It’s difficult now to watch Manhunter without thinking of its quasi-sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, which introduced most people to Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Most people, indeed, had not seen (and still have not seen) 1986′s Manhunter, the true movie debut of Lecter; point this out, though, and you may be faced with a disinterested response along the lines of “Yeah, but some other guy plays Lecter.” Yeah, but that “some other guy” — Brian Cox, perhaps better known these days as Dr. Guggenheim in Rushmore — does a fine job in the role; perhaps not what Anthony Hopkins later did with Lecter in Silence and Hannibal, but still a creepy and effective turn, dealing in the same taunting wit and disconcertingly direct psychotherapy. Cox’s Lecter (spelled “Lecktor” in the movie, for whatever reason) doesn’t deserve to be dismissed just because he’s not Anthony Hopkins, and though it’s hard to say he was the best Lecter — he simply gets neither enough screen time to make a major impression nor the juicy, combative-flirtatious relationship with Clarice Starling that Hopkins enjoyed in his films — he was the first.
With Lecter out of the way, then, how is Manhunter as a movie? As an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon, it’s pretty faithful and even retains a romantic subplot that many filmmakers might have chosen to discard. The hero, Will Graham (William Petersen), is a former FBI agent who retired after being near-fatally wounded by Dr. Lecter while capturing him. Graham’s special gift — what endears him most to his superior, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) — is the ability to get inside a killer’s mind; not literally, as Jennifer Lopez did in The Cell, but by looking at the evidence and patterns of behavior and allowing himself to “become” the killer in theory. Graham is brought out of retirement when another killer, christened “The Tooth Fairy” by the tabloids, is on the loose. Two families have already died at his hands, during a full moon, and another full moon is approaching.
Manhunter was written and directed by Michael Mann, who at that point was known chiefly for his television success with Miami Vice; his previous two features, Thief and The Keep, were non-starters. Here he delivers an exercise in style that nonetheless never loses sight of the emotional equation. The killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), who prefers to be called “Red Dragon” after the famous William Blake painting, is not some diabolical mastermind; he’s driven by demons of rage, fear, and jealousy. Born with a harelip, Dolarhyde so strongly detests his appearance that he places shards of a mirror in the eyes of his victims (a touch worthy of Dario Argento) so that they may witness his “Becoming” — his transformation, like Buffalo Bill in Silence, into something greater, something else. Tom Noonan’s reputation as a master of creepiness is based more or less on Dolarhyde, but his performance is surprisingly restrained, almost soft, particularly when Dolarhyde — who had never expected to find love — meets his dream woman, Reba (Joan Allen in a solid early role), a blind coworker. “You’re all about seeing, aren’t you?” Graham muses aloud to his absent prey; it’s fitting, then, that Dolarhyde’s one chance at pure happiness is all about not seeing.
Mann’s script is taut, and, for once, so is his direction, which deviates from most of his subsequent films in that it doesn’t shout “Hey, look, I’m a director” from the rooftops. (It wasn’t until 1999′s The Insider that he learned to calm down and trust a story again.) Granted, the color-intense cinematography by Dante Spinotti will remind you of Miami Vice as well as the many ’80s cop thrillers whose visual style Mann influenced. Still, you don’t watch this and think of it as an unusually good Miami Vice episode (unlike, say, Mann’s Heat, which seemed like an unusually long Miami Vice episode); it has its own heartbeat. The sharp photography and generous widescreen compositions (both painstakingly preserved on Anchor Bay’s February 2001 DVD edition) help to link the film with the night terrors of John Carpenter and (again) Dario Argento; and Mann, in this movie at least, has a precise feel for what music will punch up a scene’s emotions. During a love scene between Dolarhyde and Reba, we hear Shriekback’s dreamy, mesmeric “This Big Hush,” which has the odd effect of rendering the lovemaking both tender and disturbing; later, during the climax, Mann breaks out the usually tiresome “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida,” here used in probably the coolest way imaginable — in that sense, at least, the movie is like Miami Vice, whose best episodes dusted off old Peter Gabriel nuggets and made them hip again (Gabriel probably owes some of his solo success in the ’80s to Michael Mann, who knew how to use “Biko” and the later-overused “Rhythm of the Heat,” and also to Cameron Crowe for sealing the deal with “In Your Eyes”).
William Petersen, too, carries the movie. He had a one-two punch in the ’80s, with this film and To Live and Die in L.A., neither of which met with major success; subsequently he retreated to supporting roles until finally making his way back to his roots, playing the Graham-like hero of the TV series CSI. As Graham, he has a tough balance to maintain: he has to convince us that he was once a tough FBI agent, now scarred by circumstance, who genuinely dreads getting back in the game. Petersen starts off almost hypersensitive; we do wonder how he survived in the FBI all those years. As the movie goes on, though, and Graham catches more of the killer’s scent, his hunter’s instinct overrides his fear and Petersen gradually shows us the expert profiler Graham used to be, the obsessive crank who wants to watch home movies of the victims over and over again, long after even Jack Crawford has called it a day. Petersen, much like Jodie Foster in Silence, conveys intellectual excitement as the trail grows hotter, tempered with compassion for the dead — though in his case, his empathic methods being what they are, Graham cannot allow himself to relate to the murdered more than the murderer. The character of Graham is actually perfect for a TV series, so it’s not surprising that The Profiler, with Ally Walker as a kind of synthesis of Graham and Clarice Starling, ran with the concept.
When Manhunter came out, a year before Harris published Silence of the Lambs and five years before the adaptation of that book was released, nobody knew that it was going to be the first in a series or that the weird guy in the cell would go on to become America’s most beloved lunatic. The few who saw and appreciated it back then probably thought of it as no more than a better-than-average police procedural; as it was, it got the short end of the stick that year, since its distributor, DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group, was busy focusing on the marketing of the flop Maximum Overdrive and platforming Blue Velvet into an art-house hit. Each time a new Hannibal Lecter movie comes out, though, Manhunter gets a new lease on life; in the wake of Silence‘s success, it was shown on NBC as Red Dragon (with the absurd, misleading subtitle The Curse of Hannibal Lecter), and the Anchor Bay VHS/DVD reissue of the film coincided with the premiere of Hannibal. Let’s hope this eminently worthy and stylish work doesn’t have to wait for yet another Hannibal Lecter film to find an audience.¹
¹It was remade, of course, as Red Dragon. More people probably saw that than saw Manhunter, though Manhunter is generally judged the better film.