The Steel Cage Match of the Century

I’m from America. In America, when we want to settle our differences, the offended parties have a steel cage-fight. It used to be cock fights but those were too brutal. That became the fifth amendment, changing the fights from cock fights to steel cage-fights. It’s a little-known fact that Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington were all mixed martial artists. Anyway, I finally decided to settle the question of which movie is better, Manhunter or Red Dragon.

Both movies are based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, the first book in a series of four books that deal with the character Hannibal Lecter. Of all the books in the series, Red Dragon is the one that I haven’t been able to finish. I was disappointed by the lack of Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, the protagonist, isn’t my favorite character in the series. My theory is that Red Dragon is an early book by Thomas Harris and his writing style was still evolving. My roommate’s theory is that I started with the wrong book in the series, The Silence of the Lambs, thus spoiling me forever to read Red Dragon.
First up is 1986’s Manhunter by Michael Mann. I found the movie to be simultaneously engrossing and frustrating. The plot follows Special Agent Will Graham (William Peterson) as he comes out of retirement to solve a series of serial murders committed by a suspect that law enforcement has dubbed “The Tooth Fairy.”
First of all, it was nice to see some familiar faces in this movie. Brian Cox played Hannibal Lektor (I don’t know why they changed the spelling for this movie.) You remember him as the curmudgeonly Mr. Kreeg in Trick ‘r Treat. Tom Noonan played Francis Dollarhyde, but you remember him as the creepy Satanist, Mr. Ulman, in House of the Devil. Finally, Stephen Lang plays my favorite movie paparazzo, Freddie Freddy Lounds. It’s weird, I was reading something about Manhunter that spelled Freddy’s name as “Freddie” and I’ve been misspelling it like that ever since. It’s like malware has infected my brain. Anyway, you remember him from my 100% accurate picture of him in the Avatar body-armour fighting a t-rex. Also, he’s Commander Taylor on Terra Nova, the dinosauriest show on t.v. It took me awhile to make the connection between the two, then I was just excited that Taylor used to be a ginge.
Anyway, as a visual artist, I found Manhunter to be very interesting. Michael Mann seems to favor symmetry in his shots and cool pastel lights.

That’s Will Graham with his wife, Molly (Kim Greist.) Often, when the two are together, they’re filmed in a cool blue light.

In contrast, when there’s a shot of Francis Dollarhyde, he’s usually in a hectic magenta or an acid green light. It’s as if Mann is trying to contrast the calmness of Graham’s domestic life with the mental disorder of Dollarhyde’s life.

I also liked the different POV shots utilized in the movie. Oftentimes, when we’re seeing something from Francis’ point of view, we don’t see Francis in the shot. It’s similar to the monster POV used in Halloween. This isn’t a new technique but it’s compelling and not overused. Also, five years before The Silence of the Lambs was released, Mann used the dual POV shots to show the conversations between Lektor and Graham.

Now, pay attention to the bars in the shot. As the scene progresses, the characters are always between the same bars. This shows an insane attention to detail that I can’t help but admire.

Unfortunately, I think that Mann gets tripped up in the visual details. The movie lacks a timeless quality due to its intense eightiesness. Yes, “eightiesness” is a word. It’s not just the fashion, it’s the fashion mixed with the synth music plus the focus on art deco and glass bricks. One part that lacked credibility for me is when Will is leaving the hospital after speaking with Dr. Lektor. Dr. Lektor is housed in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It’s a state hospital and described in the books as very run-down, which makes sense. Will is upset in the scene, after Dr. Lektor says that they’re just alike, and you see him running down a series of ramps in the whitest, cleanest, most modern looking building ever. I watched it and never for a minute believed that it was a place that would be used to store the criminally insane. I don’t understand Michael Mann sometimes. He spends so much time establishing the bar placement in a scene but then he seems to shoot himself in the foot with gaffes like that.
What really made this movie a pleasure for me was the performances. I especially loved Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde and Stephen Lang as Freddy Lounds. Noonan really makes Dollarhyde human, with his awkwardness and tics. You feel a pity for someone who’s doing monstrous things.

