More noise than signal

Manhunter and Red Dragon

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

There’s been two cinematic cracks at Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon so far, the serial-killer thriller than introduced us to the charismatic cannibal Hannibal Lecter, perhaps more readily associated with The Silence of the Lambs. We’ll be taking a look at 1986’s Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann, and 2002’s Red Dragon, with Brett Ratner at the helm. Who captured our imaginations best? There’s only one way to find out…

Common Ground

Obviously with the two films sharing the same source, there’s a good deal of narrative cross over, so let’s deal with the bones of the story separately. Will Graham is an ex-FBI agent, called in by his old boss Jack Crawford to assist with tracking down a serial killer referred to as the Tooth Fairy. While Graham is a brilliant investigator, able to put himself in the mind of the people he’s tracking, he bears the physical and mental scars from the case than prompted his retirement, the capture of Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. Despite the misgivings of both his wife and himself, he agrees to help to try and save lives.

There’s not many clues to go on, and as a result Graham is forced to turn to the brilliant, charismatic, dangerous but safely incarcerated Lecter for assistance in building a profile, in exchange for small favours but mainly to give Lecter an opportunity to play mind games with Graham. Graham is also hounded by bottom-feeding tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds, who will wind up being dragged into the investigation to print articles with false profiles in the hope of prompting a mistake from the killer.

Through some detective work it transpires that the killer is Francis Dolarhyde, a monster born of an abusive childhood who believes he is undergoing a becoming, transforming into the titular Red Dragon, obsessed with the William Blake painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun. He’s convinced that his murder of these families is helping him along the path to transformation, do you see? It looks for a moment that there may be some redemption for Dolarhyde when he falls in love with a co-worker, Reba McClane, but that’s short lived.

Things come to a head once Lecter uncovers Graham’s home address and smuggles it to to Dolarhyde, leading to a final confrontation between Graham and Dolarhyde, the location of which varies depending on the film, but with a similar outcome.

On a strict narrative sense, it’s a solid story, enhanced by some accurate, as I understand it, representations of 1980’s forensic technology and profiling understanding, earning it points on a technical level. The overarching archetype of copper hunting villain isn’t exactly new, but looking at this story retroactively does it few favours. While it wasn’t exactly groundbreakingly innovative on the novels’ release in 1981, it perhaps now sounds way more familiar a tune than it did at the time. In particular, the trope of “damaged but brilliant detective pursing something or other” might have its roots in Sherlock Holmes, but it’s been battered to death by pretty much every television police procedural of the past thirty years, so most of the cliches only apply to this story retroactively.


Michael Mann’s film was first out the gate, with William Petersen as Will Graham, Dennis Farina as his boss, Tom Noonan as Dolarhyde and Brian Cox as Dr. Lecktor, the spelling puzzlingly changed for this film, although you’ll forgive me if these show notes retcon that change away.

What’s immediately striking about this film is its sense of style, and there’s more moments of gorgeous cinematography in the first ten minutes of this film than most features manage in two hours. This remains true across the entirely of the film, Mann apparently not going to let something as mundane as having a character run down some stairs get in the way of finding a way to turn that into an artfully composed shot.

The soundtrack presents more of a mixed bag. The synth heavy parts, again quite prevalent early on, help to create an eerie, unsettling atmosphere that recalls Vangelis’ Blade Runner work, but it’s married to some odd choices, or at least one odd choice in particular. Step forward The Prime Movers with Strong As I Am, a mood-killing selection for what ought to be a pivotal scene.

Perhaps the principal narrative difference in Mann’s version over Ratner’s is the use of Lecter, Mann opting for a more minimal use of the character, trying (and succeeding) in leaving the audience wanting more. Cox plays a quite different interpretation of Lecter than Hopkin’s more widely seen turn. He’s colder, more restrained, but all the creepier for it. It’s tough, even when talking about the same story to directly compare the two, but I’ve always preferred Cox’s more believably chilling take on the character. Hopkins, while a very fun character, is playing a little too over the top for my tastes.

Performance-wise, it’s perhaps here that Mann plays a trump card. There’s less star power on display here, but for the most part he’s getting people to perform at the top of their expected range. I’ve no strong opinions on Dennis Farina or Tom Noonan, but I’d have to say that I’ve not seen better from either man, and you’d only be talking about To Live and Die in L.A. (and believe you me at some point we’ll be talking about To Live and Die in L.A.) to see better from the charismatic Petersen.

Red Dragon

This came out, as you’ll recall, after the success of The Silence of the Lambs, which re-introduced Lecter to filmgoers with Antony Hopkins at the helm. Rounding out the cast are Ed Norton in the Will Graham role, Harvey Keitel as his boss, Emily Watson as Reba McClane, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddy Lounds and Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde.

With Lecter already quite embedded in pop culture, I’m forced to agree with what I assume Ratner and his writing team’s thoughts to be – there’s no point hiding Lecter under a bushel, so he’s out front and centre in Red Dragon, the film starting with a flashback to Ed Norton and Hopkin’s struggle. It makes perfect sense to do this from an audience expectation standpoint, and certainly given the prominence the character has from Lambs there’s probably no way around it, but this does rather take focus away from Norton’s Graham, who’s supposed to be the driving personality in the film. He can on occasion feel like a passenger in his own film.

That might, however be due to Norton’s performance itself, which is surprisingly lacklustre. He’s an actor I’m normally impressed by, but I find his turn here a bit toothless and bland, and certainly wildly overpowered by Hopkin’s near-pantomime gurning. Perhaps this is due to his credibility sapping hairstyle. Fiennes and the rest of the supporting cast, Hoffman in particular fare better, but if I’m picking holes in Ratner’s version, by far the biggest are Norton and Hopkin’s performances.

A lot of that’s due to Ratner himself, of course. I remember very much disliking this film on first viewing, and so was surprised to find myself rather more open to it this time around. A lot of that is because Thomas Harris’ story is a strong basis to hang a film off, and I think I was in a bit of a phase of holding Ratner as being emblematic of what was wrong with Hollywood at the time. I’ve since softened on that opinion, and looking back I can now see the value in Ratner’s talents as a director, particularly from the Studio’s perspective. He’s someone you can hand a ludicrous sum of money, some possibly recalcitrant actors and a script and a camera and he will bash those together into a film that’s as good as its component parts without monkeying around with any of those constituent parts too much. His films are alway the sum of their parts, no more. There’s a place for that in film-making, it can’t all be auteur-led, writer-director affairs, and the cinematic landscape ought to be richer for it.

It does mean that, I think in this instance, the time when he should be taking Norton aside to ask him to put a bit more energy into things, and Hopkins to do the opposite, he’s instead left it to their judgement and I don’t think that this has served the overall film well.

Also, the score on this film is out of control, overly bombastic to the point of undermining the drama rather than enhancing it. I think someone gave Michael Cimino final say on this or something.

As for overall preference, it’s not quite as cut and dried as I expected, from my memory. There’s pros and cons to both approaches taken by these films, but in the end it’s hard to look past Mann’s vision. He’s created a much better atmosphere, and obtained better performances overall from a cast that, on paper, you might think would be outclassed by that assembled by Ratner. There’s less in it than I thought, but Manhunter wins out this battle for me.