Enter the dragon

 

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

 

I lately read Red Dragon, the 1981 thriller by Thomas Harris.   It’s the first of Harris’s novels to feature the super-intelligent, polylingual, opera-loving, gourmet-cooking, serial-killing psychiatrist and cannibal Dr Hannibal Lecter.

 

Harris’s second Lecter novel Silence of the Lambs (1988) was the one that turned Lecter into a flesh-munching cultural icon – especially when movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis had it filmed in 1991 with Jonathan Demme directing and Anthony Hopkins giving an Oscar-winning performance as the hungry psychiatrist.  However, though Silence is the best-known of Harris’s titles thanks to the popular and critical success of the 1991 movie version, that’s the only time it’s been filmed.  Red Dragon, on the other hand, has been adapted for the cinema and TV three times.

 

Firstly, in 1986, before Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter caught the public imagination, Michael Mann directed a movie version of Red Dragon for De Laurentiis.  Retitled Manhunter, it didn’t do well at the box office and received mixed reviews, though it’s been reappraised and is regarded now as a 1980s classic.

 

In 2002, De Laurentiis unveiled a new cinematic version of Red Dragon, called Red Dragon this time, directed by the now-disgraced Brett Ratner and with Hopkins again in the role of Lecter.  This came just one year after the indefatigable De Laurentiis had brought Hopkins back for a movie adaptation of Harris’s third Lecter novel Hannibal (1999).  Presumably the haste to film Hannibal and refilm Red Dragon was because by this time Hopkins was in his mid-sixties and De Laurentiis knew that if he wanted to get any more mileage out of him as a credible, non-geriatric cannibal, it was now or never.

 

After 2002, with Hopkins retired from the role, all was quiet on the Lecter front for a while.  Well, apart from a crappy ‘origins’ movie called Hannibal Rising, starring Gaspard Ulliel in the title role, released in 2007 and based on a fourth Lecter novel Harris had published the previous year.

 

Then, from 2013 to 2015, NBC aired three seasons and 39 episodes of a TV show called Hannibal, which was produced in part by De Laurentiis’ production company.  By now old Dino himself had departed for the great studio in the sky, but his wife Martha was still around to act as executive producer.  The show was supposedly based on Red Dragon, though it didn’t cover the main plot of the novel until late in its third and final season.

 

But enough of the movie and TV adaptations.  What did I make of the original 36-year-old novel that started the whole Hannibal hoo-ha in the first place?

 

© Arrow Books

 

Admittedly, Harris’s prose will never win awards for literary stylishness, but it’s impressively terse and efficient and it expertly tells the story.  In fact, I found Red Dragon compelling and finished it in three days – and that’s despite me knowing the plot inside-out, having been exposed to it already in the films and TV show.

 

First, a quick recap of that plot – be warned that from here on there are many spoilers.  Former FBI profiler Will Graham is coaxed out of retirement by his former boss Jack Crawford and sent to investigate a serial killer called the Tooth Fairy, who butchers well-to-do suburban families on nights of the full moon and does unspeakable, ritualistic things with their corpses.

 

Graham is understandably reluctant to return to his old job.  For one thing, he has unnaturally-acute powers of empathy – one symptom being a habit whereby “in intense conversations Graham took on the other person’s speech patterns.”   Such empathy has practical applications in that Graham is very good at projecting himself into the minds of psychopaths: “…you have to take whatever evidence you have and extrapolate,” he explains.  “You try to reconstruct his thinking.  You try to find patterns.”  This helps him to track down serial killers, but the disadvantage is that it seriously f**ks his head.

 

For another thing, the last serial killer he caught was one Dr Hannibal Lecter, who nearly gutted him ‘with a linoleum knife’ before going down.

 

Eleven pages in, Graham sets to work and the rest of the novel details his hunt for the Tooth Fairy.  We’re treated to several sub-plots.  We meet the Tooth Fairy himself, the tormented Francis Dolarhyde, who suffered a brutal and miserable childhood partly on account of his having a cleft lip and palate.  These were later repaired but Dolarhyde still believes himself to be disfigured.  Thanks to an unhealthy obsession with the William Blake painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, Dolarhyde also believes himself to be in the process of ‘becoming’, i.e. metamorphosising from his weak, imperfect human self into a powerful being called the Red Dragon, tattooed images of which he has slathered over his body.  Dolarhyde sees his murders as a way of facilitating this transformation.  Then, however, he unwittingly befriends a blind woman called Reba McClane at his workplace.  He falls in love with Reba, which poses an obstacle to the transformation process and brings the human and dragon sides of his personality into conflict.

