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Cape Fear

Terri Murray observes Scorsese’s battle of moralities.

“Among all the forms of intelligence that have been discovered to date, ‘instinct’ is the most intelligent. In short, you psychologists should study the philosophy of the ‘rule’ in its battle with the ‘exception’: there you will have a spectacle fit for the gods and for divine malice!”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil (1885)

Martin Scorsese’s 1991 re-make of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 film Cape Fear gave him a perfect opportunity to explore two of the themes for which he has become renowned – male violence and religion. But it also allowed him to incorporate Nietzsche’s critique of modern morality into a narrative, using the conflict between a law-abiding citizen and a violent criminal to illustrate the opposition between the liberal values Nietzsche despised (democracy, equality, socialism), and the more primal ‘noble values’ he admired.

The original film involved a predictable Hollywood conflict between Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a paragon of virtue, and Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), an irredeemably depraved predator. Peck plays an upstanding citizen in every way; a small town attorney and family man who witnessed Cady’s brutal assault on a woman. His testimony helped put the brute away for eight years. By contrast, Scorsese’s remake subjects the whole system of modern Western values to an inexorably Nietzschean scrutiny, by means of which Scorsese takes us beyond the clich éd Hollywood opposition of good and evil.

Max Cady: Mouthpiece for Nietzsche’s ‘Noble Values’

The 1991 film opens with a close-up on Danielle Bowden’s (Juliette Lewis’) face as she reminisces on her early childhood, a time when she and her family would visit their houseboat on the Cape Fear river: “I thought the only thing to fear on those enchanted summer nights was that the magic would end, and real life would come crashing in.” The scene then cuts to the wall of Max Cady’s (Robert DeNiro’s) cell, adorned with images of Nietzsche holding a sword, a saint being pierced by arrows, and Joseph Stalin, among other items. The camera tilts down, and we see Nietzsche’s The Will to Power and Thus Spake Zarathustra amongst a few criminal law books. Cady’s muscular back comes into frame. He is exercising, and there’s a huge tattoo on his back depicting the scales of justice in the form of a crucifix, with the word ‘Truth’ on one scale and the word ‘Justice’ on the other, a Bible and a drawn sword above each word respectively.

In his exposition of noble values, Nietzsche reminds us that the ancient Greek nobility he so admired called themselves ‘We truthful ones’. The honesty of the nobles consisted in their knowledge that they were creators of value, not mere discoverers of it. The noble person feels himself as determining value: he knows that he is the one who causes things to be revered, or feared. These previous higher cultures were founded by people who were “barbarians in every terrible sense of the word, predatory humans, whose strength of will and desire for power were still unbroken,” and who “threw themselves upon the weaker, more well-behaved, peaceable, perhaps trading or stockbreeding races, crumbling cultures whose remaining life force was flickering out in a brilliant fireworks display of wit and depravity.” (Beyond Good & Evil, Aphorism 257, trans Marian Faber.)

Scorsese himself draws on the image of fireworks, as a symbol of modern values as espoused by the French and American revolutions, by setting the start of Cape Fear on the day before Independence Day. We see Cady sitting on the wall that borders the Bowden property, fireworks bursting in the air behind him. The following day the Bowden family attend an Independence Day parade, while wholesome spectators (the Nietzschean herd) look on. All seems right with the world until reality comes crashing in. As a float passes, we get Sam Bowden’s (Nick Nolte’s) point of view – a shot of Cady on the opposite side of the road, but he isn’t watching the parade; his eyes are devouring Sam’s wife, Leigh. Sam pushes through the herd of spectators and attempts to punch Cady, but can hardly land a blow before the astonished crowd rescue Cady from the assault. At this point Cady mocks the justice system, threatening to sue Sam while the herd nods in approval.

It is no accident that Scorsese sets this mockery of rights in a crowd scene. Nietzsche described the proponents of a ‘free society’ as ‘herd animals’ united by a distrust of any justice that punishes, and by their common resistance to everything exceptional or privileged: “United in their religion of pity, in their empathy… united one and all in their mortal hatred of any suffering, in their almost feminine incapacity to remain a spectator to it, to allow suffering” the herd erected a system of equal rights, which prompts Nietzsche to ask rhetorically, “who needs ‘rights’ any more if everyone is equal?” (Aphorism 202.)

