Long before the TV series loaded with sumptuous food-porn, long before the ever increasing melodrama of the film series and even long before the oscar haul of Silence Of The Lambs changed the face of psychological horror/thrillers forever – there was Manhunter.
Adapted from Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon back in 1986 by none other than Michael Mann, it’s a must watch as it’s a fascinating embryonic glance at a director on the rise and a character that pop culture embraced like few others. Looking at it now, it’s the cinematic psycho-killer equivalent of looking back at old photos of yourself and freaking out about how dated you look, but back in the 80’s Harris’ focus on forensic psychology was way ahead of it’s time which was underappreciated due to it’s non-performance at the box-office. Now, it’s seen as a prototype curio thanks to being eclipsed by Jonathan Demme’s Oscar hoarding Silence Of The Lambs and NBC’s Hannibal series; but despite being adapted two more times after it’s debut, this original still has a few things to say…
FBI bigwig Jack Crawford approaches former criminal profiler Will Graham with an awkward request – rejoin the bureau temporarily to aid them in catching the man dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” who has butchered two families in Atlanta. This could be somewhat problematic considering Graham is a little too good at his job and suffered a breakdown after apprehending his last quarry, the overwhelmingly intelligent Hannibal Lecktor. Trying to be a good father and husband to his wife and step son, Will also realises that the Tooth Fairy has no intention of stopping and has acquired quite the taste for his transcendent “work” and reluctantly agrees to help take down this highly complicated slayer.
After making some headway immediately by visiting the second murder site and attempting to avoid the leering gaze of a sleezy tabloid reporter by the name of Freddy Lounds, Graham realises that if he really wants to get back in the game he needs to get that old scent figuratively back into his nostrils and that’s going to require a visit to Dr Lecktor in person. Unfortunately, Lecktor, unsurprisingly, has a vengeful side and has been in comunicado with the killer which puts Will at somewhat of a disadvantage, especially considering he’s given the Tooth Fairy Graham’s home address.
Attempting to use this fan worship against him, the FBI tries to trick the killer (aka. the vunerable Francis Dolarhyde) to no avail, but Dolarhyde has started to have doubts about his other life thanks to the attentions of a blind woman at his place of work, but considering he’s as stable as a two legged tripod it surely can’t last.
Can Will slow Dolarhyde’s roll before he kills again while still clinging on to his sanity which is growing ever more delicate?
The fact that Thomas Harris’ “Hannibal Universe” (as no one is calling it – thankfully) has grown so much since 1986 is both a blessing and a curse for Manhunter. Firstly, it’s genuinely interesting to see these characters in action before the arrival of Anthony Hopkins’ juicy performance turned the characters into household names and artists such as Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott, Bryan Fuller and… Err… Brett Ratner got to realise this world through their various prisms. In fact the biggest benefits the movie has are it’s alternate visions of it’s villains, primarily that of chief antagonist Francis Dolarhyde, a damaged man with a poisoned self image due to childhood corrective surgery thanks to a cleft pallet. While the movie goes less into his backstory than other adaptations (no art gallery theft to eat a painting, for one) and despite being portrayed much later by Ralph Fiennes and Richard Armitage it’s still Tom Noonan’s portrayal of Francis Dolarhyde that’s far superior despite being ironically less well known. Imposing in a much unshowy way despite wearing an array of shirts almost as upsetting as the crime scenes he leaves in his wake, Noonan is utterly convincing in possibly the best role in his sizable catalogue of character roles despite his almost redemptive relationship with a sight impaired Joan Allen being fairly truncated. That leaves us with Dr Lecktor himself (spelt differently here than the rest of his subsequent appearances) who is almost casually portrayed by Brian Cox. Cast in barely a supporting role and noticably shorn of Hopkins’ scenery chewing and Mads Mikkelsen’s romanticism, he’s the most “normal” interpretation of the cannibalistic psychologist to date but in some ways the most creepy as he goes about his plotting and mindfucking with an almost off hand attitude.
Not coming across so well is William Peterson’s slightly wooden Will Graham who gets to express his fragile mental state by mainly staring at his own reflection in a rainy window and yelling out what inhuman acts Dolarhyde has performed at the air while signing off his angry announcements with “DIDN’T CHA, YOU SONNUVA BITCH!!!???”.
Aside from this and a suprisingly familiar cast (I nearly choked on my drink when Stephen Lang turns up in a perm and a godawful suit as doomed muck raker Feddy Lounds), the movie is also a nice little collection of it’s director’s quirks and habits. Introverted professionals stand in front of floor to cealing high window that either overlook a stylish cityscape or an impossibly endless ocean while chatting in the light of blue lightbulbs or staring at some of the most beautiful sunrises/sunsets ever seen in a serial killer thriller. Oh, and let’s not forget the endless synths which mean we live in a world where a Hannibal Lector movies ends with ends with an unbearably 80’s song called Heartbeat by The Reds who also help provide the score.
Ultimately, when stacked up against other versions of Harris’ source novel, some things simply work better and some things don’t – the flaming figure in the wheelchair has never been more shocking in my opinion – but there’s a good chance that the rather dated production may unfortunately count against it with people firmly in the camp of those other Lectors. They sort of have a point considering Red Dragon has arguably been incredibly over-adapted over the years, but thanks to Michael Mann’s stylistic flourishes and some rock solid performances there’s a strong argument that Manhunter is by far the most distinctive.
Whatever your poison, be it Lector or Lecktor, Manhunter is an intriguing first swing at one of cinema’s most endearing psychos and the world he inhabits which now has been rightly dubbed a cult classic.