Text and Texture: A comparative analysis of The Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear (1962) and Cape Fear (1991)

Harvey O'Brien

In The Night of the Hunter (1955), a psychopathic preacher murders his wife then pursues his stepchildren in search of hidden money stolen by their dead father. In Cape Fear (1962), a brutal ex-con terrorises the man who put him away and attempts to rape his wife and daughter. In Cape Fear (1991), a remake of the above1, a self-educated, religiously-obsessed ex-con terrorises the man who put him away, attempts to murder him and rape his wife and daughter, but first to teach them the meaning of loss. Though these films bear certain structural and textual resemblances, they are distinctly different works of the cinema. Where The Night of the Hunter is a hypnotic fairy tale of innocence and nightmarish evil, Cape Fear is an ordinary but violent thriller with sociological themes, and Scorsese's Cape Fear is a grotesque, cartoonish postmodern fantasia. Each achieves its effects not only at the level of script, actors and representation of violence, but most importantly by its application of the semiotic sub-code of texture, at which the individuality of each work is most firmly established and most clearly demonstrated.

The Night of the Hunter was actor Charles Laughton's only directorial venture, written by film critic James Agee from the novel by Davis Grubb. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a psychopathic Preacher who practices a religion, "Me and the Almighty worked out betwixt us", is arrested for stealing a car. He shares a prison cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man who has murdered two men and stolen ten thousand dollars to support his family. Before he is arrested, Harper hides the money in his daughter Pearl's rag doll and makes his son John promise to protect his sister and keep the money secret. When he is executed, Powell goes to woo his widow Willa (Shelley Winters), preaching salvation from her sins. His real intentions are to discover what happened to the money. When Willa learns this, he kills her, but the children go on the run, travelling by river. In time they fall into the care of Mrs. Cooper (Lillian Gish), an elderly lady who shelters lost children and reads them bible stories. Powell catches up with them here but is fended off during a nocturnal attack and arrested next day, when the boy breaks down and hits him repeatedly with the doll, crying, "Take it back, Dad, I don't want it, Dad, it's too much", until the money falls out and blows away. Powell is tried and found guilty of twenty five murders. He is taken away to be hanged. The children live on in the care of their benefactor.

While the film contains an explicit symbolic struggle between good and evil, man and nature, and the worlds of children and adults, its true subject is John Harper, who is thrust into this chaotic world of difficult moral absolutes and must negotiate his way through the subsequent spiritual, emotional and physical maelstrom in an attempt to keep his promise to his dead father. The cruelty of fate is a sub-text of the film, illustrated by a group of children taunting John and Pearl with a playground song "Hing, hang, hung. See what the hangman done", after their father's execution. But the cruelty inflicted on John is not only in the threat of Powell's evil, but the moral quagmire into which he find himself thrown without support. Both his parents are dead and his only adult friend is a drunken old man (who calls himself 'Uncle Bertie') who passes out at the time when he needs him the most. He eventually finds the sheltering mother figure in Mrs. Cooper, who finally relieves him of his premature burden.

On its initial release, The Night of the Hunter was not a critical or commercial success, which discouraged Laughton from any further work behind the camera. However it remains a unique work of the cinema which has over the years attained a certain following and a degree of critical revision. Distinguished New Yorker critic Pauline Kael calls it "one of the most frightening movies ever made" and British film critic Leslie Haliwell noted "no other film has ever quite achieved its texture." This texture is achieved through Laughton's subtle blending of elements of theatrical mise en scène with those of the cinema, and the film's ability to slip in and out of a dreamlike state which explicitly details the underlying symbolism.

Every element of the film is a signifier, and Laughton emphasises this by deliberately exposing the symbolic structure. For example, its exaggerated emphasis on the iconographical lends the film a heightened sense of reality. Animals on the bank of the river; rabbits, toads, spiders, etc., represent the forces of nature (i.e. purity), as the children drift asleep in their boat and the river takes them away from Powell (i.e. evil). Mrs. Cooper is an symbol of motherhood, explicitly matriarchal in her organisation of the house of children which are actually not her own (her own son is grown up and estranged from her).

The film opens with an image of Mrs. Cooper's face and several children listening to her as she tells them a story, (which itself represents the audience seated in the theatre also staring at her face, also waiting to see and hear a story). She reads from the Bible; "A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, and and evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit. By their fruits ye shall know them". We then see a shot of one of Powell's victims, followed by a shot of him driving along a road in his stolen car. The film makes its message clear, identifying the respective forces of good and evil from the outset, then setting them in opposition over the fates of the two children at the centre of the narrative.

