Hannibal Lector became the world’s favourite psychopath when Anthony Hopkins brought Thomas Harris’s character to (larger than) life in Jonathan Demme’s ‘Silence of the Lambs’ in 1991. But few who shivered at Ant’s overblown boggling portrayal of Lector were aware that the character had been brought to the screen just a few years previously, in a more restrained and far more effective manner, by Brit thesp Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s underrated ‘Manhunter.’ The film’s subsequently attained true cult status and whilst its reputation speaks for itself and has slowly grown in the intervening years it seems destined to remain the litter of the Lector bunch, eventually being remade by director Brett Ratner as ‘Red Dragon’ (the title of the book which spawned it) in 2002.
‘Manhunter’ is resolutely a creature of the 1980s, like so many films of its time defined by the very recognisable fads and fashions of the era. The music is all pulsing tones and thudding synths (there’s even a cheesy soft rock ballad playing over the end credits) and the women have mullet hair, the men sport big moustaches and, at the beach, wear ludicrously short shorts. Director Michael Mann is clearly developing his art here and some of his pacing is off in places but his measured, stylized and leisurely direction manages to evoke a creeping sensation of dread and terror as FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) comes out of retirement to help catch the infamous serial killer known as “the Tooth Fairy” (Tom Noonan). Ironically, for a movie which introduces the legendary Lector (Lecktor?), Noonan’s Francis Dollarhyde (“The Tooth Fairy”) is much more formidable and disturbing and there‘s almost something supernatural and otherworldly about his methods and his studied, robotic movements. Dollarhyde is an utterly insane and ruthless killer and whilst the final confrontation between him and the Police is a bit on the clumsy side, the movie never undersells its bad guy or undermines the threat he poses and there’s something distinctly stomach-churning about the way he slowly stalks and then torments his victims, ultimately leaving them in no doubt about what fate’s in store for them. Modern serial killer flicks tend to go straight for the jugular so it’s refreshing to see ‘Manhunter’ taking its time, keeping its killer off-screen until the tension’s unbearable; when we finally meet “The Tooth Fairy” we’re well aware of the threat he poses and the bloodshed he’s capable of.
Cox’s Lector is, interestingly, little more than a supporting character, the imprisoned killer who’s in communication with the Tooth Fairy and is, in his own way, manipulating him so he can carry on his own killing spree vicariously. Cox is a colder and more believable Lector than Hopkins; here he appears in a white-walled, antiseptic cell as opposed to the grim, stony dungeon of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and his confrontation with Graham, the man who put him away but who is clearly still terrified of him and unnerved by him, sizzles off the screen in ways Hopkins little chinwags with Jodie Foster never really quite managed.
Michael Mann has, since 1986, made far slicker films and is now one of cinema’s most accomplished and interesting filmmakers with credits like ‘Last of the Mohicans’, ‘Heat’, ‘Ali’ and the monstrously-underrated ‘Collateral’. But ‘Manhunter’, a bit rough and ready and clearly the work of a director-in-progress, is an intriguing and endlessly-fascinating calling card which deserves to be remembered as more than just “that first Hannibal Lector movie.”
Special features: Commentary, vintage featurettes.
‘Manhunter’ is out now on Blu Ray in the UK