FEATURE CAPE FEAR
veryone concerned with this repellent attempt to make a great deal of money out of a clumsy plunge into sexual pathology should be thoroughly ashamed Of himself,‘ screamed the New Yorker‘s review of]. Lee Thompson‘s Cape Fear some three decades ago. This kind of disgusted response has also found echoes in the American reviews of Martin Scorsese‘s 90s makeover of the same story. His Cape Fear has attracted epithets like ‘debased’ and ‘abhorrent’, words that have only rarely been applied to the work of a director whose explosive boxing ring saga Raging Bull was recently top in a poll in Premiere magazine for the best film of the 80s.
While Robert De Niro’s portrayal ofthe punishingly brutal pugilist Jake La Motta won him an Oscar for his performance in that film, it‘s his latest brooding screen incarnation as the psychopathic rapist Max Cady that has attracted most ofthe vituperation directed at Cape Fear. Convicted for a violent sexual assault and sent down for a fourteen-year stretch, this white trash headcase returns from the slammer to enact a harrowing revenge on the defence attorney (Nick Nolte’s Sam Bowden) he blames for putting him away in the first place. Bowden, it seems, instead of acting in favour of his client, let his conscience get the better of him and deliberately suppressed a report on the victim’s history of promiscuity, evidence which Cady believes could have been crucial L in altering the course of the final verdict.
The remake of the 1962
shocker Cape Fear may be
director Martin Scorsese‘s biggest commercial hit to
date. but it has met with
a good deal of flak for its
explicit tr ‘atmcnt ofsexual violence. Trevor
Johnston looks at the ar
In such circumstances. it‘s difficult not to feel that, although he is undoubtedly a monster, there’s at least some element of justification in Cady’s sense of grievance — even more so perhaps when Bowden hires a gang ofcrowbar-toting thugs to beat him black and blue. But it’s precisely in allowing some sympathy towards Cady that the film has made many commentators uneasy. because at the same time it includes a couple of scenes which have swiftly become notorious for the manner in which they underline the tattooed ex-con’s palpable sexual threat to women.
L," ~ 1 Jessica Lange and Juliet Lewis cower under Cady's sexual threat in Cape Fear
De Him as the all
-destrolibidinal hurricane that is Max Cady
Cady‘s attack on one of Bowden‘s female employees, for instance. contains one .ofthe most horrifying acts of savagery ever to have found its way into a mainstream movie. As the assailant restrains his victim, he bites a chunk out of her cheek and spits it across the room. It‘s difficult to believe that such a graphic moment is entirely necessary in terms ofwhat actually needs to be shown to the audience to convey this man‘s brutality. Indeed. later in the movie. when Cady‘s campaign of harassment towards the Bowden family has turned its insidious attentions on fifteen-year-old daughter Danny (an extraordinary performance by newcomer Juliette Lewis), there's another sequence which proves just as uncomfortable, but which derives its impact largely through the power ofsuggestion. Zeroing in on her adolescent twinges of alienation and rebelliousness, Cady poses as her understanding new drama teacher and lures the youngster to the school assembly hall with the express intention of making improper advances to her, pointedly quoting Henry Miller before greasily slipping his thumb and then his tongue into her mouth.
Truly, it‘s a scene which verges on the unwatchable, yet somehow it‘s compulsive viewing at the same time — an assessment which could very well hold true for the film as a whole. Originally offered to Scorsese by executive producer Steven Spielberg, Cape Fear was from the outset conceived as an out-and—out commercial offering. a thankyou for Universal Pictures‘ support throughout the hailstorm of controversy
10 The List 28 February — 12 March 1992