MANHUNTER VS. RED DRAGON

WE GAZE INTO THE ABYSS…

Let’s compare a few scenes.

Of particular interest is the one where we learn how Will Graham caught Hannibal Lecter. Both movies give the same overall information to the audience, but each of them uses a completely different technique to do so.

In “Red Dragon” this scene comes a few minutes into the movie and is shown in loving detail. We witness pre-jail Lecter in his full glory getting a visit from Graham late at night. Seems the good doctor and the FBI agent have been collaborating on a case involving cannibalism and Graham’s just had an epiphany about why the murderer seems to be collecting body parts. At this point he doesn’t suspect Lecter, but we can tell by Hopkin’s acting that Lecter knows he will soon be questioned for much more than advice. He excuses himself for a moment and Graham is left alone in the room. While he waits the agent’s eyes wander over to a cookbook, inside are notes about how to prepare sweetmeats. This moment just feels ridiculous. We, the audience, are supposed to gasp at Graham’s insight; but come on… he was talking about the killer being a cannibal and now he sees a cookbook, it couldn’t have been more obvious if Lecter had left a bloody knife on his desk. It shouldn’t work at all, but Ratner, Norton and Hopkins’ combined efforts make this silly moment painless at least. After Graham does that “OH MY GOD!” face (another really bad idea), Lecter attacks him and a gruesome sequence with way too much gunplay and stabbing follows. Still, until Graham sees that damn cookbook it was coming along fine. And even after, it’s not that bad.

But Michael Mann had a better idea.

In “Manhunter” the equivalent of this scene comes about an hour and ten minutes into the film; and instead of being visual, it’s narrated. After the Tooth Fairy has been given his home address by Lecter, Graham and his family are sent into police protection. When they arrive at the new house Will notices that his son is scared to leave him alone with his mother. When he asks his wife what’s wrong with the boy, she tells him that he saw the tabloid article that talked about Graham being sent to a mental hospital. Now he isn’t sure he trusts his dad anymore. “I wanted to talk to him about it; but he said he wanted to bring it up to you, face to face.” She says. “Good for him.” Graham tells her, and then takes his son shopping so they can talk.

At the store, the boy works up the courage to ask him about what happened; and Graham tells him that he was investigating Lecktor as a suspect in a string of college girl killings. One of the girls was his patient. As he interviewed the Doctor in his office, Graham looked up and saw a book about war wounds in the library, and knew it was him. He just knew. Graham then went to call the police but Lecktor attacked him, wounding him badly. We can surmise that the events are similar to what we see in “Red Dragon”.

Mann isn’t interested in that though, it’s barely mentioned, what interests him is what came after.

You see, once Graham recovered, he still had Lecktor’s thoughts in his head. “The way you thought felt that bad?” His son asks him; and Graham manages to say, “They’re the ugliest thoughts in the world.” before having to turn away so his son won’t see him cry.

I love how Petersen did the scene. You never see a tear, but you just KNOW he’s crying. It’s one of those perfect moments.

“Manhunter”‘s method is the superior version. It’s subtler for one, but more importantly it reinforces Graham’s attachment to his family and offers drama (Graham’s son is afraid of him and needs reassurance) it also gives a good idea about how Graham finds these killers. Another thing is that the placement of this scene so late in the film heightens its importance in Graham’s psyche. We keep hearing bits and pieces of what happened between him and Lecktor but never know what it was until the moment when he tells his son. By this time, it’s been built up so much that we share Graham’s release in telling his son the truth. So it’s not just functioning as information for the audience but as a bit of character development.

“Red Dragon”‘s scene is by no means weak, but it just doesn’t have the overall elegance that “Manhunter” has in dealing with the same material.

What else?

There’s the scene where a “Fan Letter” written by Tooth Fairy/Dolarhyde has been found in Lecter’s cell. In it he tells Lecter that he can reply via coded message in a tabloid. Since all of Lecter’s mail in intercepted the FBI could easily substitute their own message when he sends out the reply, but the problem is that they don’t know the code that’s supposed to be used. So Graham and Crawford wrestle over whether or not to let the Doctor’s coded message go out without knowing what it says.

In both films, Crawford asks the same question: “What if this encourages the Tooth Fairy to do something besides write?”

In “Red Dragon” Will says: “I don’t like this any better than you, but it’s our best shot.”
In “Manhunter” Will says: “Then we’ll all feel sick for a very long time.”

Kind of obvious which one works best isn’t it? “Red Dragon”‘s reply is straight out of the big book of flippant clichés and “Manhunter”‘s gives us a look into Graham’s conflicting thoughts on the matter.

My favorite though is the one where Graham and his wife have a bedside conversation about him rejoining the FBI temporarily to find the tooth fairy killer. She doesn’t want him to go, but also knows that it’s an impossible request and admits it’s selfish of her to even ask. This introspection is all but absent in a similar type of scene in “Red Dragon”. Instead of an honest conversation between two adults who have been married for years, we have the standard “Wife is furious at cop husband and begs him to stay” moment. Tally is much too smart to let the scene devolve into cliché and Ratner follows his lead by not dwelling for too long on that moment, but Mann’s way of doing it is again superior. He understands that a movie lives or dies by how the audience can ultimately identify with the characters. If there’s no connection, there’s no movie. The best way to achieve this is to have dialogue where the audience goes “Yeah, that’s almost real!”

