Movie Review: Manhunter vs. Red Dragon

Director Michael Mann’s Manhunter is among my favorite movies; this 1986 release was the first film based on Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon. The studio opted not to use Harris’ title because at that time his books were not as well known and they were afraid people would think it was a kung fu movie.

Those of you who’ve seen the more recent Brett Ratner/Ted Tally adaptation Red Dragon know the basic plot. Serial killer Francis Dollarhyde is slaughtering entire families to create grisly fantasy tableaus to “do as God does” and become the godlike dragon from the William Blake’s painting “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed With The Sun” and overcome his powerless past. Retired detective Will Graham (who has the uncanny ability to put himself in the mindset of the killers he’s tracked) is enlisted to find the killer, whom the police have nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy” because of the impressive bite marks he leaves on his victims. Graham retired because of the physical and mental damage he sustained in discovering and capturing the serial-killing, cannibalistic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, and as he sets out on his search for The Tooth Fairy, he seeks advice from his old nemesis in the mental hospital.

This movie is exceedingly watchable in part because of Mann’s directorial style, but also because of the excellent performances by William L. Petersen as Will Graham, Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter and Tom Noonan as Dollarhyde. This is easily character actor Noonan’s most memorable performace, and he is one of the creepiest, freakiest villains to come out of 1980s cinema. The scene where Dollarhyde confronts the tabloid reporter he’s kidnapped and strapped into an antique wheelchair, forces him to read a letter of apology into a tape recorder, then bites the terrified man’s tongue out is something to behold. But the scene right after it in which we see the reporter set on fire and rolling down a parking garage ramp is an image that will stay with you for a long time; they couldn’t top this scene in Red Dragon, and they didn’t really try.

And the soundtrack, my friends, does not suck (well, okay, the closing song “Heartbeat” is rather painful, but the rest’s quite decent). The use of Shriekback‘s atmospheric, seductive instrumental “Coelacanth” in the scene where blind Reba caresses the tiger Dollarhyde’s taken her to see is just perfect. So is The Prime Movers’ “Strong As I Am” as the sad, seething Dollarhyde watches Reba saying goodnight to the doomed coworker who took her home. And nobody, and I mean nobody I’ve met who’s intently watched the climactic final battle between Dollarhyde and Graham can listen to Iron Butterfly‘s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” again without thinking about the movie.

Comparing Manhunter and Red Dragon

When I and my housemates (who are even bigger Manhunter fans than I am) learned of the 2002 Red Dragon adaptation, we bitched. God, did we bitch and moan and gnash our teeth. Manhunter had gone without the audience and box office money it deserved, and now they were using Anthony Hopkins and an all-star cast to remake a movie that didn’t need remaking?

We cynically believed they were only doing the new adaptation so they could release Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon as a DVD trilogy with Hopkins as Hannibal and the movie refilmed with the same dark, dungeonlike tones as Silence and Hannibal (Manhunter is mostly shot in bright tones, and the psychiatric prison where Lecter is kept is a white, antiseptic institution).

So I was prepared to dislike Red Dragon on general principle, and avoided seeing it in theaters. However, when I finally saw it on DVD, once I stopped grumbling about it I thoroughly enjoyed it. Both are very worthwhile movies with different strengths and weaknesses.

Red Dragon is indeed visually a much darker movie, though interestingly cinematographer Dante Spinotti filmed both Manhunter and Red Dragon, so it’s worth watching both movies as a comparison if you’re interested in moviemaking. Lecter’s prison is once again the dark, stony dungeon modern audiences have come to know. The open, arty house of Manhunter‘s Dollarhyde has been replaced with the gothic Dollarhyde mansion of Harris’ novel.

Red Dragon is more faithful to the plot Harris’ novel, and for that I’ve got to give it big kudos. In Red Dragon we get to see more of Dollarhyde and his history as well as seeing the original, fateful confrontation between Graham and Lecter.

I had my doubts about Ralph Fiennes playing Dollarhyde. Fiennes is handsome and slightly built, whereas Noonan is imposingly tall. How could anyone believe Fiennes as Dollarhyde? The movie does well to show the effects of child abuse on Dollarhyde, and to show that his perception of himself as ugly and unloveable is largely in his own mind. Fiennes does a great job and overcomes his apparent miscasting.

Edward Norton, unfortunately, does not overcome his mis-casting. Norton is one of my favorite actors, but he was just not the right choice to play Graham. Petersen’s performance was right the first time, and Norton could never make me stop wishing he were Petersen. Philip Seymour Hoffman was surprisingly unremarkable as reporter Freddy Lounds. And Anthony Hopkin’s hammy performance made me pine for the subtle menace of Brian Cox’s Lecter.

The female actors, on the other hand, are uniform improvements in Red Dragon. With the reversion of the plot to that of the book, Molly Graham has a much more pivotal role, and Mary-Louise Parker delivers a performance Kim Griest could not. And Emily Watson shines as the blind Reba McClane; she was the one perfectly-cast character in the bunch.

DVD, DVD, Which DVD?

There have been three DVD releases of Manhunter: the plain one-disk release, the two disk Limited Edition set, and the recent one-disk Restored Director’s Cut Divimax Edition.

I’ve seen them all, and can confidently say that the Restored Director’s Cut Divimax Edition is not worth the money. While some cut scenes have been restored, they don’t add that much to the movie. And the final fight scene has been recut in a manner that isn’t nearly as good as the versions on the other DVDs. If you have the money to spend and really enjoy the film, the two-disk set is the way to go. Otherwise, you’ll do fine picking up the plain-jane release that you can find in bargain bins here and there.

Aggravatingly enough, none of the supposedly definitive DVD releases contain an important scene in which Graham talks about Dollarhyde and the effect child abuse had on him. His dialog goes something like this: “This man wasn’t born a monster; he was made one. And while I cry for the child who suffered so much, the rest of me wants to blow the sick fuck out of his socks.” Another point for Red Dragon is that it does contain a scene with a version of this speech, which I and others feel is pivotal for understanding Dollarhyde’s character and Graham’s insights.

This review first appeared in Full Unit Hookup.

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