Name a happy family in a Martin Scorsese film. Or a stable couple, even. In Cape Fear, the director is asked to update the scenario of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 thriller, in which the ideal household is terrorized by an evil-incarnate maniac. “One for them, one for me,” Scorsese says of the rotation between personal projects and commercial assignments artists are often forced into. Sandwiched between Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence, this would clearly be “one for them,” the “them” being star Robert De Niro and executive producer Steven Spielberg. As an addition to De Niro’s sadistic rogues gallery and Amblin Entertainment’s portraits of threatened suburbia, the project may have seemed like a sure bet. But Scorsese is too much of a self-consciously anguished aesthete to take a smooth detour into Blockbuster Road. In his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, he would exalt Ray and Sirk and Fuller for sneaking subversive critique into studio releases. Facing the “director’s dilemma,” however, he just can’t bring himself to play “smuggler.” Unable to tuck his stylistic intensity under the skin of a hired-gun project, Scorsese purposely magnifies it until it deforms the screen. He had gone “mainstream” before (The Color of Money) and would go again later (The Departed), but seldom would he lacerate his own canvases with so much abandon.
If this is to be a genre piece, fine—let the genre be the horror film. The sense of unease is all-pervasive: Freddie Francis’ camera slithers and snaps, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing shocks and jabs, vivid color more than once switches to X-ray negative. De Niro’s Max Cady is a convicted rapist who emerges from prison a pumped-up Übermensch, ready to settle scores with Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), the lawyer who originally defended him. Covered with Armageddon tattoos, driving an inferno-red convertible while wielding a foot-long phallic cigar, he’s such an uproarious cartoon of malevolence that when original Max Cady Robert Mitchum pops up, he can’t help commenting on the character’s semiotics: “Jeez, I don’t know whether to look at him or read him.” For his part, Sam is revealed as something of a fraud as both upholder of the law and paterfamilias, burying evidence and perpetually scraping against a neurotic wife (Jessica Lange) and a curious nymphette of a daughter (Juliette Lewis). (Gregory Peck, who played Sam in the 1962 version as a concrete pillar of integrity, here materializes as a memento from the decaying Old South, Colonel Sanders white suit and all.) Anxieties (class, sexual, familial) abound. “The idea is to resolve the tension,” Lange’s character says of her drawings. Like De Palma’s Grand Guignol or Larry Cohen’s scabrous comedies or Michael Cimino’s own remake (Desperate Hours), Cape Fear goes out of its way to magnify the tensions inherent in family and country. Its discordant subtext just about howls.
Because it’s Scorsese, the film is also voracious in its cinephilia. If a Fourth of July fireworks display is taking place, it will fill the screen like a memory from To Catch a Thief. If Cady is hanging upside down while talking on the phone, the camera will execute a Rebel Without a Cause pirouette. Psycho’s bewigged terror, Night of the Hunter’s tattooed flesh, Marnie’s crimson suffusions. All That Heaven Allows is directly quoted, along with, uh, Problem Child. The private detective’s (Joe Don Baker) habit of pouring bourbon and Pepto-Bismol into the same mug might sum up the pastiche approach here. The references can get pretty sticky, as when Cady seduces his prey’s daughter with Henry Miller quotations in a darkened high-school proscenium that explicitly places the story in the realm of fairy tale. Floridly nasty, Cape Fear makes the most sense as an unbridled directorial assault—in this uncredited telling of the Book of Job, Scorsese perversely identifies with the satanic intruder prodding the family into a trial by fire. Bracketed by shots of Lewis’s eyes, the shocks are offered as a deliberate violation of the gaze. Is the family, forced into pools of blood and pushed into boiling water and finally left shivering in primordial mud, supposed to be the audience who came to see Marty sell out? The director may not transcend his material, but he curdles it exquisitely.