Lastly, let’s examine one of my favorite moments of insight into Will Graham’s character, which is sadly missing from “Red Dragon”. In “Manhunter”, Graham is terrified of Lecktor and of what seeing him again might do to his mind but goes anyway, not because he feels the Doctor has anything to say but because he wants to get into the old serial killer mindset. This nuance is all but gone in “Red Dragon”. Instead we get a very lame explanation that Lecter and Graham had solved cases together and Graham’s boss feels that he needs Lecter’s input to solve the Tooth Fairy murders. This smells like producer’s interference (much like the opening scene with the cookbook). What’s sad is that it would have worked just as well with a mainstream audience if they’d kept the complexity. One of the first rules of writing is “Never Dumb It Down” because even if your audience doesn’t “get” it, they won’t notice. It’ll go over their heads. So you win with both the smart and dumb crowd. Good advice IMO.

…AND THE ABYSS GAZES BACK

One major positive aspect of the remake is how different it feels from the original even though it covers much of the same ground. It took me a while to figure out why this was, but I think I have it. You see, both movies have completely different perspectives. “Manhunter” focuses almost exclusively on Will Graham, Lecktor getting maybe three scenes and Dollarhyde a few more. “Red Dragon”, on the other hand, gives Graham and Dolarhyde equal attention. With Lecter getting a lot less screen time than I expected. (I was sure that the producers would have tried turning the remake into “Lecter Goes Bananas” but Tally’s screenplay is incredibly clever, showing us more Lecter than the original but structuring his appearances in such a way that it’s as unobtrusive to the story as possible.) So both movies feel different because, even though they have the same story and plot, they focus on the characters from different angles; thus you see something new in each version.

These are two excellent interpretations and choosing the “best” one is like trying to pick between gifted children, impossible. They’re not equal and I have a marked preference towards the original, but the differences are so subtle that no two of you out there are going to agree with my choice and why I chose it. One thing I hope people realize is that, even though I’ve spent most of the this article saying that “Red Dragon” wasn’t as good as “Manhunter”, the differences between the two are so tiny at times that it took a lot of fucking contemplation for me to figure out which one did it better.

I like Mann’s version more because it’s hypnotic and wholly exists within a fictitious version of the 80′s where everything and everyone looks like they came out of a new wave nightclub. I like how Mann put Will Graham to the forefront and fleshed him out first before showing his obsessive-compulsive side. I like how Petersen played the character as reluctant because he knows there’s a part of him that’s very much like the people he hunts; and despises himself for that. And I like how Graham and his family are always the main characters whether or not they’re on the screen. Mann’s experience with fragmented storytelling in “Miami Vice” pays off here.

Likewise, I like how “Red Dragon” made Francis Dolarhyde into a whole person instead of a hulking menace with little or no personality. I also liked how Graham’s hatred for Freddie Lounds is explored further. Lounds took pictures of Graham after he caught Lecter and was still in the hospital, and Will despises him. Even so, they use Lounds and his tabloid to try and provoke the Tooth Fairy (knowing that he’ll read it) with swipes at Dolarhyde’s sexuality; causing him to go after Lounds and burn him to death. In “Manhunter”, it’s glossed over but in “Red Dragon” we get the very definite sense that Graham subconsciously allowed Lounds to set himself up to be murdered. When arguing with Crawford about trying to piece together the reporter’s murder Graham says: “Lounds? That was just a bonus.” And I’m not too sure if he meant it was a bonus for the Tooth Fairy.

The lasting impression I get from each film is that Mann made an Art Deco version of the novel with intricately written characters and that Ratner made a Lecter movie that finds itself in the unfortunate position of being too hollywoodish for my tastes. The “Red Dragon” ending is one of those “The killer’s not dead!” twists and it’s too much. It didn’t work in the book and doesn’t work here. Mann’s ending may look right out of “Miami Vice”, but it avoids the clichés. It would have worked even better had Mann added the director’s cut scene where Graham goes to see the family who were next on Tooth Fairy’s list into the theatrical version. Its not even 5 minutes long, but incredibly powerful. I can’t imagine what possessed him remove it.

One last thing, hiring the same cinematographer used in “Manhunter” to work on “Red Dragon” was a stroke of genius. Dante Spinotti effectively merges the look of “Manhunter” with the style of “Silence of the Lambs”, reusing camera angles for important scenes; like when Graham and Crawford talk on the beach at the beginning of the movie, or when Dollarhyde unveils himself to Freddie Lounds. Movies are primarily visual and it’s amazing how similar cinematography can make two films feel identical despite the actors, screenplay and direction being different. Spinotti, more than anything, makes “Red Dragon” feel like a natural evolution of “Manhunter”; and that, more than anything else, is why the remake worked for me.

Remakes offer a unique experience to understand the craft of filmmaking. You have two different films based on the same story and ideas; two different cast and crews, two different levels of talent, two different points of view. More often than not, one of these films is quite good, and the other is terrible. By comparing the two we can analyze where one went right and the other went wrong.

Have your own VS. match at Back Talk>>>




Posted on April 6, 2005 in Features by
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