Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Red Dragon & the Woman in the Sun: Symbolism in Manhunter

Let's take an in-depth look at one of the most unique thrillers of the 1980s.

In the 1986 film, Manhunter, Michael Mann makes heavy use of color saturation, a variety of camera angles and other visuals to convey a heightened sense of mood and tension. All of these elements give greater insight into the movie’s theme and its character development. This is especially apparent during the scene where Rheba McClane spends the night over at Francis Dollarhyde’s house. Even though the scene only lasts for about six and a half minutes, it is a crucial part of the film because it helps the audience understand and sympathize with Dollarhyde, despite that he is a serial killer and Manhunter’s primary antagonist. At the same time, however, there is a sense of disease and apprehension that looms over the relationship between Dollarhyde and Reba.

As this picture demonstrates, I'm not using those words lightly.

The scene opens by zooming out from the center of a large painting on Dollarhyde’s living room wall. The painting, which is depicted several times in the film, is of a large, red, winged being looming over a golden angel with outstretched arms. (The painting appears to be a reproduction of William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun.) Francis Dollarhyde is obsessed with the idea of obtaining power. His fantasy is to be like the Red Dragon. He believes that he can obtain happiness and respect by killing off families that have obtained the ideal kind of lifestyle he can not have for himself.

If your relationship resembles this get help.

The red in the painting is associated with the devil-like Red Dragon of the painting, likely representing violence and lust, two key elements of Dollarhyde’s alter ego fantasy. On the other hand, the sunny yellow color is associated with the angel figure in the painting. The angel could represent the various female victims and wives Dollarhyde has killed and lusted after. However, it is also meant to represent Rheba. Unlike any other woman Dollarhyde has met so far, Reba is blind. Because she can not see, she is does not judge Dollarhyde based upon what he looks like. Thus Dollarhyde hopes that she will see past what he appears to be, and see him for what he really is (or at least wants to be). Reba offers Dollarhyde a way out of his detrimental alter ego. Eventually, however, Reba’s relationship with Dollarhyde is not strong enough to overcome the Red Dragon obsession, and it comes to a tragic end.

I take it back. This isn't an obsession: This is a cultish lifestyle.

The rest of the Dollarhyde’s house is revealed as the camera pans away to the left of the Red Dragon painting. The house is fairly dark, only having a few solitary lamps which provide some local lighting, which adds to the mysteriousness and uncertainty of the scene. The color scheme then switches over from the red and yellow hues of the painting to shades of deep blue and sickly green. The contrasting green color is used throughout Manhunter in almost every scene that Dollarhyde appears. The color seems unnatural, putting the audience on guard. It alerts them that something is not right, and, potentially, something bad could happen. The blue hues in the scene are less prominent than green ones. (The most noticeably blue colored objects are the film reel that Dollarhyde is watching and Reba’s shirt.) This is notable, because romantic scenes occurring between Will Graham, the detective tracking down Dollarhyde, and his wife, Molly, are shot primarily with saturated blue filters. This hints that Dollarhyde could have had a relationship with Reba similar to that of Will and Molly, but because his alter ego gets in the way he, ultimately, can not. Thus, the saturated green color dominates the scene. 

Is anybody else getting queasy from all of this green?

After Dollarhyde and Reba spend the night together, Dollarhyde wakes up in the morning and discovers that Rheba is no longer sleeping next to him. When he goes outside, he meets Reba standing on the dock near water. This is introduced using an extreme long shot, which allows for the atmosphere of the scenery and the music (“The Big Hush” by Shriekback) to dominate. Reba and Dollarhyde appear as small silhouettes in the background. Rheba has not left Dollarhyde and agrees to see him again. Dollarhyde tells her, “You should stay outside...because you look so good in the sun.”

Isn't this…err...romantic?