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Friday, September 6, 2013

On Cape Fear and Comparison

I was at home grabbing a peanut butter sandwich today and I got caught up in a culture moment. On one channel was the movie Cape Fear from 1962 starring Gregory Peck as Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum as Max Cady.  Cady is an ex-convict who is seeking revenge on the lawyer who sent him to jail.  Cady is psychotic–illiterate when he goes to prison but learns to read and becomes familiar with the law.  The 1991 version, was directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis. Ironically, it also features cameos from Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum (Peck is a policeman and Mitchum is Cady’s lawyer).

I found a blog by Juan Ramos at http://amateurfilmstudies.blogspot.com/2010/09/cape-fear-1962-1991.html that talks about both films. His thoughts on the original were astute (emphasis mine):

There are almost thirty years between the release of the original Cape Fear and its remake: the first film was released in 1962 and the second in 1991. Although, some details are different, the plot is essentially the same: an ex-convict seeks revenge from the man who sent him to jail. In the original Gregory Peck plays lawyer Sam Bowden, a man who would go to almost any length to defend his family. I say ‘almost’ because, in the end, he does not kill the man who has been harassing him and his family, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), but, instead, sends him back to jail. Cady’s veiled threats to rape Bowden’s teenage daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) make the film at times, and even today, very uncomfortable to watch.

Though I had seen both of the versions before, I had never had the ability to switch back and forth.  It was a bit like a time warp.  The older film was shot in black and white to make it feel like an Alfred Hitchcock production. The newer film was shot in color and was much more violent.  In the 1962 version, the word ‘rape’ was removed from the script but the film was still rated as suitable only for adults.

Ramos commented on the remake:

In the remake, the members of the Bowden family are more coloured. Sam is played by Nick Nolte as rather edgy, and his chain-smoking wife, Leigh, is played by Jessica Lange. The couple are shown arguing and Sam, over all, comes across as temperamental, if not violent, a far cry from Peck’s portrayal. Their daughter, who is called Danielle in this version, and played by Juliette Lewis, is also very different from the Nancy of the original film. In the 1991 version, she actually meets Cady (Robert De Niro) and shares with him an overlong and ambiguous seduction scene at her high school, culminating in a kiss. While that scene is very uncomfortable to watch, I find its counterpart in the original far scarier: when Nancy sees Cady outside her school, as she is waiting for her mother, she panics and, after trying to hide in the school, gets startled by a janitor and runs back outside and is hit by a car.

I am intrigued by the repositioning of the moral compass.  An article entitled, "Cape Fear: Two Versions and Two Visions Separated by Thirty Years,” was written Gerald J.Thain and published in the Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 28, No. 1, Law and Film (Mar., 2001), pp. 40-4. His chief observation was the decreased perception of virtue of attorneys.  Ramos commented on the “progress” of the plot from a clear contrast between good and evil to a less definitive separation.

In the remake, apart from the gratuitous violence, the postmodern conflict set up by the plot twist makes the viewer choose between bad and baddest. The members of the remade Bowden family are all sketchy enough to summon some sympathy for Cady. The suggestion that evidence was withheld makes the viewer “understand” the motives behind his rage but his over-the-top anger issues prevent complete emotional bonding (hopefully at least with most folks).

We are all tempted to judge the rightness or wrongness of our thoughts, attitudes or actions on the basis of comparison to another human.  Paul made sure that we compared ourselves not to each other but to the standard of holiness described in Scripture:

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, "there is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God;… (Romans 3:9-11).

In the most famous of all self-examination, Paul goes on to say in Romans 7 that:

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (v.14-15).

Thankfully, Paul concludes this section by reminding me that though the standard of holiness and purity is unwavering–sin results in spiritual death–the death of Jesus on the cross made a way for me to be declared righteous even though I have been judged as sinful:

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (v.21-25)

Our culture, and perhaps especially the media wants us to believe that everyone has evil in them (Paul would agree) and that the way to sleep at night is to see yourself as less evil than someone else (Paul would not agree).  I find the greatest comfort in a passage sandwiched between the two chapters mentioned previously. In Romans 5, Paul gives the declaration that allows me to sleep at night:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (v.6-8).

While I was a sinner. Not a sinner compared to someone else, but a sinner compared to God’s standard of holiness, yet a loving, merciful God loved me enough to come to earth as a man and die for the sins of humanity. I needed to stop for just a moment and marvel at the very thought of grace.

Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Even Cape Fear.