Manhunter: Not Such a Bad Name, Better Movie

With the impending premier of NBC’s latest thriller adaptation, Hannibal, fast approaching, it felt apropos to take a look back upon the cultural rise of Thomas Harris‘ most lauded creation: Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Than I realized this is an 80s blog, and most of the world’s association with Hannibal the Cannibal came after 1991.

But this is no cause for alarm as it still leaves the finest Harris film adaptation on the table to dissect (seemed the appropriate word). Sadly, far fewer moviegoers are as familiar with Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) as they are with 2002’s Red Dragon starring Anthony Hopkins. It is unfortunate because Manhunter is the superior film. But before getting into why, some quick confusion to clear:

Both Manhunter and Red Dragon are based on Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon, the first book in the Hannibal Lecter series. For reasons that included disassociation with the Kung Fu craze of the 80s (see Ninjas!) and Michael Cimino’s box-office bomb, Year of the Dragon (1985), production renamed the film. It does, however, follow the same source material – if not more closely – as Red Dragon.


Regarding Manhunter and its lack of popularity as compared to The Silence of the Lambs and its sequels, the biggest detractor that initially held the original film back was seemingly the art direction.  Complimentary of Mann’s highly-stylized mid-80s aesthetics (as any fan of Miami Vice knows), the film is a sensory tour de force of white-washed backdrops, art deco design, and tinted lighting. It was an attempt to elicit specific moods from the audience, but many viewers found the heavy-handed colors jarring, particularly when coupled with an early entry in the forensic detective film genre. In recent years, as Mann’s style has found deeper appreciation, the film’s visual tone has become more celebrated.


Outside of the art direction, what really helps Manhunter stand apart from the later Lecter films are the characters, and moreover the actors who play them. William Petersen plays Will Graham, an FBI profiler brought out of retirement to track down a vicious serial killer dubbed “The Tooth Fairy,” played by Tom Noonan. Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes played these roles, respectively, in the 2002 version, and though commendable portrayals, they pale in comparison to the originals. Unlike Norton’s stoic Graham, Petersen is much more unhinged. His character’s proficiency in profiling is a result of his ability to enter and replicate the minds of killers; Petersen’s internal struggle with his own duality is much more pronounced and compelling in Manhunter. Noonan, on the other hand, is a much more detached Tooth Fairy than Fiennes, and subsequently more menacing. The audience does not get to enter the psyche of the character as deeply as in Red Dragon, but this removes any chance of sympathetic attachment and leaves a more monstrous villain.

The remaining supporting cast of Kim Greist, Dennis Farina, Joan Allen, and Stephen Lang all shine in their nuanced roles, but it’s Greist who offers the film’s most evocative segues. Unlike Red Dragon, Manhunter focuses heavily on Graham’s psychological balance between good and evil, and Greist, as Graham’s wife, Molly, represents the protagonist’s primary anchor in humanity. She is at once sensitive to Graham’s needs, but also the stronger character – it’s a vastly under-appreciated performance.

As for the elephant in the room: Brian Cox played the first and best Hannibal Lecter. Not to say that Hopkins’ signature role is anything less than spellbinding, but study Cox’ portrayal closely and you’ll find a much more formidable opponent. Unlike Hopkins’ slow and deliberate Lecter, Cox is fast and eerily engaging; he comes off like a tricky used-car salesman. Whereas Hopkins is like an aggressive wolverine, Cox is like a spider, trapping you in a web before casually eating you. The latter’s performance is void of all humanity and preys upon the universal fear of duplicity. What it suffers from mostly in Manhunter is lack of screen time. Red Dragon was amended to give Hopkins more time in his hallmark role. Had the same been done for Cox, his portrayal would likely better stand in colleague, if not outshine, Hopkins’.

Brian Cox as Hannibal "Lecktor" in M...

Brian Cox as Hannibal “Lecktor” in Manhunter. Cox was the first actor to play the character. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Manhunter is a must for any fan of the Harris novels, Michael Mann, or forensic thriller movies. Of all the Hannibal Lecter adaptations – and yes, that includes The Silence of the LambsManhunter is the finest. Credit this to Mann, whose razor-sharp 80s stylization matched the vapid psychopathy of the movie’s primary characters perfectly. If you’ve never seen it, do so. And for those who have seen both, weigh in: what’s your favorite Hannibal Lecter film?



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