Martin Scorsese directed a remake of the 1962 film Cape Fear in 1991. Robert De Niro starred as the sadistic psychopath Max Cady, who after serving 14 years in prison for rape seeks vengeance on his former public defender, Sam Bowden. Cady blames Bowden for purposefully sabotaging his defense in order to make sure he went to jail.
One of the most pivotal elements of Scorsese’s remake is the added dynamic of Cady’s obsession with the Bowden’s young 15-year-old daughter. This relationship was not as explored in the original film. De Niro’s Max Cady manipulates young Danielle as another way to get revenge on his lawyer’s family. It also adds a pedophiliac perversion to Max Cady’s already sexually deviant character. It is Danielle’s narration that opens and closes Cape Fear, and the film can be viewed viewed through her relationship with Cady even more so than Sam Bowden’s.
The most pivotal scene in portraying this relationship, and perhaps the most notorious scene in the film, is the school scene. Max has entered Danielle’s school, posing as her new drama teacher. He meets her at the theatre where he, in a way, acts out and directs a scene of his own to coerce and seduce young Danielle. It is a quiet scene that halts the action and stops the audience dead in their tracks with it’s lingering sexual uneasiness.
But what is so fascinating is that one of the most intense moments in the scene, where Danielle sucks Max Cady’s thumb before kissing him, was completely improvised by De Niro. Juliette Lewis knew from the script that De Niro would come close to her, possibly kiss her. But that moment was completely off-the-cuff. De Niro approached Scorsese about doing it, but did not let Juliette Lewis know. Scorsese set up two cameras simultaneously to get both actor’s reactions. This scene shows the power of improvisation works just as well on film as in theatre, and is masterfully acted by both De Niro and Lewis.
We see the power of Max Cady’s manipulation through his charismatic wickedness topped with fallacious southern charm. He waxes poetic about ecstasy and paradise, (He wants her moment ecstasy to be in his upcoming seduction, reach paradise through him.) talks philosophy to prove how wise he is. He appeals to her teenage struggle, validating her as a person to get on her good side. Her parents don’t understand her at all. But he does. He can be the one adult that really listens to her because he knows what she’s going through.
After he is done getting inside her head, he then appeals to her desires. He asks her if she thought about him last night and if he can put his arm around her. We really see how fantastic Juliette Lewis is at portraying this young girl. Not only through the costuming, with her childish barrettes and mouthful of braces. But also in her mannerisms, the bashful avoidance of the eyes, the nervous giggling, they all fit a teenage girl to a tee. You can read so clearly both the embarrassment and joy she feels at receiving an older male’s attention. (Of course, it also helped that she had a real life crush on De Niro) It’s forbidden, scary, and exciting for her.
When De Niro walks towards her, he slowly peers, taller than us, into the frame. As if we are in Danielle’s shoes, we see it from her point of view. The wolf looming in for his prey. The thumb-sucking moment is a genius idea of De Niro. There is something far more perverse about that than just kissing. This sexual predator convincing her to do this unusual act of penetration.
The film opens with the narration of “My reminiscence. I always thought that for such a lovely river the name is mystifying: ‘Cape Fear’. When the only thing to fear on those enchanted summer nights was that the magic would end and real life would come crashing in.”
This may not be in the night, but the moment is enchanting and filled with the sexual mist of summertime for Danielle. The real life that comes crashing in happens towards the end of the film, when she realizes who that charming man turned out to be. It shows how easy adults can manipulate young girls sexually. Here was a girl just on the cusp of dealing with newly sexual feelings manipulated by this evil man. The end of her innocence was approaching (After all, her father declares in the film that “she’s not a child anymore”) and thusly ended in reign of Max Cady’s terror over her family.
Watch this engrossing and eerie scene below.