River of terror: The role of the environment in Scorsese’s “Cape Fear.”

cape fear poster

Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite directors, and as you might have gathered from my three-part series on food and wine in GoodFellas, I love analyzing his movies. Recently I watched Cape Fear, his seminal and very frightening 1991 suspense thriller, which itself was a remake of a noir style thriller from 1962. Cape Fear was on my mind because I happened to mention it in my last of the “A Night Out in New York” articles a few weeks back. I’ve seen it many times, but seeing it again recently made me pay attention to an aspect of the movie that you might have missed: the environmental one. While not a film that’s really “about” the environment itself in any significant degree, nevertheless the physical environment portrayed in the film plays a key role in the story and is definitely worth thinking about if you enjoy delving into the subtext of movies.

As I said, Cape Fear is not about the environment. It’s a suspense thriller–possibly even a horror movie. Somewhere in the South, Max Cady (Robert DeNiro), a vicious sociopathic serial rapist, gets out of prison after 14 years. He goes to a pleasant town in North Carolina and begins stalking Samuel Bowden (Nick Nolte), a prosperous lawyer, who’s married to the mercurial Leigh (Jessica Lange) and who also has a rebellious 15-year-old daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis, who received an Oscar nomination for her role). At first it seems random, but it turns out that 14 years ago Sam was Cady’s public defender, and who deliberately sabotaged his case to make sure Cady went to prison. As Cady ratchets up the fear and psychological pressure on Sam–including trying to sow tension within the family–Sam feels increasingly isolated, and ultimately has to take the law into his own hands to prevent Cady from killing him and his family.

The opening credits of Cape Fear, and Juliette Lewis’s opening monologue, bring the environment into focus in the picture’s opening minutes.

Images of the environment are pervasive in Cape Fear. The opening credits, designed by Elaine & Saul Bass, are set against stylistic shots of rippling water, evoking the real-life river in North Carolina from which the film gets its title. Scorsese and his cinematographer, Freddie Francis (who also photographed Dune), paint amazing pictures involving skies, often cloudy, sometimes red, sometimes filled with stars. The story takes place in summer and the soundtrack is full of chirping crickets, buzzing cicadas and other sounds of the Southern countryside in the summer months. For a movie whose subject is so dark, the film is drenched in sunlight. The male characters often wear light-colored suits–Nick Nolte wears seersucker several times–suggesting it’s very warm. Overall, the film is rooted quite firmly in an environmental reality that Scorsese takes considerable pains to communicate to his audience.

Narratively, Cape Fear is presented with a sort of “frame story” that is also uniquely environmental. The first shot of the movie after the credits is a close-up of Danielle, the daughter, speaking to the camera. Behind her is a night-darkened window flecked with rain. She says that the name of the place, Cape Fear, is “mystifying,” because “the only thing to fear on those enchanted summer nights is that the magic would end, and real life would come crashing in.” This is, of course, exactly what happens during the film–reality in the form of the murderous Max Cady. But at the very end we see Danielle again. (Spoiler alert). In the final shot as the camera zooms in on Danielle’s eyes, while she and her mother huddle on a muddy riverbank after Cady has been killed, her voice-over concludes: “I hardly dream about him [Max Cady] anymore. Because to hang on to the past is to die a little every day. And for myself, I know I’d rather live. The end.” Midway through the picture, it’s clear why she’s doing these short monologues: it’s part of, or at least inspired by, a school assignment where she has to read Look Homeward, Angel and write something in the same style. Her reminiscence, as she tells Sam, is about the family’s houseboat anchored on the Cape Fear river: an experience uniquely linked to the environment.

This terrifying early scene in Cape Fear introduces the audience to the ruthless criminal Max Cady (Robert DeNiro), who is bent on getting revenge against his former lawyer.

The environment creeps into the story in other ways too. In one of their early meetings, as Sam is taking stock of the strange man who’s following him, he asks Cady what brings him to New Essex (the mythical town of the film’s setting). “Oh, the climate!” Cady gushes disingenuously, and remarks how great the South is to live in. Cape Fear is interesting in that it shows us a new, modernized, possibly even progressive South, mostly urban and white-collar (though significant numbers of African-Americans are strangely absent). Usually when seen in movies the South’s working-class, rustic and rural characteristics are emphasized; but the transformation of the modern South, especially since World War II, has rested largely on environmental factors. The characters, especially Leigh and Danielle, seem to include the natural environment in shaping their own surroundings and identities. Leigh, evidently a freelance graphic designer, works in a windowed solarium surrounded by weeping willows and other Southern flora; Danielle’s gentleness is described at one point by noting that “if she finds a Palmetto bug” (a traditional Southern term for cockroach) “she takes it outside.”

The film’s climax, setting up the showdown between Sam and Cady, is essentially an environmental journey. (More spoilers, of course). As Cady enters the final phase of his torment of the Bowden family, Sam and the women flee to the houseboat on the Cape Fear river. In fact Danielle recommends this strategy early on, saying they could “get lost in any inlet.” Thus, when Sam’s tormentor–spawned by his dishonest past–comes for him, where do he and his family flee? Into wilderness, preferably watery. Of course Cady, who appears to be a skilled tracker, finds them there. The showdown occurs in a violent storm. There’s the requisite suspenseful fight scene you would expect in a 1990s thriller, but Sam is able to gain the upper hand not by his own action, but by that of nature: the storm pushes the houseboat onto the rocks. An awesome special effects shot shows the boat literally being chewed up by the pounding river surf against jagged rocks. Sam in fact grabs a rock to finish Cady off–but the rising tide snatches his victim away at the last second. Cady, chained to a piece of wreckage with the very handcuffs he used on Sam earlier, drowns. Scorsese underscores the point with a symbolic shot of Sam’s bloody hands washing clean in the river. It’s not Sam that ultimately kills Max Cady, but the Cape Fear river.

The climax of Cape Fear involves the environment to a large degree, as you’ll see in this clip–though there are definitely spoilers here.

Cape Fear is unabashedly a thriller, and Scorsese’s intent was to entertain the audience by scaring the hell out of them. He did this admirably, in part by manipulating their collective psychology, which was something Alfred Hitchcock was also good at. But lurking behind the thrills and scares is a very interesting environmental consciousness. This is the kind of thing you might miss in a movie unless you look closely–but the presence of subtexts like this, where lesser directors wouldn’t have cared, is part of what makes Martin Scorsese such a gifted and brilliant filmmaker.

The poster for Cape Fear is copyright (C) 1991 by Universal Pictures and TriBeCa Films, the creators/distributors of the movie. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use under applicable copyright laws.
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1 Comment

  1. I have seen this movie many times and never tire of watching it, it’s brilliant, the directing, the acting everything about it. One thing I never thought of is the environmental statement, now I will have to watch it again. This movie is one of my all time favorites.

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