There’s something so sad watching him try to form a connection with his coworker, Reba. You really want him to succeed and hopefully tame his inner demons.
Freddy Lounds’ character has about fifteen minutes of screen time but his character is a catalyst for Dollarhyde. I think he could have ignored Will Graham if it weren’t for the story that Graham and Lounds published. In fact, you don’t meet Dollarhyde until fifty-five minutes in the movie and when you do, he’s kidnapping Freddy. I think, in a movie like this, that you need moments of, maybe not levity but something that isn’t murdered families with mirror shards for eyes, and Lounds’ character provides these moments. He’s so grasping and sleazy, just a perfect encapsulation of the eighties. Not that I recall them, I was three when this movie came out.

The most important part for me, though, is that Lang takes a character that could have been a throwaway character and makes him compelling. Just like when I was watching Avatar, you watch his performance and think, “Damn, what happened to this character? Why is he like that?” Freddy Lounds is possibly the tackiest character whose brain I wanted to pick.
For me, even with its supreme eightiesness, Manhunter was a joy to watch. Well, is a joy, since it’s one of my favorite movies and one of the few thrillers that I actually like. It’s so rare that I enjoy a movie that doesn’t have zombies. I knew that this movie was good because the time flew by when I watched.
I wish that I could say the same for Red Dragon. Watching Red Dragon was like the time I was getting a root-canal at my dentist’s office. My dentist had just gotten t.v.’s installed in the rooms so I was watching a Lifetime movie. That helped take my mind off of what was happening but I was still aware of every single minute that passed. And that made me really sad because this is a movie that combines Hannibal Lecter and the power of Voldemort. This out to be the best thing since peanut butter met chocolate. At least they kept the POV shots…?

"Enthrall me with your acumen..."

Red Dragon was directed by Brett Ratner who brought all the slick fluff of the music videos that he used to direct to the movie. But that’s all Red Dragon is, lots of style and no substance. Plus, there are two twists to the ending that makes any sort of deeper message pointless. Don’t worry, I hated this movie, so you know that I will reveal what happened.
My first problem with the movie was the performances. I hate to say this about an actor that I like and respect, but Anthony Hopkins’ performance just wasn’t good. I understand that this version of Hannibal Lecter is an early incarnation. He’s just been caught and is angry. But Hopkins’ performance is so over the top, the character is just reduced to a leering fright mask. He isn’t scary and you can practically see the cogs turning in Hopkins’ head, counting the coins dropping in his retirement account. I wish that he could have channeled the quietly contained Hannibal of The Silence of the Lambs. Then, he conveyed a sense of “I will cut your face off with a pocket knife so don’t mess with me.” This performance reminded me of my theater teachers telling us that volume doesn’t equal emotion. Sometimes quietly simmering rage is scarier than yelling and pulling faces.
Ralph Fiennes, who played Francis Dollarhyde, was also disappointing. He didn’t convey menace or moral confusion, all he conveyed was crazy mixed with boringness. Red Dragon tells a lot more about Francis Dollarhyde’s back story yet I found myself caring less about him than I did in Manhunter. I have to chalk this up, in part, to Tom Noonan’s performance. He gave a character who does monstrous things a human face whereas Ralph Fiennes created the character with the broadest strokes possible.
The one performance I did prefer over the Manhunter version was Edward Norton as Will Graham. I think that Norton conveyed Graham’s boyishness better than William Peterson. I also liked that Norton’s Graham wasn’t as emotional as Peterson’s, yet he still managed to seem torn apart by his ability to understand killers.
One of the main problems with Red Dragon is how it seems like a sloppily-cribbed version of Manhunter. It makes sense that a newer movie based on the same book as a predecessor would have some similarities. As a director, you think that you would try to make your version different, try to add your own unique mark. Not every picture of sunflowers has to be Van Goh’s “Sunflowers.” But not only does Red Dragon feature dialogue lifted word for word from Manhunter–especially in the scenes involving Hannibal Lecter–but there are quite a few shots that I found to be very similar. Here’s a sampling:
You know how I talked about Francis Dollarhyde being in magenta or green lighting and posted the picture of him? Here’s Ralph Fiennes in the same scene. The lighting is very similar.

