Backdraft (1991)

I’m thinking of a movie. It came out in 1991. In this movie, a young hotshot investigator is faced with a particularly gruesome series of crimes. Stumped, the investigator seeks the help of a criminal already incarcerated for similar but unrelated crimes. The criminal is clearly a devious maniac, and his help is contingent on a cat-and-mouse game of psychological cabaret. He helps solve things in a roundabout way, but only after the investigator gives up personal feelings about the crimes. This movie features Scott Glenn in a fairly major role.

If you hadn’t seen Backdraft as the header for this review, you might have said The Silence of the Lambs. Either way, you’d be right — all of the above criteria fits with both films, strange as it seems. There’s no shortage of suspiciously-timed blockbusters that have a great deal in common — see Illusionist/Prestige, Tombstone/Wyatt Earp, Truman Show/EdTV, Antz/Bug’s Life, etc. — or just operate on a similar premise or gimmick, like the one-man-in-one-location flicks Buried and 127 Hours. But while Backdraft and Silence of the Lambs operate in fairly different territory, the similarities are far more numerous than those of the kindred spirits listed above. This can only mean one thing: an unfathomable conspiracy, deadly and ancient, marshaled and brought to bear for the purpose of ending civilization as we know it.

The multifaceted plot of Backdraft is part crime thriller, part family drama, part love story, part bildungsroman, and part macho bullshit. Many of these intersect in the characters of Stephen and Brian McCaffrey (Kurt Russell and William Baldwin), brothers and firefighters in Chicago, and Backdraft is largely their story. The “family drama”, “love story”, and “bildungsroman” parts all stem from the lives of these brothers, and the “macho bullshit” part does too. It’s the “crime thriller” bit, focused on a deadly arsonist and the dangerous hunt to capture him, that arguably provides the main drive of the film.

Baldwin’s Brian goes to meet Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland), a creepy dude serving a life sentence for violent arson, and it’s in these conversations that the similarities between Backdraft and Silence of the Lambs first reveal themselves. Not only are both Bartel and Hannibal Lecter in the same position of incarcerated advisor, but both approach their perceived civic duty in the same way. They toy with Brian McCaffrey and Clarice Starling, seemingly knowing the identity of the sought-after killer but willing to give it up only after long bouts of mind games. They both exude I-know-something-you-don’t-know, and the price for answers in both cases is personal information of the sort that might interest a deranged mind obsessed with fire/cannibalism. Ronald’s “You want to know who? I want to know if this kid [young Brian] really wanted to be just like his dad” is akin to Dr. Lecter’s “I tell you things, you tell me things…about yourself”. In the end everyone gets what they want, with the interrogator off to stalk the real criminal and the incarcerated madman off to bask in the painful memories he’s just elicited from the interrogator.

So that’s a major point of comparison, and it might yet be a forgivable one were it not for the other weird parallels. In a scene in Backdraft Russell’s Stephen is walking through the hallways of a smoky building trying to find the source of that smoke, trying to find the blaze so he can wrestle with it and be the hero. As he stalks through the hallway he mutters to the fire: “You’re so sly…but so am I.” It’s an interesting little line, but it seems so…familiar…because it’s the exact same line from another movie called Manhunter from 1986. Manhunter, of course, is the first film iteration of Hannibal Lecter and the first adaptation of any of Thomas Harris’s books (Red Dragon). Will Graham utters the line while hunting Francis Dollarhyde, Stephen McCaffrey utters the line while hunting a fire, and from what I can tell it just so happens that no other character ever says this same line in any other movie.

Now that we’re in eyebrow-raising territory, let’s talk smoking gun. Every unraveling case has one — JFK had the second shooter, Watergate had the Bay of Pigs tape, Serial had the Nisha Call — and Backdraft has Scott Glenn. Don’t let his grandfatherly demeanor fool you! This guy is as sinister as they come in Early-’90s Movie Conspiracies, and that’s saying something. Backdraft has Scott Glenn, and the thing is Silence of the Lambs has Scott Glenn, too. Seriously? We have two movies, same year, same plot, and same actor, too? Is that even legal?

Once Glenn’s place at the chair of this sinister society is unveiled, the floodgates open. Engine 51 is seen throughout Backdraft, a likely shout-out to the ’70s show Emergency! which starred a station and a firetruck marked 51. And right there, starring as Forklift Operator in the 1973 Emergency! episode “Seance”, is Scott Glenn. Glenn also recently starred in the first season of HBO’s The Leftovers, playing the insane father of Justin Theroux’s main character. Elsewhere in the show, casually, as if no one would notice, is the lanky Tom Noonan — the guy who played Francis Dollarhyde in Manhunter. It goes on forever. Glenn’s starred in movies with both Jodie Foster and Julianne Moore (both of whom played Clarice Starling) and played in More American Graffiti with Backdraft director Ron Howard. In the immortal words of Miss Clavel, something is not right.

So even though Backdraft is a pretty good movie, I must implore you to avert your eyes pending further investigation into this incestuous band of criminals lest you, too, become a slave to Grand Poobah Glenn. He is out there as we speak, lurking in the shadows on a backlot or something, waiting to pounce on his next victim, a victim inexorably connected in some way to a Hannibal Lecter story. In the meantime, stay hidden, stay safe, and stay tuned for next week’s installment of Scott Glenn Conspiracy Theories,where we’ll discuss the moon landings and the Lindbergh baby. Sleep tight.

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