This metaphysical struggle is emphasised even more clearly by Powell himself, who bears tattoos on the knuckles of each hand which spell "love" and "hate" respectively. As part of his routine to impress gullible townsfolk he tells, "The story of left hand and right hand, the tale of good and evil". He explains that Cain slew Abel with his left hand and that thus it represents evil and spells "hate". He then proceeds to arm wrestle himself and talks about good and evil locked in eternal struggle. The film's central symbolic structure is made obvious to the audience in this scene, Powell himself explains it directly to us. We also know in turn that he himself is evil, because he engages in murder, deception and hypocrisy. We associate his evil with these physical facts as part of the narrative, however we also identify his function as a symbol of evil as part of the underlying structure, like his own left hand.

It is more usual to disguise the symbolic order of a film in order to achieve effect. As Robert McKee observes:

"Like any great novel or play, a film becomes poetic by incorporating into itself an image system. This poetic system must be more than subtle, it must be subliminal, the audience is not to notice. The moment the audience reacts to an image as 'symbolic', the effect is destroyed."2

Laughton opposes this convention and in doing so achieves a unique texture, allowing the representations of the film to function simultaneously as symbols and as narrative elements. This also accounts for its ability to attain the quality of nightmare, at once real and unreal, hypnotic and terrifying, and its ability to slip in and out of this dreamlike state with ease.

The effect is heightened by Laughton's use of a second major device, theatrical mise en scène.

For example the scene in which Powell murders Willa contains a set which is obviously a set; a rectangular room framed like a cutaway of a doll's house against a black background, with a large pointed roof like a church steeple. Harry stands at the end of the bed staring hypnotised up into the light streaming in from a small window while she lies on the bed, arms folded across her chest like a corpse. When he leans over her and lifts his knife above his head, there is no sense of violence or shock about his actions. His slow, trance like movements, coupled with a gentle waltz on the soundtrack, create a singular, almost operatic atmosphere, and we do not see the killing blow. Similarly in a later scene when the children hide in the basement the set is again built, like a theatre set, with one wall missing for the spectator. Laughton does not attempt to disguise the artifice, but casts the background in darkness and lights only the little basement at the bottom left of the screen and the stairs which lead off to the top right.

The fact that the film was shot almost entirely in a studio in part accounts for this artificiality, however the vast majority of films disguise this fact by framing the shot inside the confines of the set and by editing to achieve the illusion of contiguous space outside the scope of the image. Laughton again opposes the convention and achieves a look and feel which is unique, in short a texture, a representation of detail which gives the film its individuality and its freedom to explore its thematic material with the assured participation of the audience. However, its failure in 1955 suggests that audiences were taken aback by this approach, made even more obvious by the success of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho only five years later, which dealt with some of the same issues in a more covert fashion.

The freedom assumed by filmakers after Psycho allowed a more explicit representation of violence on screen of a kind unseen since the early gangster films. A product of this new wave of violent films was J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear. Though it also dealt with some of the same issues as The Night of the Hunter and its central character was a psychopath played by Robert Mitchum, Cape Fear is an entirely different film with a completely different texture, almost the antithesis of its predecessor.

A coarse ex-convict, Max Cady (Mitchum) comes after clean cut layer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) who was a witness to an assault which put him in prison eight years previously. He harasses Bowden, who goes to the police, but finds Cady is cleverly avoiding doing anything outright illegal, or anything that can be proven in court. Cady tells him stories of his life in prison, his past crimes (rape), and makes suggestions about the lawyer's wife and fifteen year old daughter. The family lives in fear, then Sam finally steps outside the law and attempts to lure Cady into attacking his wife and daughter on their houseboat on the Cape Fear river while waiting in the rushes with a police deputy to kill him. Cady attacks, first killing the deputy, and then fights man-to-man against Sam, who finally turns the tables by becoming as violent as Max and hitting him with a large rock across the head. However at the end Sam refrains from shooting him, telling the beaten, bruised criminal that he will rot in jail for the rest of his life.

The texture of Cape Fear is achieved through its total lack of style. Its direction is almost one dimensional, an exercise in storytelling which contains several pertinent themes and raises important issues in relation to justice and the legal system. However it lacks what McKee terms "A poetic system", in that none of what happens in Cape Fear is in a process of signification, it lacks a symbolic function. This allows the detail of the film to become the pertinent sub-code, and the texture is predicated entirely on what occurs on screen, which for its time was daring. The level of violence contained in the film is considerable, but more importantly the characterisation and dialogue are unflinchingly nasty and cold. Cady is totally uncouth, leers and passing women, mocks Bowden's attempts to make peace, and in a savage scene halfway through he beats (and presumably rapes) a young woman he picks up in a bar.

