Designing De Niro

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De Niro’s use of biblical text for inspiration to create Max Cady for Scorsese’s 1991 classic “Cape Fear”, provides not only the iconic film imagery we are now familiar with but also an insight into his character’s state of mind, class and ambitions.

Already well documented is the length to which some actors go in order to inhabit and become character’s in film and theatre from gaining and losing weight, time spent studying their character and their worlds and so on.

In Cape Fear, we already know of De Niro getting a dentist to grind down his teeth for the film, however, here’s more detail from his diaries that shed further light into the creation of Max Cady the anti-hero who mesmerises us all in the film.

Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, film
Image credit: Media Salon

The research materials from the De Niro’s diaries reveal how he used the bible as a reference source, in particular,  biblical influence on Cady. De Niro consulted multiple Bibles, a concordance, Bible study guides, Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Book of Job, and books and articles about Pentecostalism and Pentecostal worship.

Screenwriter Wesley Strick recalled, “Every scene of Bob’s, he would call me and say, ‘Can Max say something else here about vengeance, from the Bible?’” De Niro also worked closely with Scorcese and artist Ilona Herman to identify Bible verses and designs for Cady’s extensive tattoos and here we gain the most interesting clues into his psyche.

Tattoos have been historically associated with people who were of a lower class and part of a sub-culture that existed amongst sailors, prison inmates, and members of tough motorcycle gangs, this is the world that Max Cady inhabits and this resonates clearly with the audience.

People can get tattoos for many reasons: for attention, self-expression, artistic freedom, rebellion, a visual display of a personal narrative, reminders of spiritual/cultural traditions, sexual motivation, addiction, identification with a group or even drunken impulsiveness, in the case of Max Cady’s tattoos forewarn us of his nature and his personal narrative.

Cape Fear did not offer viewers a traditional Bible story and Cady’s use of the Bible was troubling for many audiences and contributed to the tension of the film. One critic observed, “The dissonance between the cultural expectations we associate with the Bible and our immediate perception of this character [as evil] contributes to the sustained horror of the film.”

So what is his personal narrative?

As the production still at the top of this article shows instructions given to the design team: “Very, very dark, black and blue” almost in a bruised state, written across the shabbily drawn tattoo of the grim reaper, that sits opposite Loretta’s breaking heart, perfectly encapsulating the self-righteous and bible spewing Max Cady’s mind. 

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