I like to use these psycho Saturday movies to talk about characterization and the 1991 version of Cape Fear is a great case study. First it offers an all-star cast of Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis all at the top of their game. The plot is pretty straight forward, a convict’s revenge on his lawyer who suppressed evidence that may have gotten him acquitted, instead he receives 6 years that turned into 14 for another crime he committed in prison. It’s conflict and complexity of character that drives a good narrative. And this film offers both.
We see Nick Nolte’s character, Sam Bowden, as the protagonist, we’re supposed to align with him, yet we see a man who is not technically cheating on his wife, but we find out has in the past, a man who bullies his own daughter in the name of protecting her, and admits to suppressing a file on a victims’ past sexual history of promiscuity that could have saved his client, Max Cady (Robert De Niro) from rape charges. So if we’re to see Nolte as the hero and he’s kind of a douche, how can we make the audience not side with a convict who was wrongfully convicted out for revenge? Well, you have to make that convict despicable, even more than the lawyer!
The first step in manipulating the audience to see Cady as a scumbag is to hire the best actor who is known for playing psychos…Robert De Niro. Deniro has a resume full of crazies and killers, so we have that in our subconscious when we go in to see this film. Our first shot of Cady is his naked, tattooed torso. The camera pulls back and we see prison bars. It’s the day he’s being released, however, so he emerges through the gates with nothing, almost like the rebirth of a baby into the world. The fact that no one is there to pick him up speaks volumes.
Next we see him alone in a movie theater, laughing obnoxiously disturbing those around him…some who just happen to be Nolte’s family. He stalks Nolte’s family, the next time we see him he’s wearing all black, he drives a red convertible…all the cultural signs that scream “Bad Boy.” We get other information meant to sway us, like one character says about Cady, “He’s from the hills, a Pentecostal cracker.” That’s when we find out he was in for raping a 16 year old. We are reminded, “The guy’s an ex-con.” Nolte says he was illiterate.
But soon we see a different Cady, one who not only learned to read in prison, but who quotes the Bible. He also has Bible verses tattooed over his body, so many that another character says, “I don’t whether to look at him or read him.” The most interesting tattoo is on his back, a huge cross with two scales nailed to the arms of the cross. One scale holds the Bible and has the word TRUTH under it and the other holds a knife and has the word JUSTICE underneath.
After a while, the audience can see for themselves how smart Cady is, even Nolte’s character says, “He’s clever.” But as many females have experienced in the past, it’s harder to prove malicious intent when it comes to getting police protection. From a certain point we see Nolte in a desperate struggle to protect his family; however, that desperation drives him to do things he knows to be wrong…like hire men to beat Cady up, or threatening him himself, or even getting a gun to kill him. It’s hard for the audience to sympathize with Nolte’s character because he’s so weak and flawed…just like many of us would be in this situation…not heroic at all. This culminates in a scene where his daughter played by the awesome Juliette Lewis (Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for this movie) actually meets Cady. Cady seduces her smoothly. He knows she’s a troubled teen and he plays on that “Your parents just don’t understand you” adolescent drama. Lewis asks where he’s from and he says, “I’m from the black forest.” She replies, “You’re not my drama teacher, are you?” He says, “Maybe I’m the big bad wolf.” It’s the maybe that disturbs us. We want clarity, but it’s Nolte who has acted like a lunatic so far. Then he lies about killing her dog and we know for sure that he’s a scumbag and we were justified in siding with Nolte. The scene where Cady gets Nolte’s daughter to suck his thumb is very erotic and very disturbing considering she is only 25. It’s disturbing because of the dramatic irony of us knowing he’s a rapist and her being so vulnerable.
Then we follow the narrative as he terrorizes the family unto the end where he declares, “I am like God and God is like me.” Hmmm. Scary thought. Cady dies speaking in tongues. It’s a complete and very throughout performance by a master of the craft, Mr. De Niro. So how to you make a psycho???? Call on all the cultural codes, wear black, have tattoos, be from a socially impoverished and misunderstood part of society, and last but not least…speak in tongues!