as part of a broader conservative shift in American popular cinema. There is an argument to be made that the primary purpose of Batman Forever in 1995 was to render the Caped Crusader suffocatingly wholesome, reacting against the kinkiness of Batman Returns in the same way that Seduction of the Innocent reacted against the original comic books. Indeed, it might be possible to read the cynicism about fifties nostalgia in late nineties movies like Pleasantville or The Truman Show as a response to that cultural movement.

In broader culture, events like the Clinton Impeachment served as public theatre to draw these debates out into the open. Clinton was seen as “a representative of the ’60s generation”, and so his public indiscretion could be framed as an example of the excesses of the sexual liberation of that decade. Evangelical leader Pat Robertson accused Clinton of turning the Oval Office into the “playpen for the sexual freedom of the poster child of the 1960s.” At The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd argued that the Republicans were attempting to “repeal the 1960s.”

There’s a sense in which Cape Fear understands the hypocrisy of all of this. Many of the adults panicking about the moral collapse of contemporary culture due to the legacy of the social liberalism of the sixties had lived through the decade and benefited from that liberalism. As a result, the panic felt cynical at best and disingenuous at worst. After all, many of the parents now worried about their kids rebelling against them had come of age during the sixties, and had likely rebelled against their own parents.

Sometimes, the hypocrisy was more specific. Reagan would claim that signing America’s first “no fault divorce” bill into law in 1969 was “the biggest mistake of his political life”, despite being a divorcee himself. Bush decried the state of the American family while involved in a decades-long affair with Jennifer Fitzgerald. Republicans like Bob Livingston and David Vitter, who vocally campaigned for Clinton’s impeachment on moral grounds, found themselves caught up in their own sex scandals. Newt Gingrich was having his own affair while publicly tearing into Clinton.

To a certain extent, Scorsese himself understands this. Scorsese emerged as part of the “movie brats” during the seventies. The decade was a turbulent time for the director. He went through two divorces in the decade and had multiple affairs. He was at one point hospitalised after taking a bad batch of cocaine at the Telluride Film Festival. His daughter Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, who was born during this difficult time shortly after the release of Taxi Driver, would have been around Danny’s age when Cape Fear was released.

As such, there is a sense of reflection and introspection lurking just beneath the surface of Cape Fear. It is a film that is very much about parental and masculine anxieties, but which understands that those fears are largely projections that say more about Sam and Max than they do about Leigh or Danny. Max is a villain, but he isn’t wrong when he suggests to Danny, “I’d say they punished you for their sins,and you resent that, and you should resent it.” The film understands the trappings of the lurid psychosexual thriller genre, but it also grasps the larger context for those anxieties.

These anxieties permeate the film. Max first encounters Sam and his family at a cinema screening Problem Child, a forgettable 1990 vehicle for John Ritter. Nevertheless, the clips from the film include a rather overt homage to The Shining, as John Ritter smashes down a bedroom door declaring “here’s daddy!” It renders the subtext of The Shining overt – suggesting that the real threat to children might actually come from those claiming to protect them, layered in suffocatingly wholesome sitcom stylings.

This subtext perhaps prefigures a key scene in Natural Born Killers, in which the sexual abuse of Juliette Lewis’ Mallory is rendered as a grotesque and unsettling sitcom. Cape Fear is not suggesting anything as overt or as lurid, but instead seems to make the point that parents should probably spend more time looking at themselves than projecting fears for their children outside the home – that the older generation has built broken systems that trap younger generations, and takes its own insecurities out on them.

Of course, a lot of these anxieties wouldn’t find full expression until the years after the release of Cape Fear, but these fears were simmering away in the collective subconscious. After all, in keeping with the larger homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Cape Fear is a movie about sublimating these fears and anxieties. So many of Hitchcock’s films were about sex without literally being about sex, finding a way to communicate that meaning to the audience while operating within the confines of an industry not ready to deal with those themes directly.

Cape Fear updates this approach for the nineties, operating within an industry that was more willing to tolerate depictions of sex and violence (and sexual violence), but which was not always able to explore those themes in an an open and frank way. So Cape Fear builds a genre framework around these fears. The characters in the film frequently evoke fairy tales to provide context for their situation. Danny’s description of her father’s attempt to lock her away from the world feels like a fairy tale set up.

Max introduces himself to Danny by inviting her to her school’s theatre. He lurks on the set of what looks to be a fantasy production. He is coy and flirtatious when she presses him to identify himself. “I’m from the black forest,” he tells her. “Maybe I’m the big, bad wolf.” In an abstract sense, Max is not necessarily lying. Fairy tales long provided a vehicle for talking about subjects like sex and violence in an abstract way, the magical trappings allowing the audience to feel insulated and protected from the real horror of the stories.

Of course, Max is arguably just the embodiment of the nightmare of the sixties. His unkempt hair, his loose pseudo-religious philosophising, the sexual threat that he represents and even his relaxed sense of style all seem to suggest that he is the embodiment of the worst aspects of sixties counterculture – in press around the film, DeNiro talked about reconceptualising Max as “like a Charles Manson.” He is a “big, bad wolf” for a culture still coming to terms with the legacy of the sixties. However, Cape Fear is also wary of Sam for repressing those fears so they manifest like this.

Cape Fear suggests that a pulpy and trashy thriller might serve the same purpose. The opening credits underscore this, presenting the audience with the image of ripples moving across the surface of the water. From the outset, Cape Fear invites the audience to wonder what is stirring in the depths beneath the calm surface. Max himself is ultimately swallowed up by those waters, consumed by the depths. Cape Fear suggests that there are a variety of fears and uncertainties lurking beneath the seemingly wholesome surface of nineties America, fears that would bubble over.

Cape Fear works to give these fears form, to manifest within the trappings of a shlocky genre thriller. Cape Fear probably doesn’t deserve to be counted among Scorsese’s true masterpieces, but it deserves a lot more credit than it gets. It is a stylistic showcase for the director, but that style is all in service of some interesting and considered ideas. Cape Fear runs deep.

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