 

Another sub-plot involves a scheme by Graham and Crawford to spring a trap for the Tooth Fairy, using Graham as bait.  They get sleazy scumbag tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds to write a newspaper feature about the murders that quotes Graham saying some derogatory things about the Tooth Fairy’s sexuality.  The plan backfires – horribly, as far as Lounds is concerned.

 

And finally, there’s a sub-plot wherein Graham consults an old acquaintance for some insight into the Tooth Fairy’s personality.  He visits Lecter, now incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane under the supervision of the amusingly vain and incompetent Dr Frederick Chilton.  Lecter is all too happy to play mind games when he meets his old nemesis (“Do you dream much, Will?”) but agrees to look over the case files.  (“This is a very shy boy, Will.  I’d love to meet him…”)  Later, the resourceful Lecter manages to establish a line of communication with the Tooth Fairy and thoughtfully passes on the address of Graham’s family.

 

One thing that impresses is the detail Harris puts into his accounts of police, FBI and forensic procedures while Graham and Crawford conduct their manhunt.  No wonder there was a six-year gap between Red Dragon and Harris’s previous novel, the terrorist thriller Black Sunday (1975) – the amount of research he did must have been massive.  What makes Red Dragon interesting from a historical point of view is that the forensic science described here doesn’t mention DNA – for DNA profiling only became a thing in 1984, thanks to the work of Sir Alec Jeffreys.  Could you write Red Dragon today and realistically incorporate the same incidents, twists and dynamics into its plot?  I doubt it.

 

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

 

It’s fascinating to compare the book, its two cinematic incarnations and its one TV incarnation.  Seen now, Manhunter is strikingly different from the full-bloodedly gothic adaptations of Harris’s novels that came later.  Clearly, Michael Mann doesn’t think he’s making a horror film – which is fair enough, considering that in 1986 Hannibal Lecter had yet to find fame as a bite-your-face-off horror icon.  Instead, the story is treated as a police-procedural thriller, albeit a very grim one.

 

Manhunter is also highly stylised and has an icy visual and aural glaze.  The distinctive lighting / colour palette includes blues for Graham (William Petersen) and his family, greens and purples for Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), and stark, sterile whites for Lecter (Brian Cox) in his cell – which is far from the dark, dungeon-like place it’s depicted as in later movies.  There’s also a synth-dominated soundtrack that depending on your view of 1980s music you’ll either find amazing or deeply annoying.

 

Mann omits a few parts of the novel that, presumably, he found too hokey.  These include a sequence where Dolarhyde bluffs his way into the archives of the Brooklyn Museum, finds the original The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun and eats it – the painting is only 44 x 35 centimetres so yes, eating it is just about possible.  Mann also eschews the novel’s twist ending (which won’t fool anyone who’s ever seen more than three horror films) and finishes things with a straightforward shootout.

 

Fans of the Anthony Hopkins movies may be disappointed to discover that Lecter isn’t in Manhunter that much.  His only scene with Graham is when the latter visits his cell, though there’s a later sequence where they converse by phone.  Mind you, that’s more direct contact than they get in the book, for after their initial meeting Harris restricts Lecter’s communications with Graham to a couple of mocking letters.  Their face-to-face encounter in Manhunter is very effective.  It uses much of Harris’s original dialogue, although it leaves out one amusing line where Lecter describes Chilton’s attempts to psycho-analyse him as fumbling “at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle.”

 

The Dundonian actor Brian Cox makes a down-to-earth but creepily intense Lecter.  There’s little of the knowing, playing-to-the-gallery relish that Hopkins brought later.  Cox is said to have based his portrayal on the Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel, who had such a conceit of himself that he conducted his own defence during his trial in 1958.

 

© Universal Productions / Imagine Corporation

© Universal Productions / Imagine Corporation

 

The makers of the 2002 Red Dragon claimed they’d filmed a more faithful version of Harris’s novel than Mann had.  Accordingly, the scene where Dolarhyde eats the painting and the twist ending are re-instated.  But this Red Dragon actually differs from the book in that – surprise! – we get a lot more of Lecter.  There are additional scenes between him and Graham (Edward Norton), plus ones where he puts the wind up the hapless Chilton (Anthony Heald).  By 2002, Hopkins’ Lecter had become such a fixture of popular culture that all the Welsh actor could do was portray him as a loveable bogeyman – which he does entertainingly enough.  Still, the film’s prologue, another extra scene that shows how Graham caught Lecter in the first place, carries a genuine chill.

 

I recently watched Red Dragon and found it better than I’d expected.  But compared to Manhunter it’s something of a dud.  Certain details annoy me, like how it’s set in 1980 but uses some anachronistic DNA testing to facilitate a sudden plot twist; or how the role of Graham’s wife (Mary-Louise Parker) is reduced during the climax.  In the book, she saves the day.  More importantly, sequences that looked impressively cinematic in Manhunter, such as when Dolarhyde returns Freddie Lounds to the authorities in a grisly fashion or when he treats the blind Reba to a zoo-visit so that she can feel the body of a sedated tiger, are done flatly and disappointingly.  I particularly disliked how director Ratner depicted Graham’s unsettling powers.  We see him contemplating some photos from a crime scene and suddenly – zap! – there’s a cheap horror-movie jump-cut of some creepy dolls.  The first episode of the TV show Hannibal shows how Graham’s mind works in a much more imaginative and disturbing way.

 

Red Dragon has the most prestigious cast of any Lecter movie – Hopkins, Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson – but some performances are problematic.  As Dolarhyde, Fiennes captures the sad, human side of the monster, but despite being a six-footer he doesn’t have the physicality that made the towering Tom Noonan so frightening in the previous adaptation.  Meanwhile, Ed Norton makes a very drab Will Graham.  Beyond the fact that he looks tired all the time, there’s little suggestion of the pressure his empathetic ability / curse puts on his sanity.  William Petersen conveyed this much better in Manhunter.

 

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

 

Downplaying the fragility of Will Graham is something that the flamboyant and daring TV show Hannibal can’t be accused of.  Indeed, viewers spend its three seasons wondering if the rumpled, tortured Graham (Hugh Dancy) is going to flip and become as evil as the human monsters he’s been tracking.  Pushing him along this road to ruin is his relationship with the suave, sardonic Lecter (Danish heartthrob Mads Mikkelsen), which goes well beyond the adversarial one depicted in the book and movies.  It’s a relationship of dark fascination, crossing over into the homo-erotic.

 

During Hannibal’s run, showrunner Bryan Fuller had great fun tampering with the conventions established by the books and films.  For instance, though in Harris’s chronology the 1999 novel Hannibal comes two books after Red Dragon, by the time the TV show tackled Red Dragon it’d already dramatised most of the events in Hannibal-the-novel.  (For copyright reasons, Fuller was unable to use anything from Silence of the Lambs.)  Still, when it comes, a surprising amount of Red Dragon remains intact in the show – including Dolarhyde’s eating of the painting, his unlikely courtship of Reba McClane (Rutina Wesley) and the failed attempt by Graham and Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to taunt him into a trap.  This time Dolarhyde’s boots are filled by Richard Armitage, who despite being best-known for playing a dwarf in The Hobbit movies (2012-14) makes an imposing killer.

 

Given the gleefully overwrought nature of the show, though, it’s no surprise that Fuller veers away from the novel for the story’s climax, which also serves as the climax of Hannibal’s last-ever episode.  Here, Lecter’s wish is granted and he gets to meet this ‘very shy boy’.  Fuller has the urbane cannibal escape from captivity and join forces with Graham at a storm-lashed clifftop mansion, where they take on Dolarhyde in a bloody, slow-motion and, yes, homo-erotic battle to the death.  All this while Siouxsie Sioux sings a song called Love Crime on the soundtrack…

 

I don’t know if Thomas Harris ever saw this episode.  I’d like to think that, if he did, he was rolling his eyes and shaking his head – but at the same time grinning with admiration at Bryan Fuller’s audacity.

 

From fineartamerica.com

 

The fickleness of acting fame

 

(c) Reynolds Pictures, Inc

 

The actor Gregory Walcott, who died a week ago at the age of 87, was hardly a household name.  But in a fickle profession – I’ll wager that 99.9% of all actors and actresses never win any degree of fame or recognition at all – he had a pretty good innings.

 

Between the 1960s and 1980s he made guest appearances on a slew of American TV shows that I remember well, if not always fondly, from my childhood and teens – western ones (Rawhide, Bonanza, The High Chaparral, Alias Smith and Jones, The Quest), cop ones (Kojak, McCloud, Barnaby Jones, Baretta, CHiPs, Vega$) and science-fiction ones (The Invisible Man, The Gemini Man, Land of the Lost, The Six Million Dollar Man).  He also turned up in those two big-haired, big-moneyed super-soap-operas that were an inescapable feature of Ronald Reagan-era TV, Dallas and Dynasty.

 

Cinematically, Walcott appeared in the supporting casts of several Clint Eastwood movies back when Big Clint was in his prime (and before he became better known for talking to empty chairs at Republican Party conferences).  These were Joe Kidd (1972), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975) and Every Which Way but Loose (1978).  Also, Walcott got to work with legendary director John Ford in 1955’s Mister Roberts; and in 1974 he appeared in The Sugarland Express, which was directed by a young, barely-started-shaving Steven Spielberg.

 

However, when Walcott’s obituaries appeared a few days ago, it wasn’t his extensive TV work or his associations with Eastwood, Ford and Spielberg that received attention.  No, the item in Walcott’s CV that the obituarists focused on was a low-budget science-fiction film that he’d made in 1956: a film whose script he considered to be ‘gibberish’ but which he went ahead and starred in as a favour to a friend, Ed Reynolds, who was the film’s executive producer.  Initially, Walcott wasn’t bothered about making this unpromising-sounding film and possibly damaging his acting reputation as a consequence.  He assumed it would sink without trace.  “I honestly thought,” he told an interviewer later, “it would only be shown out in the boondocks and no-one would ever see it.”

 

Walcott must have felt increasingly nervous as, during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, this particular film refused to stay in the boondocks.  Rather, it began to loom large in popular culture.  Inexorably, its fame – or infamy – grew.  Thanks largely to it being championed by movie critics like Michael Medved, filmmakers like Joe Dante and cultural commentators like Clive James, it became a contender for the title of Worst Film Ever Made.

 

By 1994, when Tim Burton made Ed Wood, a biopic of the movie’s director – with Johnny Depp in the title role of oddball, angora-obsessed and epically-incompetent filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr – it was no longer just a contender for the title.  In the public consciousness, the movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space, now was the worst film ever made.

 

(c) Reynolds Pictures, Inc

 

These days connoisseurs of bad movies spend hours enthusing about Plan 9’s multiple shortcomings: about the cemetery headstones (obviously made of cardboard) that topple over on camera and the characters’ cars that change make from scene to scene; the flying saucers that look like they’ve been fashioned from hubcaps; the risible dialogue (“Inspector Clay is dead… murdered… and someone is responsible!”); the fact that the movie’s biggest star, Bela Lugosi, had died before filming started and his ‘performance’ was a combination of home-movie footage shot when he’d been alive and the use of a stand-in (actually Wood’s wife’s chiropractor) who looked nothing like him; the sets that’d apparently been assembled inside a cupboard, including one of an airplane cockpit with sides made out of shower-curtains and a very visible boom-microphone overhead; the barmy narration by Jerome King Criswell, a real-life, self-proclaimed psychic who intones, “Greetings my friends!  We are all interested in the future.  For that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!”  And so on, and so forth.

 

With cruel inevitability, Plan 9 figured prominently in the headlines about Walcott’s death.  The Independent called him THE BLAMELESS ACTOR WHO COULDN’T SHAKE OFF BEING A PART OF THE WORST MOVIE EVER.  In the Times, he was the ACTOR WHO STARRED IN A FILM REGARDED AS THE WORST IN CINEMA HISTORY.  A slightly-more-circumspect New York Times declared, GREGORY WALCOTT, ACTOR IN ‘PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE’, DIES AT 87.

 

Walcott reminds me of a more famous actor who passed away in February, Leonard Nimoy.  Nimoy appeared in some classic TV shows (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Mission Impossible) and was nominated for an Emmy for playing Golda Meir’s husband in the 1982 TV movie A Woman Called Golda.  He appeared in several acclaimed stage productions, including Fiddler on the Roof, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Equus and Twelfth Night.  He enjoyed parallel careers as a screenwriter, producer and director – he even directed and starred in a 1981 TV movie called Vincent, a biopic of Vincent Van Gogh.  And he was a photographer, poet and singer-songwriter too.  Despite all this, Nimoy went to his grave with five words etched (metaphorically) on his headstone: MR SPOCK IN STAR TREK!

 

(c) Desilu Productions 

 

No matter how much he tried to escape it – and by the mid-1970s he seemed pretty annoyed at the fact, because he penned a memoir called I am not Spock and refused for a time to be involved in the first Star Trek movie (which eventually did have him on board when it was released in 1979) – Nimoy was forever associated in people’s minds with a half-human alien who lived by the dictates of logic.  One who took orders from Captain William Shatner, incapacitated opponents using the very handy Vulcan nerve-pinch, and possessed the most famous pair of pointy ears on the planet.

 

Later, though, Nimoy seemed to make his peace with Star Trek and Mr Spock.  The second volume of his memoirs, published in 1995, was entitled I am Spock; and he continued making Star Trek movies into his old age.  He even appeared in the new, rebooted Star Trek films with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Benedict Cumberbatch, etc., playing a venerable and sagacious Mr Spock from an alternative universe.

 

I have to say that, while I’m not a Star Trek fan, I think Nimoy made the right decision.  I’ve read some of his poems and heard a little of his singing.  And I like him much better as Mr Spock.

 

It must be galling for actors and actresses – trained in a profession where the goal is to become a human chameleon, to be able to step into the shoes of any character, inhabit their persona and imbue them convincingly with life onstage or onscreen – when your audience becomes fixated with one role you’ve played, or one TV show or film you’ve appeared in, and associates you with that for the rest of your career.  And very often, the role, show or film that the crass, fickle public saddles you with is something less than Shakespearean.

 

(c) De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

 

I can think of two well-known Scottish actors who’ve had to deal with this.  Craggy, Dundonian performer Brian Cox has enjoyed a distinguished career in the theatre, on TV and in films.  But in 1986 he had a supporting role in Michael Mann’s dark thriller Manhunter, based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.  He played an inmate in an institution for the criminally insane who’s onscreen for only a few minutes.  But that character was Dr Hannibal Lektor who, three years later, would win mass-popularity when Anthony Hopkins played him in Silence of the Lambs (with the character’s surname re-spelt as ‘Lector’).  For a long time afterwards, Cox had to put up with countless comments and queries about his turn as the first cinematic incarnation of Harris’s suave, Nietzschean super-cannibal.  Even now, he’s probably getting letters asking him what his thoughts are on the funky new leather jacket that Mads Mikkelsen will be wearing in season three of Hannibal.

 

Then there’s Crieff-born actor Dennis Lawson, who receives more mail about his role as Wedge Antilles in the original three Star Wars movies than about everything else he’s done put together.  This is despite the fact that he’s only in each movie for about a minute.  He’s seen climbing into an X-Wing Fighter before each big space-battle, sitting in the X-Wing Fighter during each big space-battle, and climbing out of the X-Wing Fighter after each big space-battle.  (Indeed, it was only when he filmed the climbing-out scenes that Lawson realised that his character had survived yet another movie.)  Still, his association with the films may have been welcomed in certain quarters of his family – two decades later, his nephew Ewan McGregor secured the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Returning to Gregory Walcott – like Nimoy and Spock, he eventually learned to live with Plan 9 from Outer Space.  In an interview with the LA Times, he said of the film that “it’s better to be remembered for something than for nothing.”  Bearing his old director no malice, he agreed to a cameo role in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which proved to be his final film appearance.  And last year, when a pub called the Plan Nine Alehouse opened in his neighbourhood, he allowed his son to gift it his old copy of the Plan 9 script.  (The script ended up as a decoration in the pub toilets).

 

Actually, I get slightly irritated when people identify Plan 9 as the worst film ever made.  It’s badly written and technically inept to a comical degree, I admit, but I think Ed Wood deserves kudos for at least investing it with a crazed enthusiasm.  He was a desperately bad filmmaker but he shouldn’t be condemned for being ambitious – the problem was that the realisation of his ambitions fell far short of what’d been in his imagination.  Tim Burton clearly recognises and sympathises with Wood’s creative yearnings because, near the end of 1994’s Ed Wood, he inserts a hypothetical scene where Wood, pissed off at his financiers’ meddling in the making of Plan 9, bumps into and chats with Orson Welles, who’s equally pissed off at Universal’s meddling in the making of Touch of Evil.  (“They want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican!”)

 

Plan 9 even contains a speech, delivered by an alien, which denounces humanity’s obsession with building bigger and evermore-terrible weapons of mass destruction.  It’s a noble sentiment but, as usual with Wood, this well-meaning speech becomes nonsensical.  The alien (played by an actor with the eccentric name of Dudley Manlove) starts raving about exploding sunlight-particles that’ll somehow trigger a chain reaction and destroy the universe.  Then he has a hissy fit: “Your stupid minds!  Stupid!  Stupid!”  And yet, in that artless scene, there’s probably more personality than you’d find in the entirety of Michael Bay’s Transformers, Transformers 2, Transformers 3 and Transformers 4.

 

I should say that I’m supported in this opinion by no less a personage than the TV star and movie critic Jonathan Ross.  In his 1993 volume The Incredibly Strange Film Book, Ross writes that he’d far rather watch an enjoyably shonky Ed Wood movie than some ultra-bland, boring mainstream Hollywood effort like 1987’s Three Men and a Baby.

 

Three Men and a Baby, incidentally, was directed by a certain Leonard Nimoy.  Yes, Mr Spock, would you prefer to be remembered for that?

 

(c) Touchstone Pictures