To Nietzsche the noble person is in touch with his animal instincts and drives, his will to power, and he knows that this will is the true motivator beneath the veneer of social graces typical of legal and religious institutions. Nietzsche contrasted moral codes with a freedom that is ‘natural’. While moral codes allow a kind offreedom, they are a tyranny against nature. In Nietzsche’s words, they function as “one long coercion.” Instead, Nietzsche advocated a freedom which allows the tyranny of despotic laws – a freedom which allows natural superiors to dominate the weaker – and claimed that by means of such constraints, true values emerge and the human species evolves:

“all this violence, arbitrariness, harshness, horror, nonsense has turned out to be the means by which the European spirit was bred to be strong … much irreplaceable energy and spirit had to be suppressed, suffocated and spoiled in the process (for here as everywhere ‘nature’ reveals her true colours in all her extravagant and indifferent grandeur, which is infuriating but also noble).” (BGE, Aph. 188.)

Nietzsche further describes the noble person as one who “reveres the power in himself” and in his ability to enjoy “the practice of severity and harshness towards himself, and to respect everything that is severe and harsh.” (Aph. 260.) It was also Nietzsche who originally said “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” In the final act of Cape Fear, Cady lights a flare and watches unflinchingly as its hot wax drips down his arm. This is a striking revelation about Cady’s endurance for pain and harshness, represented as giving him an advantage over his relatively soft opponent. As the wax begins to drip, Cady tells Leigh, “Let’s get something straight here. I spent fourteen years in an eight by nine cell surrounded by people who were less than human. My mission in that time was to become more than human. You see… Grandaddy used to handle snakes in church. Granny drank strychnine. I guess you could say I had a leg up, genetically speakin’.” In Human, All Too Human (1878), Nietzsche claimed that the task of education is similarly to “make the individual so firm and sure that, as a whole being, he can no longer be diverted from his path. But then the educator must wound him, or use the wounds that fate delivers; when pain and need have come about in this way, something new and noble can also be inoculated into the wounded places. His whole nature will take it in, and show the ennoblement later in its fruits” (§V, 224, ‘Signs of Higher and Lower Culture’), and in both Human, All Too Human and Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche wrote of the individual’s self-overcoming of the species ‘human’. In Zarathustra, the notion of ‘self-overcoming’ marks a significant development of Nietzsche’s theory of the will to power: power is not just domination over others, but, in the advanced stage, is manifest as self-overcoming. And knowledge, for Nietzsche, involves a ‘will to truth’ – a passion to learn from errors which teach us lessons of self-preservation. This ‘will to truth’ is a desire to let life be our teacher, to embrace the harsh lessons of experience, and to allow these lessons to shatter the illusions of established values. We must do this positively, out of a passion for life, because the relative comfort and safety of past values has corrupted our nature. So at one point Cady says, “every man carries a circle of hail around his head like a halo. Every man has to go through hell to reach his paradise.”

In many ways Scorsese’s Cady is a Nietzschean mouthpiece, opening the all-American Bowden family’s (and the audience’s) seemingly simple modern moral presuppositions to a thorough revaluation. To the Bowden family, Cady seems like an animal. Even Cady himself uses that language, once describing himself flatteringly as “one hell of an animal.” But in Scorsese’s hands, the common idea that an animal is less than human is supplanted by the Nietzschean idea of our animal nature being an essential part of being a complete human – a part that we repress at our peril.

Sam Bowden: Symbol of ‘Herd Morality’

For Nietzsche, the kind of virtue represented by Gregory Peck’s heroic Sam Bowden would be just a decadent extension of Christian ‘slave values’. Scorsese’s Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is not so clean-cut. He acted as Cady’s defence attorney when the latter was arrested on an aggravated rape charge, but buried crucial evidence that could have reduced Cady’s sentence, or even had him acquitted. Although Bowden thus betrayed his professional duty as a public defender, he was acting according to his conscience in refusing to let the law provide cover for a man he knew to be guilty of a brutal crime. Nor is Scorsese’s Bowden an ideal husband and father figure. He has a reputation for philandering, and his mar riage is rocky, to put it mildly. His daughter wants a heroic protector figure, but instead overhears endless arguments between her parents, and questions her father’s fidelity. It is into this already fragile context that Cady appears, wreaking havoc on the family and testing their survival skills when stripped of the legal bulwarks within which Sam is accustomed to fighting.