The film foregrounds its surface detail, thus achieves the texture of documentary. The camerawork is withdrawn for the most part, the lighting emphasising the banality of the locations. There are no shadows and light at play, no ambiguities of character or morality until the climax, where as they struggle together in the mud and the water by the river bank, Cady and Sam become as one.

The closest the film comes to a symbolic system is in the constant references to Cady as "an animal". Police, private detectives, lawyers, and the girl in the bar comment on how animalistic he is. At the film's climax the suggestion becomes an explicit image as Cady prowls around half-naked in the rushes, stalking his prey, pouncing on the police deputy from the rushes and strangling him in full view of the camera.

The film's texture is one of everyday life for the most part, attempting to deemphasise the decorations of the cinema in favour of 'reality'. Thus the explicit violent does not seem exploitative or unnecessary, but equally 'real' and thus all the more shocking. When Sam hits Cady with the rock, it is a brutal, jarring moment, one of reversal for the audience, who to this point had only seen him as an ineffectual clean-living everyman. Cape Fear intends to foreground this realism and thus emphasise the sociological themes explicit in the narrative, of an ex-con who is better protected by the law than the law-abiding family, of the reactions of a man driven beyond his limits by the system and a man who lives outside it, of the entire American way of life. However, perhaps as part of the needs of the time, and Gregory Peck's screen persona, the film does not deliver at the end with Sam's refusal to shoot Cady. He does not, in fact, become an 'executioner' (as the title of the book suggests3), but trusts him instead to the system which, as we have seen in the course of the film, does not work.

Martin Scorsese's remake is an entirely different proposition. It returns in part to the explicit symbolic structure of The Night of the Hunter, and while its plot is a more or less accurate copy of the original, it borrows elements from Laughton's film to create a dizzying kaleidoscope of images, imagery and technical virtuosity which combine hyper-real scenes of violence with strong, realistic characterisations which examine both the nature of the American way of life and the underlying belief systems which sustain it.

This time Cady (Robert De Niro) has been in jail for fifteen years for rape (plea-bargained to aggravated assault), and Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) has withheld information which sent him there though he was supposed to be his defender, judging him to be too dangerous to be set free. In the course of his sentence he has educated himself not only in legal procedure, but in philosophy and religion. He harasses the Bowdens as before, however instead of the cohesive happy family of the 1962 film (where mother and daughter were mere ciphers), they are a modern dysfunctional one, racked by alcoholism, infidelity and paranoia before Cady even gets to work on them. He also more directly targets their daughter Danni (Juliet Lewis), preying on her emerging sexuality and alienated teenager's emotions to bring her over to his side. Again the climax is on the houseboat on the Cape Fear river, but here the film becomes a pyrotechnic exhibition as Cady holds a mock trial for Sam, and though he is shot, stabbed, burned, scalded and beaten, continues to attack until he finally drowns in the river, handcuffed to the sinking houseboat. The film's irony is to suggest that Cady has in fact brought the family closer together by this trial by terror, though the closing voice over by Danni, "Things were never the same as they were before he came" is ambiguous.

Scorsese's Cape Fear is a postmodern filmic 'experience', foregrounding its technical skill with characteristic camera movements, widescreen photography and top class special effects. Though there is a basic underlying script and good performances, it is constructed around series of strong images and set pieces which borrow from a myriad of sources. It is in this essence of postmodernism that it achieves its texture. The film is a combination of elements, a hodgepodge of moments which are linked only by the narrative. It veers from violent action scenes (such as Cady fending off an assault by three hired thugs) to suspense (in the same scene Cady hears Sam accidentally kick a can while hiding nearby and starts to advance slowly towards him calling "Come out, come out, wherever you are") to dramatic realism (Sam and his wife Lee (Jessica Lange) screaming at each other in the bedroom) to cartoon logic (having been scalded with boiling water and burned with lighter fluid, Cady still keeps coming).

However, much of the underlying symbolism is adapted from The Night of the Hunter. Cady has tattoos, like Harry Powell. However these cover his entire body, with a large cross on his back and biblical quotations on his arms. In a strip search scene Robert Mitchum (playing a policeman this time) comments "I don't know whether to look at him or read him". The film is itself framed, as The Night of the Hunter, with a voice over addressed directly to the audience, this time by Danni in the form of a reminiscence delivered as a school project. It begins:

"I always thought that for such a lovely river, the name was 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 is immediately followed by a blaring four-note brass chorus4 and shots of Max Cady working out in his cell, covered in the aforementioned tattoos. Again the film makes itself explicit, that real life, in the form of this demented madman, is about to come crashing in. However by the intimation that Cady is in fact 'real' the film does not offer him as an icon, but perhaps a catalyst in the lives of the Bowden family to drive them back together.

