Thursday, September 17, 2020

Cinema Showdown: Manhunter vs. Red Dragon

"I am the Dragon. And you call me insane. You are privy to a great becoming, but you recognize nothing. You are an ant in the afterbirth. It is your nature to do one thing correctly. Before me, you rightly tremble. But fear is not what you owe me.....You owe me awe!"

These chilling words from serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, the fearsome villain of Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon, sum up perfectly his deranged mindset and motivation for murder.  He believes that killing families and arranging them like dolls will transform him into a god.  FBI Agent Will Graham, possessing a gift for empathizing with murderers, has been assigned to chase down Dolarhyde with help from famed sociopath Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Red Dragon has twice been adapted for the screen - first in 1986 as Michael Mann's thriller Manhunter, starring William Petersen, Dennis Farina, Tom Noonan, and Brian Cox; and again in 2002 as a direct prequel to the suspense classic The Silence of the Lambs, starring Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Ralph Fiennes, and of course Anthony Hopkins.

Manhunter was met with mixed reviews and anemic box office receipts but has since become a cult favorite on home video.  Red Dragon was fast-tracked following the massive financial success of Hannibal, and itself made a hefty profit and garnered generally positive reviews.

But which version is superior?  I will assemble a case, comparing the various aspects of each film, from casting/performances to sets to music, and decide definitively which adaptation works better.  ***Note: Interestingly both directors used Dante Spinotti for cinematography.***


Will Graham: William Petersen vs. Edward Norton

***Another Note: Hugh Dancy of the TV series Hannibal is actually the best onscreen Will Graham to date, in my opinion, but I'm only discussing the two films at this time.***

Both of these actors are quite talented and, in portraying the protagonist of this story, play to their individual strengths.  Petersen plays Graham as an emotionally wounded man, just barely recovered from his former profession of tracking serial killers.  His final assignment, capturing Hannibal Lecter, left him mentally broken and he subsequently spent time in an institution to heal his own psychological scarring.  Petersen's Graham carries an overwhelming hesitancy throughout the film, as he isn't sure he is up to the task of catching one more murderer.  Edward Norton's Graham seems less emotionally affected by his run-in with Lecter; his reluctance to participate in the Tooth Fairy case is borne more out of responsibility to his family and the fact that catching Lecter almost killed him (During the opening credits we learn that Graham was in a coma for a time).  So this Graham's motivation is a bit more physical in nature than that of his counterpart.  Norton is probably a bit more business-like, Petersen is more haunted.  Both of these interpretations of the character work fine, but I'll give a slight nod to Norton because he's just a more compelling actor than Petersen.  I think Norton more cleverly carries us through the process of Graham's work (and that's partly due to the script as well) while expertly portraying an everyman we can identify with.  Petersen's Graham is so morose it's sometimes hard to like him. 

Point: Red Dragon

Jack Crawford: Dennis Farina vs. Harvey Keitel

Again we have a close battle, as both actors are accomplished character veterans who tend to more or less play the same type of role - a grizzled but likable tough guy.  They both portray Crawford in the same way, and in both cases it works fine.  But for me the definitive Jack Crawford will always be Scott Glenn, who brought a sly intellectualism to the role and made you unsure if you fully trusted Crawford.  So since neither Farina nor Keitel quite nailed the character as I prefer him, I'll call this a push. 

Point: Draw

Hannibal Lecter (Lecktor): Brian Cox vs. Anthony Hopkins

This one is not even close.  Anthony Hopkins IS Hannibal Lecter.  It is the role he was born to play, and he embodies the character so perfectly it's difficult to accept anyone else.  Is this fair to Brian Cox?  Not in the slightest.  Look, I like Brian Cox.  I think he's a fine actor, and I've enjoyed his work in other films.  But he's all wrong for Lecter.  Hannibal is supposed to be hyper-intelligent, incredibly sophisticated, and sort of otherworldly.  I found Cox to be too blue-collar for this character.  He comes across as just some guy in a jail cell, not a mad genius who can instantly get inside a person's head.  Now granted, in the novel Lecter is a pretty minor character, and for the 2002 film version they had to write additional scenes (including what was IMO an excellent prologue) to increase Hopkins' screen time, not to mention Hopkins and the filmmakers already had Lecter's rich characterization from Lambs to play off of.  So the deck is sort of stacked against Cox, but that doesn't change the fact that Cox just doesn't play Lecter as a very exceptional villain, whereas with Hopkins (a few hammy moments aside) you can't take your eyes off him. 

