Best Under-the-radar movies #5: Manhunter

Manhunter
USA, 1986
Written and directed by Michael Mann
Based on the novel “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris

Available to stream on Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and Epix

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Hannibal Lecter is a household name in the States. It became so with the release and reception of The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. The movie became only the third in history to win the “big five” at the Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay) and from that point on, the hisses and whispers of Hannibal the Cannibal were forever ingrained in the minds of American audiences.

But Hannibal Lecter had existed as a character a full decade before the film’s release, having been introduced in the Thomas Harris novel “Red Dragon” in the early 80s. Five years later, Michael Mann changed the title to “Manhunter” and the manhunter-brian-coxspelling to “Lecktor” and sent it to the big screen. The movie was a flop at the box office, losing at least 6 million dollars. But the critical reception was much better and Manhunter has since developed a cult following. Nevertheless, most people know little to nothing about it because it is so powerfully overshadowed by Jonathan Demme’s Silence.

Well, I’ve read Harris’s trilogy several times and I have to say that Manhunter most accurately captures the feel of the novels. It’s not as slick, but far more grim than its successors. Is it a better movie than Silence of the Lambs? Apples and oranges…ok, almost. There are some comparisons to consider. Let’s start with Hannibal. It’d be a pretty big leap to say that anybody could outperform Anthony Hopkins as the infamous cannibal doctor. But some serious kudos need to be given to Brian Cox as well, who plays the part in this film. His performance still contains the intellect and the brooding aura that comes with the character, but he doesn’t go for the theatrics that Hopkins later would. This actually works for the movie, because the story is less about Lecktor than it is about the real villain.

ifihadas&sballotaradillas_11So, about that villain–the deranged, lascivious Francis Dollarhyde. What a masterpiece of a performance by Tom Noonan. This is the area where the movie stands out. Compared to Dollarhyde, Buffalo Bill from Silence is a pathetic cartoon of a villain (which is ok, because that movie is about Lecter). Watching Noonan in Manhunter was like a Freudian lesson in buried desire and human sexuality.

There’s a lot more that can be said about the movie–its purposefully unsettling editing, its brave stylistic touches, its sharp dialogue. But for me it comes down to the performances. I’ve given my praise for Noonan, but William Petersen deserves plenty of credit as well for his performance as the zealous and worn-down FBI detective Will Graham. For every second of his screen time we feel the tiredness and the obsession equally.

To conclude, I’d like to end with a chunk of dialogue from the movie. I think it showcases the love Mann gives to his characters, and the empathy that is apparent throughout the story:

Will Graham: This started from an abused kid, a battered infant… There’s something terrible about…

Jack Crawford: What are you, sympathizing with this guy?

Will Graham: Absolutely… My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he’s irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies… As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks…

[pause]

Will Graham: Do you think that’s a contradiction, Jack? Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable?

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