Both movies have scenes with detectives discussing Francis Dollarhyde’s teeth. Here’s a shot from Manhunter.

Now here’s a similar, but closer shot from Red Dragon.

Here’s a scene from Manhunter that has Will Graham piecing together how one of the murders looked like for Francis. It’s when he figures out why Francis puts the mirror shards in his victims’ eyes.

And now, from Red Dragon.

The most egregious problem with Red Dragon, though, is the not one, but two twists in the ending. Francis Dollarhyde has Reba, the blind woman he was courtin’, trapped in his charming home. He sets the place on fire and then shoots himself in front of her. But she’s blind, so she can’t see that. She just hears the gunshot, feels the blood splatter, and touches where Francis’ face used to live. Surprise, surprise, Francis isn’t dead. He just shot one of his and Reba’s coworkers, a guy that he thought he saw making the moves on Reba. He’d killed him earlier and saved his corpse, just in case. I guess Halloween was coming and he wanted to have something to dress as a scarecrow for his front lawn. Will Graham’s at home, recovering from not taking down the Tooth Fairy and, BAM! Turns out that Francis is there for vengeance, throwing out any chance the character might have had for some kind of redemption. But then, the worst part, the part that makes me really pissed is the film returns to Hannibal. He’s in his cell and Dr. Chilton–who came back for this movie–is there, telling Hannibal that he has a guest but he told her that Hannibal probably wouldn’t see her. Which is a shame, because she’s pretty. And Hannibal asks what her name is. My mind snapped sometime around then, I remember absolutely nothing from then to this moment. Who are you? What are you doing here?
There’s supposed to be a decade that passes between Hannibal’s incarceration and his meeting with Clarice Starling. But no, they have to find some way to tie this train-wreck to the original and it has to be all cute and winky-smiley. Holy cats, I hate that twist ending. If Red Dragon were a person, I think that I would send a preschooler to pummel it in the groin for a solid twenty minutes. It just wasn’t a good movie, is what I’m trying to say. I can’t even remember buying it. I know I saw it in theaters and I have this copy I’ve been trying to sell on but I have no clue how I came to possess it. My only explanation is that I was in some kind of fugue state where I didn’t mind handing over my hard-earned money for crap.
So, the battered and bloody winner of the match is clearly Manhunter. Skip Red Dragon altogether and just watch what the original Hannibal Lektor was like. I still can’t get over that odd spelling change.


About scarina

I like scary movies a little too much. I thought I'd share my obsession with you.
This entry was posted in 1980's, 21st century, double feature, serial killers, thriller and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Steel Cage Match of the Century

  1. Jennifer says:

    I have to say as good as Manhunter was, for some reason, I’ve always like Red Dragon better. But then I am a huge fan of Ralph Fiennes so my opinion may me biased.

    • scarina says:

      Yeah, I’m not a huge Ralph Fiennes fan, even though I honestly haven’t seen a lot of his work. Mostly Harry Potter. I love the books but I’m ambivalent about the movies so that tends to mix with my feelings about Ralph.
      The only thing I really liked better about Red Dragon was the opening scene with Hannibal, it’s the only part I sensed any menace from him. And I appreciate that they had a quiver of crossbow bolts in his office since he used a crossbow to hunt one of his victims.

  2. Fear Street says:

    The only Hannibal book I’ve read so far? *gulp* Red Dragon. Dammit. But don’t worry–I didn’t like it. The only part of the movie version I remember is the blind lady and the tiger (it WAS a tiger right?)…and Ralph Fiennes running around naked…I think? If any of that is wrong, I have no clue what I’m thinking of.

    • scarina says:

      It’s okay, I won’t judge you too harshly. j/k I think I’ll give Red Dragon another try, after I finish Contact and I, Robot.
      Your recollections are correct, Francis took Reba to touch a tiger. And Ralph Fiennes was nude a lot. Oh, and there was the most awkward hand-job scene ever committed to film.

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