Cape Fear and intertextuality

This week I revisited Martin Scorsese’s flawed, often maddening, hugely entertaining Cape Fear (1991) and it occurred to me that it might be one of his most densely intertextual films—barely five minutes pass without a citation of another movie of some kind or another, and that’s notwithstanding its being a remake to begin with.  Cape Fear is almost more fascinating to think about as a movie about Hollywood thrillers than as a Hollywood thriller operating on its own terms.  Some observations:

Psycho (perhaps the most beloved film of the 70s “new Hollywood” auteurs) seems to be the ur-text here; consider the design of the opening titles, with their fractured lettering and staticky visual patterns.  They’re the work of Saul Bass, who also did the titles for Psycho.  The score is also a re-orchestration of the original 1962 film’s score by fellow Psycho alum Bernard Herrmann.  And for good measure we later get a cameo by Psycho’s Detective Arbogast himself, Martin Balsam, who was also in the original Cape Fear.  (Got that?)

Scorsese borrows from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) in the parade sequence, a reference noted by Robert Kolker.  The doubling of nice Guy (Farley Granger) and psycho killer Bruno (Robert Walker) in that film is perhaps Cape Fear screenwriter Wesley Strick's model for the elaborately worked-through Sam Bowden/Max Cady doppelganger relationship.

Scorsese’s own Taxi Driver (1976) is also very much present here—in Cady’s tooling around in a red convertible, as well as in his obsessive workout regimen, and in a visual take-off on the scene where Travis Bickle watches the silhouette of a woman about to be beaten up by her jealous husband (only this time it’s de Niro himself doing the beating).  Cady is, of course, a Southern Gothic variation on Travis Bickle (right down to the thing for underage girls!)

Scorsese can’t help throwing in a nod to buddy Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), with its cross-dressing killer (itself a nod to Psycho) and elaborate use of white shoes as a plot-twist device. 

The actors from the original Cape Fear, Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, both appear here—

--and Scorsese further complicates things by drawing on Mitchum’s sociopathic preacher from The Night of the Hunter (dir. Charles Laughton, 1955), both in Max Cady’s hilariously over-the-top Bible-thumpery and in scenes like the one at the movie theater, which recalls Mitchum in the audience at the burlesque club. 

Interestingly, Scorsese does not carry over the “love”/“hate” knuckle tattoos (see Robert de Niro’s hand, below), but the pop cultural references to Cape Fear on The Simpsons and Seinfeld nevertheless drafted this into the film’s iconography. And so the cycle continues.

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