As a public defender, Sam Bowden is particularly symbolic of modern moral values. His job is to represent the ethical norms of a modern liberal democracy – a form of life that Nietzsche described as “having lost all of its organic functions.” Yet Bowden has had serious doubts about whether the law is always just, and to defeat Cady’s Nietzschean anti-hero in his battle for survival, he must eventually go outside civilization’s protective walls and face his enemy where nature is, as Nietzsche would describe it, “still natural”. Thus the arc of the story traces Bowden’s gradual transformation from a civilized but cowardly lawyer into a primitive but redeemed beast. At the beginning of the film the lean, bespectacled Sam is a small-town North Carolina lawyer who may bend a few rules for his friends now and then, but reveres the law and is successful from it. Yet with his own legal cunning and psychological prowess, as well as his ability to evoke fear, Cady pushes Sam out of his comfort zone. Step by step, Cady forces Sam to move away from the sanctuary of the legal system, until Sam concedes that his family’s only hope of surviving Cady’s assaults will be for Sam to go outside the legal citadel and fight like an animal. At first Sam uses legal means to try to harass Cady out of town, using his connections in law enforcement to subject the ex-con to strip searches and surveillance. But Cady has been reading law books, and knows how to avoid legal traps. After Cady poisons the Bowden family dog and brutally rapes Sam’s colleague, Sam gives up on the police and hires a private detective called Kersek to watch Cady. Kersek tempts Sam to hire thugs to do a ‘hospital job’ on Cady, but Sam still clings to the hope that he can contain Cady’s power by legal means: “I’m a lawyer. Maybe two thousand years ago we’d have taken this guy out and stoned him to death. I can’t operate outside the law. The law is my business.” The scene cuts immediately to a pan of fried chicken in the Bowden home, and a close-up on Sam’s face as he arrives home – an intentional innuendo, reinforced by Leigh’s contemptuous look when Sam walks into the kitchen. However, by the end, Sam does take Cady out and stone him to death (literally), and this act of catharsis expunges all remaining civility in him. Afterwards, Sam, crouched barefoot in the wet earth like a primate, is able to wash his hands of Cady’s blood. The implication is that Sam was guilty of pretending to be civilized – of repressing his primordial nature. This evolution away from a Western ‘herd morality’ towards a primordial ‘master morality’ is depicted as an improvement in Sam’s character. It’s one Nietzsche would certainly have greeted with approval. Nietzsche regarded human progress as the move away from the moral stage of history, towards the extra-moral stage.

Before being fully transformed into a blond beast, Sam attempts to keep the violence at arm’s length, and takes Kersek’s advice and hires some men to rough Cady up. Cady outwits Sam again, by overpowering the attackers and then using a tape of a threat made by Sam prior to the assault to take him to court. As a wink to the original film, Scorsese casts Gregory Peck as Lee Heller, the prestigious civil rights lawyer who defends Cady, helping him get a restraining order against Sam. At the trial, the Judge expounds high-minded ideals, saying he will grant the restraining order against Bowden “not to validate the malice between you, but in the interest of Christian harmony.” At this point Heller/Peck chirps, “Even King Solomon could not have adjudicated more wisely.” These phrases link the moral values Nietzsche despised to their Judeo-Christian roots, and hold both up to ridicule by showing that the law is only as just as those who use it. In this case, the high ideals are expounded in the context of a miscarriage of justice, debasing them.

Under Kersek’s influence Sam finally decides to use the law as Cady does – cleverly, as an instrument of his will to power, and not as an absolute. He and Kersek attempt to lure Cady into the Bowden home, where it will be legal to shoot the intruder. To ensnare Cady, Sam must appear to be away from home, and consequently is forced to crouch down so that he cannot be seen by Cady through the windows. This provides Scorsese with a visual way to express Sam’s Nietzschean ‘evolution’ back to a more atavistic state: his transition from representing the law as valuable in itself, to his use of the law as a tool in the arsenal of his will, is simultaneous with his transition from a biped to a hominid crawling on all fours. Danielle, who thinks the plan to entrap Cady is “hideous” and “barbaric” also taunts her father sarcastically, “remember Dad, you can’t stand up” – thus implying that she thinks he’s a coward.

