Hannibal Lecter is one of cinema’s most recognised characters, yet looking back on Jonathan Demme’s Silence Of The Lambs 20 years later isn’t the thrill you’d expect. Maybe it’s due to the relentless parody, but Anthony Hopkins now seems over the top, his fava-beans-and-chianti routine cause for chuckles rather than chills. Jodie Foster’s naïve FBI agent also grates, and it’s wrapped in a dumb, slasher-style climax forgetting the psychology that precedes it with one of the worst final lines in film history.
Six years previously in 1986 Michael Mann sneaked the original conception of Lecter onto the screen, Manhunter his retitling of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon. More gritty and lo-fi than what was to come, it starred Brian Cox as the killer (here called Lecktor) and a pre-CSI William Petersen as FBI profiler Will Graham. Virtually ignored upon release, the film subsequently took on a cult status and has most certainly stood the test of time. Lecktor is intense, intelligent and frightening, qualities that can also be levelled at Graham, the two characters becoming entwined as Graham delves deep into the case and mind of serial killer the Tooth Fairy. Lecktor, of course, has his own agenda, giving and using information for his own mental amusement, moving into the background as Graham finally tracks down his prey by taking on perhaps one too many personality traits from his old enemy. While the final act brings a fair degree of action, the real pleasure of Manhunter is the battle of wits between Lecktor and Graham, words becoming weapons as both men learn how much they have in common.
Director Michael Mann is incapable of shooting an ugly frame of film and Manhunter is without doubt one of the best-looking pictures of the 80s, the widescreen image perfectly composed throughout, with a deep focus that conveys atmosphere and a brilliant use of primary colours (which all looks particularly good in the recent high-definition release). A fine supporting cast — Tom Noonan, Dennis Farina, Joan Allen — add depth, but this is a film built around Cox and Petersen, both actors more than a match for one another. Cox in particular is brilliant, and if your only exposure to the world of Hannibal the Cannibal is through Hopkins then you’ll wonder why Cox was never given the chance to repeat his role. If he had, this film legacy may have been very different. The Lecter story has been overdone, but if you want to see a very different, highly superior interpretation, Manhunter comes highly recommended.
Manhunter is available on DVD and Blu-ray now