This is the substance of Scorsese's film, that the texture is achieved thorough a combination of styles and tones, thus is oscillates between hard-edged reality and outright fantasy. It never attains the nightmarish quality of The Night of the Hunter, nor the documentary feel of the original version, nor does it attempt to. It underlies its sociological themes as carefully as the previous film, however adding by adding a religious sub-text, addresses fundamental questions about belief. At the climatic mock trial, Cady screams that his power is invested in him by "the kingdom of God" to condemn Sam for "judging me and selling me out".

Here the promise of the original film is fulfilled, Sam is equally guilty of immoral behaviour as Cady. Throughout the film Cady makes references to their similarities, he notes that his study of law makes him for all intents and purposes, a lawyer. He suggests that he and Sam are "just two lawyers working it out", a phrase he repeats during the climax as they slug away at each other in the mud. When Sam gains the upper hand, he screams "I'm going to kill you" and lifts a large rock over his head to crush Cady's skull. Though he slams it down with full intent, Cady is sucked out by the tide into the river and is drowned. In this action, Sam has admitted his animal nature and his innate savagery, but the final blow is delivered not by man, but nature, as it is the river itself which puts and end to Cady's life.

In terms of its texture, the film progresses from the semi-realism practised throughout to the outright unreal at the climax where the houseboat tosses in an angry river during a thunderstorm and all logic goes out the window in the manner of a conventional horror film.5 Again, it functions as part of the overall texture of postmodern fantasia at work in the film. Instead of isolated moments of the bizarre (Sam waking up in the night and seeing a negative image of Cady smoking a cigar in his bedroom, Cady sitting on the Bowdens' wall as a massive fireworks display goes off behind him in the night sky), it becomes a fully-blown grand giugnol; violent, exaggerated, over the top.

It is perhaps difficult on examining these three films to define the difference between 'style' and 'texture'. I would argue that texture is achieved through style, which conversely, forms part of that texture. It is in the use of the cinematic (and in the case of The Night of the Hunter, theatrical) mise en scène that both effects are exemplified. Laughtons' use of his underlying symbolic structure as an explicit device allows the texture of the film to be simultaneously real and unreal framed by the elements of folk tale and childlike perception; creating a world composed of half-buildings and rooms, primal forces of nature, good and evil, which enter into opposition around the children themselves. Thompson's removal of the symbolic and foregrounding of the banal and the 'real' makes the film immediate and sociological in its analysis, creating a texture of 'reality' as well as a Hollywood film of its era could. Scorsese's postmodern conglomeration creates a cinematic spectacle, a performance conscious of itself and its nature which nonetheless exploits traditional audience expectation and previous convention.

Texture is achieved through the use of all other elements of the film, lighting, camerawork, sets, actors, special effects, combined to create a definite feeling (not merely atmosphere) which allows the film to represent the substance and detail of the world they portray. It is in the use of this representation of the diagetic space that the director is capable of style, and manipulating the elements of narrative at their disposal orchestrates the themes at the level of discourse. Both combine (by interaction or opposition) to create the sub-texts of the artwork, the interplay between the explicit and the implicit, the symbol and the object. This in turn makes the film what it is, a combination of narrative and visual expression.




Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film BFI, London 1992.

Cook, Pam (ed.) The Cinema Book BFI, London 1985.

Halliwell, Leslie Film Guide 8th Edition Grafton 1988.

Monaco, James How To Read A Film Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York 1981.



1. Hereafter for the sake of clarity referred to as "Scorsese's Cape Fear". Though written by Wesley Strick and based upon both the novel; The Executioners by Ross McDonald and the 1962 screenplay by James R. Webb, the film was directed by Martin Scorsese and is generally accredited to him as the dominant personality or auteur behind it. Accurate or no, it will serve as our guide here.

2. McKee, Robert Filmworks A Fulmar Television for BBC 2 1992.

3. According to Gregory Peck, who was also one of the producers, the film's title was one picked purely by accident when checking a map for locations to shoot in. He had disliked the novel's title anyway. Public Interview UCD, February 22 1995.

4. Elmer Bernstein adapted Bernard Herrmann's score for the original film here, and by increasing the orchestration makes it strident and demonstrative. Herrmann's work on the original was more in the manner of atmospheric underscoring.

5. The relentless, indestructible psycho is a convention well established in the horror genre since John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Further links to the genre can be seen in the renaming of the female hero 'Danni' instead of 'Nancy' (in the original). Giving female characters male names is a common trick in the horror genre to suggest masculinity in the female's ability to survive the horror she is subjected to. See Carol J. Clover's Men, Women and Chainsaws (1992) Cpt. 1 for full discussion.

This article is copyright Harvey O'Brien 1995. Quotations may be used provided notification is provided (obrienh@indigo.ie) and given due accreditation.