Point: Red Dragon

Reba McClane: Joan Allen vs. Emily Watson

Once again we have a faceoff between two very talented actors.  Both of these women have done wonderful work over the years.  This is also another case where the writing tends to make all the difference in elevating one performance over the other.  Allen isn't really given enough time to establish Reba as a three-dimensional character.  Her relationship with Dollarhyde, given several major scenes in the book, is crammed into about twenty minutes of screen time in Manhunter.  The result is a Reba character that seems like a rather desperate, horny woman who jumps on the first guy who shows her some attention.  Their first scene together essentially consists of "We've never spoken before to any real degree but can I touch your face?"  "Let me drive you home but on the way let me make this sweeping romantic gesture by letting you pet a sedated tiger."  Watson's Reba however is given adequate time to establish why she's drawn to Dolarhyde - he is shy but direct, and takes an interest in her out of a genuine sense of affection, not because she's an easy target.  Reba is clearly lonely and has somewhat low self-esteem but she also makes it clear she's not a pity case (hence why she doesn't pay Ralph Mandy much notice).  When Francis finally does take her to see the tiger they've already spent some time together so it actually feels like a touching moment.  I don't doubt that had she been given the 2002 script, Joan Allen could've pulled off a performance on par with Emily Watson's.  But that wasn't the case. 

Point: Red Dragon

Freddie Lounds: Stephen Lang vs. Philip Seymour Hoffmann

Another mismatch.  Lang's Lounds is a bit of a cartoon character, who reminds me of Dan Aykroyd's Irwin Mainway character from Saturday Night Live (the slimy toy manufacturer - "Hey kid.  Be careful: broken glass.").  Hoffmann however oozes repugnance as a dirtbag reporter who if you shook his hand you'd need a shower.  Lang is a solid character actor but he's not in the same league as PSH. 

Point: Red Dragon

Francis Dol(l)arhyde: Tom Noonan vs. Ralph Fiennes

This is largely another case of a good actor being far surpassed by a great one.  Tom Noonan has made a career of playing very believable creeps.  But overall he doesn't do it for me as a complex villain like Dolarhyde.  For one thing he's too obviously a weirdo - Dolarhyde is supposed to be a man with a normal working relationship with his fellow employees and they don't ever suspect that he's capable of murdering people.  He's also written in the novel as a somewhat handsome, physically fit guy who is so sensitive about his cleft palate that in his own mind he is hideously disfigured.  Noonan is lanky and creepy-looking, with Hulk Hogan-esque hair and a strange affinity for 80s hipster silk shirts.  Once again the writing in Manhunter hurts the character - Noonan isn't given enough time or material to adequately flesh Francis out.  He's basically never shown as a sympathetic character who's been molded into a violent maniac through a history of childhood abuse.  Fiennes' Dolarhyde on the other hand is a timid, rather pitiable man whose grandmother traumatized him so completely he hates everything about himself and believes that butchering entire families will transform him into some kind of Godlike creature.  In the company of others he seems just a shy, quirky gentleman who no one knows all that well because he keeps to himself.  But when he spends time with Reba we feel a sincere connection between them, and this makes his internal struggle with insanity that much more poignant.  He wants to overcome his violent tendencies and live a normal life, but the "dragon" has such a hold over him that he isn't strong enough to stop killing.  In Red Dragon we feel for Dolarhyde and at the same time we fear him.  In Manhunter we're just sorta weirded out by him.

Point: Red Dragon, particularly for the scene in which he captures and kills Lounds.  The 2002 version of that moment is amazingly frightening.


