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Director Spotlight: The Hannibal Filmmakers

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February 8, 2007

When Michael Mann decided to take on Thomas Harris' novel "Red Dragon", he was primarily known as the creator of TV's "Miami Vice". Few had heard of "Hannibal the Cannibal", William Peterson was an unknown actor and the title of the film was changed to Manhunter, out of fear that audiences would confuse it with Michael Cinimo's Year of the Dragon. What a difference 20 years makes.

February 8 - The Hannibal Filmmakers

Michael MannMichael Mann brought his glossy, brooding style to Harris' novel with Manhunter (1986), a much-loved 1986 cult film that was under looked in theaters but became a favorite on video and on cable TV. William Peterson, in a first-run of his "CSI" character, played Will Graham, the obsessed serial killer tracker who turns to a criminal he captured, Hannibal Lecter (played by Brian Cox), in order to outthink a madman on the loose, known as The Tooth Fairy (played by a scary Tom Noonan, of "The Monster Squad" fame). While appreciated now when compared with the rest of Mann's work (the way fans of David Fincher gave Alien 3 a second look after his career took off), the result is one of Mann's most overrated works. While tense and well crafted, the look of the film is dated and lots of loose ends subside (result of trimming Harris's novel). Still a good film, but best with lowered expectations.

Jonathan DemmePrior to The Silence of the Lambs (1991), director Jonathan Demme was best known for his wildly quirky, highly energized, farcical comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob. Those previous triumphs displayed a unique touch at comedy but didn't make Demme an obvious (or arguably appropriate) choice to take on a grisly thriller. At worst, his take on Harris' novel, the second dealing with "Hannibal the Cannibal", is utterly low-key (so much that the suspense is muted at times). At best it is, pardon the pun, tasteful (the violence is more psychological than graphic), well-paced, well-produced and cannily acted. It introduced Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, making an enormous impression, unlike Brian Cox's forgettable if not completely different take on the role in Manhunter. Hopkins' performance, one of the most celebrated and terrifying of the 90's, made him an international star (after years as a well-regarded theater actor and sometime film actor). Its interesting to think that Gene Hackman was once set to play the part, alongside Debra Winger as Clarice Starling (who would've been a better choice than Jodie Foster, in one of her most overrated performances). The film struck a chord in America, as it opened around a period of serial killer-chic, with the controversial release of Brett Easton Ellis' novel "American Psycho" and the shocking tales of Jeffrey Dahmer being the hottest news stories of the day. Now, like Manhunter, it's an expertly made, quaint and over-loved thriller.

Ridley ScottAfter years of speculation and failed attempts at reassembling Demme and his original cast, Ridley Scott stepped in to direct the ten-years-later sequel, Hannibal (2001). The film brought back Hopkins as Hannibal, reprising his Academy-award winning performance, had Julianne Moore as Starling and was a box-office blockbuster. Harris' novel was a fun read, though loaded with outrageous, even grotesque imagery, many of which actually made it into the film. Following Scott's award-winning comeback, Gladiator, he was the top choice to direct this much-hyped film, which doesn't hold up very well at all. Though visually opulent (like all Scott films), Scott seems to be as good a fit to direct this as he was for A Good Year from 2006. Demme's suggestive touch with violence is sorely missed as is also his ability to build tension. Hannibal has some memorable set pieces (the dinner scene is a campy, gross-out classic) but is a slow slog through some unpleasant, empty material. It's fun to see Lecter unleashed in society, but the tone for the film seems off from the start. Scott is superb with action and style, but shaky with the rambling narrative and fails at attempting black comedy.

Brett RatnerFollowing the enormous U.S. and international success of Hannibal, producer Dino de Laurentiis decided to make a remake of Manhunter that was more faithful to the novel, "Red Dragon". The decision to do so was controversial (most critics and fans of Manhunter didn't see the point of doing it again) but the resulting film, titled this time Red Dragon (2002), is undeniably more faithful to the Harris novel than Mann's film. Brett Ratner ended up directing it, which further enraged some - he does an admirably workman-like job, but his lack of style is evident. The cast is top notch, with Edward Norton quite good as Graham (though he doesn't come close to how good Peterson was in Manhunter), Hopkins very enjoyable (and over-the-top) in his third take on Lecter, and Ralph Fiennes very affecting as The Tooth Fairy. You can't help comparing it to Manhunter and, while that film has considerable positives, Red Dragon wins it out by a hair. In terms of recreating the gothic thriller Harris originally envisioned, Red Dragon is the most faithful of all the Lecter films.

Peter WebberPeter Webber's helming of Hannibal Rising marks another talented visual stylist taking on the gruesome franchise. Looking at the directors who've taken on the series so far, Mann's film was an early sign of things to come, Demme's film was a career milestone that he hasn't topped since (Philadelphia being the one exception), Scott's film is entertaining but not great and Ratner's film is better than anyone expected. Personally, Red Dragon, which is the least gory, most story-driven and best cast of the four, is my own personal favorite. The others seem uneven to me - In Silence, I found Scott Glenn more compelling than Jodie Foster, Gary Oldman better than everyone else in Hannibal, and I think Dragon is the only one that works scene-for-scene. For fans of Silence - did we really need so much of Buffalo Bill ("It puts the lotion in the basket!")? For Manhunter fans - lots of little scenes and subplots (the scene with Graham and son in the supermarket and The Tooth Fairy romance) were more emotionally involving than the central plotline.

Then again, as always, my opinion is entirely arguable. What's undeniable is that these four films gave us visually dynamic and entirely different takes on a real cinematic monster, comparable to how the four Alien films showcased different directors and their strengths. Like that series, the Hannibal films are much-loved, often debated on their merits, and are undeniably modern day film classics.

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