Much is made of Martin Scorsese’s religious fixations, as well as his affection for perverse blendings of the sacred and the carnal. Whether it be Harvey Keitel going from confession to getting hammered, The Last Temptation of Christ in general, or the spiritual reverence for obscene violence, Scorsese has made more ruckus about and at the expense of the Christian faith than most non-religious directors have, let alone any other professing Catholic filmmakers.
Cape Fear follows this thread of religious barnstorming, but it does it a little differently- the Catholic guilt is out, the fire and brimstone is in. Instead of subtle straining about purpose and goodness, Scorsese wrestles with the God of the Old Testament, finding a parallel in the tormented story of Job, a connection mentioned in the film that unlocks the film’s complicated moral code. The moral ambiguity of the text is supported by the tonal ambiguity and the garish style of the film; the true blasphemy Scorsese indulges in is how he tells the story in a way that bucks so violently at reverence. Just as Prince was known to blend his faith with the sexuality of his music, Scorsese elevates his secular cinephilia to a holy place in order to tell such a story.
Scorsese establishes his cinephile bonafides right off the bat with the brilliant Saul Bass title sequence and the Bernard Hermann score, recycled and rearranged from the 1962 version of Cape Fear. The film adheres to genre conventions and reference points that are in and of themselves linked together. The film’s style is just as much in debt to the 80s voyeurism of Brian De Palma as it is to Alfred Hitchcock, and Scorsese clearly delights in his dialogue with both the master of suspense and his most venerable remixer. The luxurious vibe comes from Vertigo’s production designer, while the split diopters, melodramatic performances, and fake fireworks are pure Blow Out. There are moments where the film is sent into negative, and while the effect is deployed to illustrate the mounting confusion and tension, it’s hard not to read it as a nod to Stan Brakhage or Godard’s Alphaville.
It is no accident that the first time that De Niro’s Max Cady and the Bowdens interact it is in the theatre. We see Cady interrupting the film with cigar smoke and loud, exaggerated laughter. The disturbance he causes and the Bowdens’ departure is awkward and a little embarrassing, and Scorsese wants us to sit in that discomfort- a family retreat to the cinema has been disturbed; there is an intruder in Scorsese’s holiest of holies. Perhaps the way Marty depicts this is overblown, but it’s potent because it’s familiar- anyone who has sat in a crowded theatre with too much of the wrong kind of noise (I’m thinking specifically of the man who kept darkly chuckling during a repertory screening of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) can attest to this unease. Scorsese introduces a man capable of horrid violence by showing him being unpleasant in a way we recognize- by invading the common sanctuary.
There is a worrying thematic thread that develops as the film carries on with regards to the morality of Max Cady and Sam Bowden. A decade earlier, Cady raped his girlfriend, and Bowden unsuccessfully represented him in court. During his sentence, Cady has taught himself enough about the law to realize Bowden did not represent him honestly, which Bowden admits to his confidants. Bowden buried relevant, potentially game-changing evidence because he felt it was wrong to see Cady go free, and Cady has decided to repay Bowden’s vigilante justice with his own blend of nihilistic righteousness.
Does this theme suggest that Sam and Cady are on level ground? There is room to interpret that the film is saying that Sam’s irresponsible behavior in the courtroom has caused his family to be threatened with rape and violence. After all, Bowden’s continuing attempt at fixing the situation not only makes it worse, but alienates everyone in the process. The police tell him to chill out, his wife thinks he’s overreacting, and his teenage daughter is manipulated into thinking Cady’s a suave romantic rather than a predator. Is this all Sam’s fault?
Despite these questions, the film does not posit these two men on equal moral ground- rather, they are shown to simply be guilty of the same hubris. Sam believed justice was in his hands, and that it was his job to punish Max for his actions. Likewise, Max believes that he has to make Sam suffer in order to reset the balance. Their shared broken mentality takes them places where they’re their most shady. But while they are similar in their mindset, the film does not suggest they are similar in their sin- at his worst, Sam is a jerk, a bad husband, and a hack lawyer; Max rapes, murders, and torments innocent people for fun. There is nothing about this film that suggests they are on similar moral ground, but simply that the moral ground is more complicated and less binary than Good and Evil.
At one point, Max implores Sam to read the Book of Job. Having read and absorbed much of the Bible while in prison, Max regularly spouts from it with self-assured moral authority, and he likes to use it as a tool against anyone who questions. Like anyone who misinterprets the Bible, Max sees himself as something he is not- as the moral arbiter.
But when he points Sam towards the story of Job, he gives both Sam and the audience a glimpse into his cracked thought process. In this Old Testament story, the Devil asks God if anyone really cares about Him anymore, and God points out Job, a humble man trying his best to please God. Satan decides to torment Job by removing his riches and his family, hoping to see a good man curse God. Through it all, Job is angry with God and his own misfortune, but he is rewarded in the end for his refusal to abandon God under pressure. In this film, Max sees himself as the Devil, ready to torture and destroy a man of justice, and ready to test the limits of Sam’s goodness.
But the comparison falls apart pretty quickly because of Max’s own misunderstanding. The hero in Job is not the Devil, and the sadism is never rewarded. Cady positions himself both as the tormentor and the judge; he wears his biblical references like he wears his shoddy tattoos, blending old-world literature and philosophy with mixed metaphors. He masks his vengeful impulse with a veneer of godliness, and when he makes a failed attempt at speaking in tongues, he simply babbles instead. He is nothing more than a hack pastor, putting himself in God’s shoes and falling on his face.
Cape Fear would go on to be both a baffling success at the box office and a massive imprint on popular culture, immortalized in the classic Simpsons episode that remade it as farce. Perhaps that’s the darkest thing about the film, a bit of sacrilege that not even Scorsese intended. Maybe Marty doomed himself to being misunderstood when he used melodrama, split diopters, and absurd set design, just as the film’s descendant’s Body Double and Blow Out both spoke about the way people miss the point when it comes to depictions of sex and violence and also served as a prime example of that very phenomenon. A film that uses daring style to tell a tall tale of convoluted morals becomes a kooky punch line; a scene that depicts an explicitly pedophilic romance gets nominated for Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards. You can try as hard as you want to make something profound or earnest or from the heart, but your honest work is still going to end up getting laughed over by some schmuck with a cigar.