The sets in Manhunter are almost comically dated to the point that they aren't believable, plus they're visually very drab.  Dr. Chilton's office for example consists of bare white walls, track lighting and no visible windows.  Where is this building?  Wouldn't an asylum administrator have bookcases in his office?  Jack Crawford's office is basically the same.  Is this like a variation on "black box theater?"  Maybe "white box theater."  Lecktor's cell is also white on white and just looks like a common prison cell.  Not very befitting of Chilton's "prized asset."  The Leeds and Jacobi houses are absurdly neo-modern - who in Georgia and Alabama had designer houses like that in the mid-80s?  Finally Dollarhyde's house looks like something out of a creepy rock video, not a converted assisted-living home as it's written in the book.  In Red Dragon '02 the sets are both believable and interesting to look at; some have even a gothic flavor.  Obviously Chilton's Baltimore asylum is modeled after its appearance in Silence of the Lambs, but even the other sets are realistic and timeless. 

What a boring room to work in every day.

Wait, is this the home of a serial killer or the waiting room in a doctor's office?

Point: Red Dragon


As with the sets and wardrobe, the music (scored by Michel Rubini and The Reds) featured in Manhunter is terribly dated, featuring heavy synthesizers and really cheesy 80s rock tunes.  The final scene of the film (when Graham is reunited with his wife) has this really awful song playing over it which coupled with all the other 80s congruities in the film, makes me believe Michael Mann was specifically striving for non-timelessness.

Red Dragon on the other hand was scored by master composer Danny Elfman.  Good night.

Point: Red Dragon


Manhunter bafflingly skips the false ending of the book, where Dolarhyde apparently shoots himself only to later attack Graham in his own home.  Instead the '86 climax is your standard thriller shootout where the FBI and police descend on Dollarhyde's home as he's about to kill Reba.  The pacing here is pretty awful - he's "about to kill" Reba for seemingly fifteen minutes.  What'd he read the script?  Was he waiting to be stopped by the cops? 

The climax of the novel and the '02 version is excellent - Dolarhyde takes Graham's son Josh hostage, threatening to kill him in front of Will.  Will then rattles Dolarhyde by berating Josh for urinating himself, knowing that Dolarhyde experienced similar verbal abuse as a child, and drawing Dolarhyde's wrath away from Josh.  The effect of this exchange is both riveting and heartbreaking. 

Omitting the false ending not only robbed the movie of one of the novel's best scenes but it negated the purpose of an earlier one, when Lecter gives Dolarhyde Graham's home address via a personal newspaper ad.  The whole payoff for this is that Dolarhyde shows up at Graham's house at the end, despite being presumed dead.  By cutting that part out of the movie, Lecter's earlier actions have no consequence.

Point: Red Dragon


I guess it kinda seems like I'm dumping on Mann's film here.  Look, it's a well-made 80s thriller, but it's not quite worthy of Thomas Harris's wonderful novel.  The depth of many of the characters is lost, the script doesn't supply enough meat for the accomplished cast to sink their teeth into, the music is so trite and dated it destroys the mood rather than enhancing it, and the sets simply don't look like places real people would ever occupy.

I've read several online comparisons between these two films that claim Manhunter is infinitely better than its 2002 counterpart, and I'm honestly bewildered by the notion.  I think this line of thinking is at least somewhat rooted in the level of respect each director currently holds.  Michael Mann is widely considered a groundbreaking, virtuosic auteur who specializes in creating taut, spellbinding thrillers.  Brett Ratner is widely considered a hack copycat who specializes in taking over film franchises pioneered by superior filmmakers.  To be sure, when making Red Dragon Ratner had the advantage of standing on the wide shoulders of Jonathan Demme and Ted Tally, duplicating much of the magic they created in Lambs.  Mann however had to adapt this story from scratch.  But that doesn't change the fact that Red Dragon is truer to the source material, features a stronger cast, and is absolutely captivating from start to finish, whereas Manhunter only half-manages to get the story across and is distracting in its outmodedness.
There is however one amazing scene in Manhunter, where Will and his son are walking through the supermarket cereal aisle, and behind them we see rows and rows of awesome breakfast cereals from my youth.  Crispy Wheats & Raisins, Life, Froot Loops with only red, orange & yellow (and a full day's supply of Vitamin C), S'Mores Crunch, Mr. T, Body Buddies......Wow.  This is one of the finest moments in cinema history.

God I miss this cereal.....

So what do you think?  Sound off in the Comments section below!

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