FIVE FILMS FROM...1986
(Directed by Michael Mann)
To a lot of people, Hannibal Lecter will always be Anthony Hopkins. To some he may be personified best by Mads Mikkelsen. But before both of those (admittedly superlative) representations of Hannibal the Cannibal there was Brian Cox and this commendable visualisation of the literary world of Thomas Harris. Unfairly getting poor reviews at the time, due to the stylised cinematography and the heavy reliance on a (brilliant) soundtrack “swamping the storyline” (according to some critics). But with the later success of “The Silence of the Lambs” and “C.S.I.”, the film has thankfully been recognised for its many positive aspects. Initially turned down by David Lynch (allegedly due to all the violence in the novel!), it was eventually helmed by Mann whilst he was still working on his hit TV series “Miami Vice”. As a result, many people lumped “Manhunter” in with that lightweight action show, but it deserves more respect than that. It would have been called “Red Dragon” after the novel (like the 2002 Brett Ratner remake), but Executive Producer Dino De Laurentiis decided to change it, in case people confused it with a Martial Arts movie. Yes, the mind does boggle. Actors such as Paul Newman and Richard Gere were considered for the part of retired FBI profiler Will Graham, before William Petersen was cast. And Hannibal Lecktor (note the unnecessary weird name change) was nearly played by John Lithgow, before veteran Brit actor Cox took it. A great supporting cast including Tom Noonan, Kim Greist, and Joan Allen rounded out the rest of the characters. Staying fairly loyal to most of the Harris source material, the plot sees Graham come out of a self-inflicted retirement to help cops find the serial-killer “The Tooth Fairy” (an alarmingly good Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde). And of course he has to visit his incarcerated “friend” Hannibal to get a kick-start on the investigation and a view into the Dark-side.
In all honesty “Manhunter” is closer to an orthodox police thriller than pure horror, as oppose to the Grand Guignol excesses of “Silence” and the “Hannibal” TV series. But it’s a damned good one, and has certain moments that rival its more recent updates and genre-tinged crime drama. It’s also a remarkably well-produced and edited film, and shows Mann at the top of his game with impeccably mounted sequences; over-the-shoulder shots of Will as he investigates crime scenes or has a telling out-of-body experience, the disturbing sight of Freddy Lounds ablaze in a wheelchair, lots of smooth pans-and-glides, etc. He also plays around with colours; muted soft blue for Will and his wife (when he’s in a good place), and stronger red-tinged hues for Dollarhyde’s apartment and murder scenes. The soundtrack is also as important as the visuals with The Prime Movers’ “Strong as I am”, and Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" used to stunning effect. It’s interesting to note the aesthetic differences between the Hannibal scenes here, and in “Silence”. Instead of a Gothic dungeon, we’re in a dazzling white modern facility with iron bars. Cox plays him with an English accent as a genial-but-dangerous psychotic with a high IQ and a sense of menace to match, and apparently auditioned with his back turned. This pays off with a cool scene where he manages to wrangle the use of a phone to taunt Will (“I’ve lost the use of my arms”). It’s an underplayed and extremely effective version of the “good” Doctor and still stands up. But Petersen and Noonan also manage to dominate their scenes for differing reasons. Noonan apparently went “full” method, and his almost-otherworldly interpretation of Dollarhyde is oddly mesmerising in its complexity. And whilst it’s a fairly subdued performance by Petersen, it retains some of the conflicting themes that have stayed with the character. By thinking like a murderer, do you open yourself to your own darkness and insanity? In this version however, whilst still troubled, Will stays firmly on the side of the Angels and rescues his relationship with his wife. (NB: This is mainly why some people had trouble with Will Graham’s actions in the denouement of the “Hannibal” series. He’s not ‘this’ Will.). Low on blood, but high on detecting, shooty-bits, and character drama, this still remains an excellent offering from this decade. As mentioned previously, the film was remade with Hopkins as Lecter (and Ed Norton as Will) in 2002, and did surprisingly well on a critical basis. But (despite what RT may say), this is still the better and more interesting version.