Manhunter (1986)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
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Mute Witness


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Our rating: three LAVA® motion lamps.

"Take me to your leader!"
Manhunter is a film that has to live up to a pair of intimidating projects. On one hand, it is an adaptation of the best seller Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Over that, at least, the makers of Manhunter had some control. But seven years after their film was released to little critical acclaim and no financial success, Jonathan Demme and Ted Tally adapted Harris' next novel into the Oscar-sweeping smash The Silence of the Lambs. Today, comparisons are inevitable, especially considering that Manhunter includes the first cinematic appearance of everyone's favorite psychotic culinary critic, Hannibal Lecter.

Will Graham (William Petersen) is a retired FBI profiler. When a strange new series of murders starts, his former boss Jack Crawford convinces him to consult on the case. Crawford is the same character that Scott Glenn played in Silence, though here the role is played by Dennis Farina (Out of Sight, Snatch). Obviously, Farina plays the role a bit saltier than Scott did. We were also amused to see that this was one of his first roles. That's kind of hard to imagine, especially since they passed that law that says he has to be in every adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel Hollywood makes.

"No, this isn't a CD player, it's a cell phone.
Yes, it's still the 1980's here."
The killer is nicknamed the Tooth Fairy by the Atlanta P.D., because of the savage bite marks he's left on his victims. When Graham is brought in to the case, the Tooth Fairy has already killed two families, one in Birmingham and another in Atlanta. He kills on the full moon, and there are about three weeks left until the next one. So Graham has to work fast, or another family will die.

In order to get his groove back, Graham visits an old friend, Hannibal Lecter. Years before, Graham was the officer who brought Lecter down, though Lecter nearly gutted him in the process.

The appearance of Lecter in this movie and in The Silence of the Lambs is a study in the differences between interpretations of the same character. We're sure everyone remembers Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. His glass-faced cell, the dungeon-like corridor, Dr. Chilton's warnings, and finally Anthony Hopkins outrageously creepy performance. None of that is in Manhunter. Graham arrives at Lecter's cell without any preliminaries. The cell, and indeed the entire building, is painted bright white. And Lecter, played by Brian Cox, has a much more casual attitude than that of the psychopath we all know and love. Cox''s performance reminded us, as the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans that we are, of a middle-aged version of James Marsters' Spike. The only thing that Cox and Hopkin's interpretations of the character have in common are an obvious impatience with prison procedures and a gift for social engineering. While Hopkin's performance was great cinema, Cox just fits into the movie into which he's been dropped.

"A census taker once tried to test me.
Then I had some fava beans and a nice chianti"
If you're expecting any new cannibal jokes, don't. Lecter's more... gourmet tendencies were not present in the novel Red Dragon. In fact, the only reference was a headline in Harris' fictional tabloid of choice, the National Tattler, and it could be safely assumed that Harris meant it to be a gross exaggeration on that publication's part. But for The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter was solidly in the realm of the man-eaters. It is also interesting that the outrageously bizarre ending of Hannibal (so disliked that the upcoming movie based on the book will be changing it) was also foreshadowed by a Tattler headline in The Silence of the Lambs.

The asylum deserves mention, because it is emblematic of something that annoyed us throughout the movie. Manhunter was directed Michael Mann, who created the TV series Miami Vice. At this point, Mann was obviously a bit obsessed with the South Beach style, because nearly every building used in Manhunter was picked with that style in mind, no matter how inappropriate they might be. So the asylum that is holding a psycho that has killed or nearly killed more than a dozen people looks suspiciously airy and unsecured. That's because the building used was actually the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which has nothing in common with any asylum. The families that the Tooth Fairy kills also look like they live in model homes in some very exclusive Miami communities.

Polident's Super Bowl commercial
didn't go over well.
Then there's the Tooth Fairy's pad. This is not a murder mystery, so we meet Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan) long before the FBI finds him. In Red Dragon, Dolarhyde is a somewhat deformed man who was twisted by being raised by his demented grandmother. As an adult, he still lives in the boarding house his grandma owned, and still sleeps in his old, child-sized room. It was pure Southern Gothic. But in Manhunter, Dolarhyde lives in an ultramodern house. His living room includes, among other things, a huge wall hanging depicting a Viking probe photograph of the Martian landscape, a TV that shows nothing but static, track lighting, and an overhead lamp fixture that looks like it was stolen from the set of This Island Earth. It all speaks more of an 80's fashion victim than of a truly disturbed killer.

And while we're complaining, did they get the music from Vangelis' garage sale?

We're done complaining for now.

"Curse you Firestone!"
At its best, this is a nice slice of 80's crime filmmaking. There are several taut sequences, and the dialogue and performances are engaging. Kudos especially to Petersen, who underplays his "cop who can get into the mind of a killer" character. Noonan is very effective as Dolarhyde, and there are good supporting performances from Farina and Joan Allen, who plays a blind woman who begins dating Dolarhyde.

But now we're back to complaining. Mann also adapted the screenplay, and for some reason he dropped the novel's downbeat ending. This wouldn't be all that bad if there were a good reason, but changing the ending as he did, he left a huge void in the story. Lecter's presence in the story becomes nothing more than atmosphere, rather than the pivitol plot point it was in Red Dragon. Perhaps this was a good thing, though: it certainly left Anthony Hopkins with no preconceived notions of how to play the bad Doctor -- and look what sprang forth from his twisted imagination.

Review date: 02/02/2001

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* We're going to use the spelling "Lecter," because that's what it is in the novels, and in The Silence of the Lambs. However, in this movie it is spelled "Lektor" in the credits and "Lecktor" in a newspaper headline. Go back!





























* As an author, Harris is nearly as bad at continuity between books as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his two brothers named James Moriarty. Go back!