Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Earlier in the summer I wrote an article that, among other things, gushed love for Bryan Fuller’s excellent TV show Hannibal. In addition to the series, I’m an aficionado of the franchise. The tales of Hannibal Lecter began in 1981 with Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon and reached critical heights in 1991 when Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs won five Academy Awards in all the major categories. I chose to read the novels and loved them too.
After reading the novel Red Dragon, I watched two film versions. Manhunter from 1986 was created prior Anthony Hopkin’s award winning take on the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, but by Red Dragon in 2002 he was already a pop culture phenomenon. Both films honor the story of Will Graham, an FBI investigator with the ability to inhabit a murderer’s perspective and his struggles to capture a family slaughtering serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde. True, it sounds like the plots to many TVshows today, but the movies emphasize the psychological perspective and do a good job…such a good job that you might have trouble deciding which one to watch! Never fear. Using my guide, you’ll have no trouble picking the best film. Let the games begin!
Manhunter – Michael Mann had only directed two films before Manhunter: Thief, a career making turn that starred James Caan, and the OK supernatural/WWII thriller The Keep. As a young writer-director, Manhunter was well-received and brought him closer to the future projects that now define him, like The Last of the Mohicans, Heat and Collateral.
Red Dragon – Brett Ratner was similarly a young director when he undertook the remake. His biggest claim to fame was two commercially successful and fun installments in the Rush Hour franchise. Following this film he would direct the universally-hated X-Men: The Last Stand.
Winner: Michael Mann/Manhunter by a mile
THE WILL GRAHAMS:
Manhunter – William Petersen, known nowadays as Dr. Gil Grissom on CSI, was an up-and-coming actor at the film’s release. He’d made his name with a performance in the William Friedkin Film, To Live and Die in LA, also as a law enforcement agent. In Manhunter, his nervy acting style works well to capture Graham’s tortured psyche. His ability to perfectly empathize with murderers affects his relationships with other cops. Sure, it’s a classic trope that to stop a murderer you must become one, but for Graham it’s literal. His mental anguish manifests itself in long sequences of brooding followed by intense anger. He’s a messed up guy and the case seems designed to poke at his flaws. Petersen famously shaved his distinctive beard and dyed his hair blonde when the film was done filming to help transition back to normal life; his committed performance shows.
Red Dragon – On paper Edward Norton seemed like a brilliant choice for Graham. His empathetic performance in Fight Club was like a perfect audition for the lonely, scared Graham. However, Norton can’t help coming off like a Boy scout in this film instead of a weary cop. Whereas Petersen swings from pouting to a tantrum, Norton’s reedy voice can’t pull off either emotional state. I really can’t believe that he’s deeply suffering from his problems when his well coiffed blond hair steals me away from his performance. I like Eddy, but not in this movie.
Winner: William Petersen/Manhunter
Manhunter – The coolest part of Manhunter is watching Brian Cox take on Hannibal 5 years before someone else would win an award for it. His version isn’t far off and in the context of the movie it works better than Hopkin’s more debonair, scene-stealing take. This guy, while still super smart, is clearly wrong in the head. Watch the way that that Cox opens and closes his mouth when he’s not talking – like a fish! It’s a creepy affectation and the role works perfectly.
Red Dragon – Anthony Hopkins loses because of the writing. In the book, Lecter has two or three fantastic chapters and that’s it. But the writers of the movie, knowing that he was the reason people would come to the movie, added far more screen time, stretching a good five-minute cameo into a fifteen-minute role. It feels stretched. Anthony Hopkins chews the scenery, sure, but it can’t help but feel awkward, knowing that he somehow won an Oscar for it before.
Winner: Brian Cox/Manhunter
Manhunter – Other than the fantastic Dennis Farina as Jack Crawford, Manhunter doesn’t have much going for it in secondary characters. Tom Noonan is bizarre as Francis Dolarhyde and Joan Allen is forgettable as Reba McClane, Dolarhyde’s blind love interest. Yes, you read correctly, the serial killer has a blind love interest, which is a nice twist poorly handled. There is also a blink and you’ll miss it cameo by comedian Chris Elliot as an FBI agent.
Red Dragon – If only for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brilliantly sleazy performance as a tabloid writer, Red Dragon takes the cake. But it doesn’t stop there. Whereas Noonan just made Dolaryde weird, Ralph Fiennes makes him both terrifying and horribly sad. We don’t know whether to feel pity or anger when we see his character and that makes for an interesting role. In addition, Emily Watson is great as McClane. She’s so sweet that you can see why he falls for her even though he’s a monster. She’s blind, but her big blue eyes lit up every scene. Interestingly, Graham’s wife, played by Mary Louise Parker has a bigger part in this film and I give extra points for that. Finally, Harvey Keitel rounds out the cast and who doesn’t like Winston Wolfe?
Winner – To Red Dragon goes the spoils.
THE VISUAL STYLE/EDITING:
Manhunter – Manhunter is so 80’s if you cut it, it’d bleed neon. It’s got all kinds of weird super expressive lighting choices and the prod design for Dolarhyde’s house looks like a Pink Floyd video. The whole movie floats like an out of body experience. It certainly unnerves a dude.
Red Dragon – Red Dragon looks gorgeous. Every character’s eyes seem to smolder and are an immediate focus. Sure, there are more than a few shots borrowed from Silence of the Lambs, but it does claim an original color palette and editing style. From the smooth crane shot that introduces Hannibal Lecter to the innovative flashback to cover Dolarhyde’s screwed up childhood, the style works.
Winner: None! It’s a tie.
Manhunter – In addition to the visual style, Manhunter bolsters its eerie tone with a soundtrack of second rate New Wave and a freaky use of the psychedelic hit “In A Gadda Da Vida” by Iron Butterfly. Think that “Goodbye Horses” was scary in Silence of the Lambs? Where do you think they got the idea? Right here: