Sunday, October 16, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #18 - Francis Dolarhyde

A common trait of the performances on this list is a stillness, a confident quietness that underlines the villain's sinister authority. This is definitely true of Tom Noonan's performance as Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter, Michael Mann's adaptation of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon (the first and still the best of Harris' books featuring Hannibal Lecter). From his introduction to a captive soon-to-be-victim ("Well, here I am."), Noonan dominates the frame, both thanks to his large, imposing figure and the calm, methodical nature he uses to suggest the character's icy remove from humanity. Even when Dolarhyde is absent from the screen during FBI profiler Will Graham's (William Peterson) search for the man known as the "Tooth Fairy" by his pursuers because of the bite marks he has left on his victims (two families thus far), we feel his presence due to the elusive quality he brings to the character.

While films and TV shows often try to understand the mind of a killer - TV's "Dexter," for instance, has provided us with the title character's inner monologue for six seasons - and Harris provides a good deal of Dolarhyde's background in the book, Mann chooses to pare our understanding of the character down to the essentials. We know Dolarhyde has a corrected cleft palate, and can infer how this may have contributed to his emotional detachment from others. And we know, thanks to his stylish apartment, that for a serial killer he has outstanding taste in interior decoration (this says less about him being a serial killer than it does about him being a character in a Michael Mann movie). Other than that, he's an unknowable force to us, a mysterious Other that may well be the embodiment of the William Blake painting "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in The Sun," which Dolarhyde idolizes and emulates - the devil as a creature of perfect strength and purpose. When Dolarhyde flirts with an actual relationship with Reba (Joan Allen), a blind co-worker, Noonan does an amazing job with such a verbally inexpressive character, suggesting Dolarhyde's desire to connect but also the constant rage he can't suppress. He's reminiscent of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, isolated in his monstrousness.

He's the perfect counterpoint for Graham, who has warily left retirement to find Dolarhyde, disturbed by his uncanny ability to think like a monster. And also by Lecter (Brian Cox), who was caught by Graham and who, in Mann's film, is not the charismatic, darkly funny Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins; here, he's a reptile in a vivarium, and his contempt for all humankind (not just the rude and distasteful) is palpable. The good and bad guys share a brilliant understanding of their work process and a greater difficulty relating to others. This is a common theme in Mann's work, and it is evident in the methodical distance of Mann's filmmaking style (I used to regard this as a problem, now I see it as honest self-reflection on the director's part). While the 2002 film Red Dragon boasts an excellent cast, it's a hamhanded, clumsily staged film that never comes close to Manhunter's visual brilliance and thematic depth (director Brett Ratner was dismissive of Mann in interviews when the movie was released, though a couple of shots are lifted directly from the earlier film). And Noonan has played many other memorably creepy characters over the years, including (appropriately) Frankenstein's monster in the following year's The Monster Squad, the mysterious Mr. Ullman in The House of the Devil and, hilariously, Caden Cotard's lifelong stalker and imitator Sammy Barnathan in Synecdoche, New York. And thanks to Noonan and Mann, "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida" has never been the same.

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