‘Cape Fear’ or — Swamp Thing!
I’m a big fan of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Cape Fear’ as it is easily one of his most “fun” films. It’s completely over the top, gloriously unsubtle and with an almost psychopathic lust to entertain. So last night I thought it was about time I finally watched J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 original. But just how would it compare? Would it feel dated, tame or just plain old-fashioned?
Turns out that the original ‘Cape Fear’ is, possibly, even more potentially violent, sexually disturbing and with an even more intimidating Max Cady than the remake. This is one nasty (and sexually fucked-up) movie!
The two films are basically identical in almost every way, but whereas Scorsese’s film comes from a period that he helped to create — a time that was post ‘Goodfellas’ and directors such as Tarantino were about to burst onto the scene — you kinda expect a flamboyantly violent approach. It also deliberately harks back to the original with a glow of nostalgia. But the ’62 ‘Cape Fear’ oddly feels more modern, relevant and transgressive as it deals with fears specifically surfacing to that time and place — child rape, home defence, civilian rights and the limit of the law. But the biggest theme for the ’62 ‘Cape Fear’ is modern America versus the elemental terror of the land it was built on.
This is an America in which the use of pesticides, DDT etc, was starting to get challenged seriously after years of excessive use. There are slimy things just beyond our white-picket fence but is what we use to kill them just as dangerous, like Bowden abusing his police contacts to intimidate Cady? Either way, that push in the forties and fifties to cleanse the domestic lawns and gardens of the bugs and creepy-crawlies seems a touchstone for ‘Cape Fear’. That suburban fear of what crawls in America’s dark and Max Cady is one big creepy-crawly.
This is illustrated in the differences between the two Cady performances. De Niro had his tattoos which gives a fierce sense of impending biblical wrath, of religious-esque retribution. This is a vengeful man calling down the power of God almighty like a demented preacher. Yet Mitchum’s Cady seems to have crawled out from an even earlier, elemental, pre-religious time. He comes from the “rock bottom” of this swamp.
So De Niro is inked wrath, whereas the keyword for Mitchum’s bare-skinned Cady is not tattoos or religious retribution. For the ’62 Cady the keyword is “Dripping”. He is covered not in man-made designs but almost in slime, in ooze, and it sometimes doesn’t even feel clear if this is liquid dropping off him from an outside source or if it is actually emanating and seeping from deep within him.
But if Cady is a “dripping” thing then what is he dripping like? An amphibious creature emerging from the waters? A sweaty chest heaving in lust? Personally I think it’s a recently ejaculated penis. Now let me explain and demonstrate that point and why this is such a naughty film and this is NOT just me reading too much into it.
Firstly, “dripping” is nearly always used when there is talk of Cady and his crimes which are invariably of a violently sexual nature. The intimations of Cady being a dripping, sexual presence are clearly stated. And then there is the way the camera follows Cady during the stalking scenes. The camera is firmly and completely locked onto the axis of his cock. His penis is the focal point and it is it leading the camera, not the other way around, and it is always clearly located in the exact middle of the screen. It’s as obvious as Fincher’s “view from above taxi” shot in ‘Zodiac’. It is the central point and it is the rest of the world that is revolving around it. And make no mistake — THIS is his weapon.
And once Cady comes out of the water, his entire body glistening and dribbling with liquid, and confronts Mrs Bowden he breaks some raw eggs as he threatens her. She is sprayed with the mucusy fluid as Cady rubs all his dripping protein into Mrs Bowden’s heaving chest.
Now tell me I’m reading too much into that!
And it’s not just the above. There is a very explicit, implicitly implied blow job scene in his car where the woman Cady has picked up, with her head resting on his chest, says she could “not possibly sink any lower?” even though they both know she’s going to. And when she suffers the psychotic rage of Cady we only see and hear the clattering of the swinging blinds standing in for the slaps and punches Mitchum is obviously inflicting on her leaving it all, unfortunately, to our wild imaginations.
There is also another unnerving question. In the Scorsese remake it felt, to me at least, that Cady was about nothing other than revenge on Bowden and he would do anything and sink to any depths to achieve that. Whereas with Mitchum you’re not quite so sure. Is his act of revenge really just a ploy to get to Bowden’s daughter rather than retribution being the end goal? She certainly feels more in harm’s way and it is extremely disturbing to watch.
So yeah, I was not expecting the original ‘Cape Fear’ to be that nasty. But boy, does it make it entertaining as hell.
And the rest of the film is great too. You have Telly Savalas looking, and sounding, like a sort of fat John Casavettes while, oddly enough, with Peck charging about at the end with a vengeful lust in his eye it reminded me of The Omen. Throw in Martin Balsam and a truly nerve-jangling score by Bernard Hermann and the ’62 ‘Cape Fear’ is just as much a piece of filmmaking filled with throbbing violence as Scorsese’s, if not even more so.