When this plan goes wrong and the Bowden family flee their home to hide away on their houseboat, Sam phones the police to explain that he is acting under force majeure (the term literally means ‘greater force’); so “legally speaking, it means all bets are off.” At this point Sam and his family have nothing to depend upon but their own wits. Sam achieves his ultimate victory over his enemy and saves his marriage by shedding his conformity to moral decency and fighting like a savage. The final scene of the film sees Sam hunched down on the ground like an ape, grunting like an animal, and fighting to the death with nothing but a stone for a weapon.

The Significance of Fear

It is only by reverting to and embracing his inner beast that Sam is finally able to defeat Cady. Chief amongst these animal instincts is fear, and Scorsese takes several opportunities in Cape Fear to explore fear from a Nietzschean perspective. Thus, when Cady speaks to Danielle in a theatre (whose set is an enchanted forest), he lists her fears, and tells her that she “can use all those fears to draw upon and learn.” In a later scene, as Sam is anxiously waiting for Cady to break into his home so that he and Kersek can lawfully shoot him, Sam expresses his misgivings about shooting another man. Kersek replies, “You’re scared. But that’s OK. I want you to savour that fear. You know the South evolved in fear – fear of the Indian, fear of the slave, fear of the damn Union. The South has a fine tradition of savouring fear.”

Nietzsche similarly claimed that slave morality, the morality of the herd, defines the ‘evil’ person as the one who evokes fear. In previous times, when groups had to defend themselves from external threats, the dangerous instincts that induced fear in opponents, such as rapacity and lust for power, were revered as beneficial to the community. Later, when society was secured against external threats, these same instincts were stigmatized, for now the danger they represented was not to a common enemy but to one’s neighbour. Thus the community erects a morality of neighbourly love from fear of one’s neighbour. Everything that raises an individual above the common crowd and causes his neighbour to fear him is labelled ‘evil’ by the herd, who now give respect to the modest, equalizing mentality that treats only the most average desires and passions as worthy of respect. Nietzsche felt that Europeans adopted this sense of ‘good’ as ‘harmless’ primarily because of fear – thus identifying fear as the mother of morality. But according to Nietzsche, the person who evokes fear, and wants to evoke it, is the ‘good’ person.

Cady the thug is adamant that the attorney Sam is no better than him. When Cady overpowers the three men hired to do the ‘hospital job’ on him, and begins to stalk Sam. The latter is visibly terrified at the possibility that he will have to face Cady one-to-one. As Cady approaches the garbage bin behind which Sam is cowering, Cady says: “I ain’t no white trash piece of shit – I’m better than you all! I can out-learn you. I can out-read you. I can out-think you and I can out-philosophize you! And I’m gonna out-last you. You think a couple a whacks to my good-ole-boy guts is gonna get me down? It’s gonna take a lot more’n that, counsellor, to prove you’re better’n me!”

Beyond Cape Fear

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche contrasts ‘decadent’ modern European culture to the ‘noble’ cultures of the past. He observes that “at the beginning, the noble caste was always the barbarian caste: its dominance was not due to its physical strength primarily, but rather to its spiritual – these were the more complete human beings (which at every level also means ‘the more complete beasts’).” Cady overpowers Sam precisely through his strength of will and his stamina to endure until the time is right to pounce upon his prey; and Sam triumphs only when he utilises his strength. This fits well with Nietzsche’s understanding of spiritual power as a system of constraints and self-overcoming. So love it or hate it, Scorsese’s Cape Fear succeeds in illuminating Nietzsche’s influential ideas by means of its central narrative conflict.

© T.M. Murray 2010

Terri Murray, a graduate of NYU Film School, is Managing Director of Blacksheep DV Productions. She has taught Film Studies at Hampstead College of Fine Arts & Humanities in London since 2002, and is author of Feminist Film Studies: A Guide for Teachers (2007).

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