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'Cape Fear,' and Our Fear | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

'Cape Fear,' and Our Fear

Not too long ago I saw, for the first time, the 1962 version of the film Cape Fear, directed by J. Lee Thompson. (You may know the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake.) It starred two men whose casting alone would have alerted early ’60s moviegoers about where their sympathies were supposed to lie. Robert Mitchum, famous for depicting characters of pure wickedness even at the risk of his status as a leading man (think 1955’s Night of the Hunter), plays an ex-con just out of prison. He’s convinced that one man is responsible for his incarceration: a lawyer played by Gregory Peck who saw him commit the brutal murder for which he went to prison. Peck played to type, too: a heroic, sweet, selfless lawyer, tough but fair, who would never cut a corner, even to restore order to a fallen world—just like the character he played in To Kill a Mockingbird, also from 1962.

I saw Cape Fear back when we were all discussing the meaning and ethics of Zero Dark Thirty. Remember that big old debate? Some, most prominently three senators in a position to know, argued the picture was “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden”—and was, thus, objectively pro-torture. Others, like Michael Moore, said the interrogation scenes were so off-putting that no one could but to conclude from them, Moore wrote, that “torture is wrong.” Others pointed out that the full plot, in its byzantine complexities, suggests that the tidbit of information that broke the case came investigators’ way before those interrogations happened—so the movie could not be read as objectively pro-torture. I disagree with both those latter two arguments. The reason is simple: ZDT is a genre piece, a police procedural, in which convention dictates that sweating the suspect—good cop, bad cop, and all that; an unpleasant job but somebody has to do it—is but one of the required stations of the cross to move the plot along to resolution, and justice.

In any event I couldn’t stop thinking about that movie while watching Cape Fear—thinking about what the Zero Dark Thirty debate says about 2013, from the perspective of this very different movie from 1962.

In Cape Fear, the Robert Mitchum character reappears in the Peck character’s life to deliver a veritable clinic in how you terrorize a family—to reduce the victim to a puddle of fear and make it impossible for his family to live their lives without being possessed by that fear. Peck has a lovely wife and pubescent daughter—that’s central to the plot. First, his daughter’s beloved dog is poisoned to death. He next learns that the Mitchum character’s girlfriend has been brutally beaten. Mitchum then starts bird-dogging Peck’s daughter, leering at her, harassing her–then chasing her into a corner of a scary building. Peck confronts Mitchum in a bar and tries to pay him off to leave his family alone. Mitchum refuses, pledging to visit the “death of a thousand cuts” on his adversary instead.

Mitchum’s character, as clever as he is wicked, is careful to leave no actionable evidentiary trail to tie him to his acts. And also, all the while, a smarmy defense lawyer he’s retained—we’re to think of the lawyer as almost as wicked as Mitchum himself—spouts American Civil Liberties Union–style bromides, keeping law enforcement at bay, leaving Mitchum free to stalk his prey with a free hand.

Bottom line: we know Mitchum and his lawyer are evil—there can be no mistaking that. (“A man like that is an animal,” a character observes. “So you have to fight him like an animal.”) Just as obviously, Gregory Peck is a pure manifestation of goodness. And in a certain way of telling a Hollywood story, knowing that is enough: the plot merely becomes about good guy vanquishing bad guy, it really doesn’t matter how. Just like in Zero Dark Thirty, in which the means happen to be torture.

But here is the moral grandeur, by contrast, of Cape Fear: Peck refuses to surrender to his rage, refuses to cut civil liberties corners, refuses vigilante revenge. That determination structures the entire texture of the second half of the picture—until, by the end, as Mitchum plots the literal abduction and rape of Peck’s pre-teen daughter, Peck cunningly wins the battle by fighting fairly and within the law.

It demonstrates a difference between that time and our own: the simple point that Americans then found the idea of hunting down genuine evildoers without violating due process or constitutional liberties credible. (It was a Cold War thing: civil liberties are what makes America American. Without civil liberties, there was no America.) Even more importantly, it showed that audiences then found such a plot device entertaining. There was pleasure in watching evil being put paid by good guys who didn’t descend to the level of bad guys. That changed, of course, by the 1970s, when revenge movies—like Dirty Harry (1972) and Death Wish (1974)—began wallowing in the pleasures of heroes who were heroes precisely because they sunk to the level of villains. Who agreed with the Dick Cheney who infamously put it regarding the watershed our nation had supposedly passed when confronting post-9/11 “evildoers,” “We have to work the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world.” Just like the good guys do in Zero Dark Thirty.

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And, we are now to believe, just like the good guys are doing with Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

We are to understand that a novel “public safety exemption” prevents Tsarnaev from hearing that he has a right to remain silent, and the right to an attorney, that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be provided to him. Instead he is now being sweated out by authorities old-school style, perhaps by a “bad cop” boxing him around the head and the ears with a phone book (maybe Tsarnaev has never seen a cop movie, and doesn’t know that he doesn’t have to say anything…). Which makes no logical sense, because any competent defense lawyer would understand his first responsibility as keeping his client from being executed, and would thus encourage his client to sing like a bird about any possible wider plot. Meanwhile Senator Lindsay Graham added a mockery to constitutional mockery, insisting Tsarnaev be treated as an “enemy combatant”—whatever that means by this point, other than “scary not-really-American person we don’t like.”

Andrew Sullivan has recently pointed out the absurdity of the national pants-pooping that’s been going on after the Boston attacks. Citing the libertarian writer Ronald Bailey, he notes calculations that the “the chances of an American being killed in a terrorist attack over the past five years is one in twenty million. The risk of being struck by lightning is one in five million. The risk of dying in a car accident is one in 19,000. More strikingly, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism found that the number of terror attacks in the US in the decade before 9/11 was forty-one a year. Since 9/11, it has been nineteen a year.” He adds, by way of contrast, veterans are committing suicide now at a rate of twenty-two per day. And yet somehow none of us has seen fit to overturn the Constitution because of any of that.

Instead, the nation has surrendered to an inherently right-wing idea, one that I’ve written of here in the context of the gun control debate: the notion that the world is easily parsed into god guys and bad guys, never the twain should meet—and the corollary notion, which I’ve also written about recently, that once the world has been so divided, vanquishing the bad guys licenses any procedural abuse.

Indeed it is now hard for Americans to imagine the world working any other way. If someone tried to make a Cape Fear today, in the same basic way it was made in 1962, ask yourself this: would Gregory Peck even be conceivable as a hero?

More on fear: Americans' insulated existence gives us little perspective on terror and violence, Rick Perlstein writes.

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