Remember The Silence of the Lambs? Neither do I. So you probably don’t recall the first iteration of the Lecter story either – Manhunter.
A 1986 thriller, Manhunter is based around Will Graham (William Petersen), who’s recently retired from the FBI – however, after a new case crops up, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) calls Will back to the frontline. Having previously been psychologically manipulated and abused by cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), Will seeks out his help in catching the ‘Tooth Fairy’ (Tom Noonan).
Some of those names sounding familiar? Well, that will definitely be the case if you’ve watched any of the Hannibal series, which is inspired by the characters from the same book, Red Dragon. Confused? Well it’s not over yet, because Manhunter was remade in 2002, with the same title as the book, Red Dragon, as a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs. Red Dragon (the film) was not as popular, and was unable to emulate is predecessor. Why? I’ll come back to that a little later.
Will Graham is an interesting character. He’s incredibly intense, and William Petersen’s performance is fascinating. He’s able to capture Will’s instability and unhappiness very subtly, and we see it captured in brilliant scenes like when he sprints down the deliberately and clinically white and winding stairs from Hannibal’s cell. It’s like the nightmare of trying to run away from the scary man, but never truly being able to get away. Will is constantly trapped in some degree of nightmare and madness, constantly trapped in Lecktor’s sick game. The film explores, when he’s put back in the thick of it, will he finally escape or plunge even deeper?
I think, when watching Manhunter, you’ve got to bear in mind it was made in 1986. Let’s just, for a second, pretend that none of the future films in the franchise ever happened. This is all we know of the story. It’s original, it’s dark, it’s disturbing, it’s ground breaking. But because The Silence of the Lambs is such an amazing film, it gets overshadowed. Many people watched the Foster and Hopkins flick first, which meant they got that experience of original, dark, disturbing and ground breaking then, instead of with Manhunter. This is the greatest injustice, and feels very unfair. If the studio had pushed it forwards more, perhaps the whole way the series of films panned out could have been completely different. We’ll never know.
Manhunter starts strong. It’s quick and exciting, with Will getting sucked into the case. I think the middle plateaus a little, with the introduction of the ‘Tooth Fairy’, or Francis Dolarhyde. I think it’s important for a film to try and keep its cards close to their chest, and showing so much of Francis and so much of his thinking loses some of its mystique. I also didn’t find him particularly scary. A stocking of your head will only take you so far. I didn’t truly believe he went out and killed people, unlike with Buffalo Bill. The use of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida in the ending was excellent, however, and Tom Noonan truly takes the form of a paranoid and alienated serial killer at that point. The showdown is terrific, and justifies a very good film.
Since The Silence of the Lambs, the character of Dr Lector has been taken by storm. People are so attracted by the incredible charm and acerbic wit that they have been craving for more ever since. But what makes the character is the fact he’s hardly in either of the stories at all. He’s intangible. It’s frustrating, because we want to spend more time with the him, but we’re not allowed to. In a way, it helps us empathise with our Wills and our Clarices.
And perhaps this is where your Hannibals, Red Dragons, Hannibal Risings and even the series version go wrong. While Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs let our imaginations run wild, the films above have Lector as a main character. This should not be their design or intention. The desire to get to know the characters more ruins our fantasies, and probably the follow up films too.
Hopkins’ Lecter has an almost god like presence, ridiculously smart and dangerously omnipresent. He’s a super villain, in simple terms. Cox’s interpretation of the character (interestingly called Lecktor in Manhunter) is very different. While I don’t think it’s as grand standing as Hopkins’ performance, he’s a lot more realistic with his character. Lecter aims to make everyone around him look foolish – mainly to amuse himself. He’s incredibly unsettling. Cox isn’t. Charming and underplayed, he captures Lecktor’s humanity and is, in truth, normal – which certainly is a scary thought. Take a watch from the scene below:
“Well, zip that little pointer right on down to the letter G!” Could you see Lecter saying that? I don’t think so. This is the original Lecktor. How he’s evolved over the years is partly down to the actors who have played him and the way he’s been written. Is it better now rather than then? Perhaps – but that’s an argument for another day.
Manhunter is a very good film. It’s entertaining, if a little outdated, but what do you expect? As an ’80s film, it’s of it’s time, with the soundtrack and style of filming. You can see it’s influence in the industry, and should be recognised for giving birth to the outstanding Hannibal Lecter. It’s unfair this film doesn’t get as much recognition or praise as the rest of them – hopefully, just maybe, this review’s done a little to address the balance.
Manhunter – 8 out of 10