In 1991, a film was released to massive critical acclaim. It became one of only three movies to win all five major Academy Awards, a feat not accomplished since One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It introduced moviegoers to one of the most unsettling yet seductive characters ever to grace the silver screen, Hannibal Lecter, and spawned a film and television franchise that is still going strong in 2016.
That film was Silence of the Lambs, a movie that many in the public believe was the first screen adaptation of the Thomas Harris book series dealing with the character of Hannibal Lecter. It was the first of three films featuring Anthony Hopkins in what has since become his signature role. However, Silence of the Lambs was the second book in the series.
The first book was Red Dragon, the story of FBI agent Will Graham's hunt for a man named Francis Dolarhyde, a serial killer who slaughtered entire families. This entry wasn't adapted to screen until 2002, serving as a prequel to Silence of the Lambs. Many wonder why this was the case. Just why was Red Dragon the third film made?
The answer is Red Dragon was adapted to film before. The film came out in 1986, predating the famous Silence of the Lambs by five years, making it the first film adaptation of the Harris books. That film was Manhunter.
Manhunter was directed by Michael Mann, the creator of the hit TV series Miami Vice. Its title was changed from Red Dragon due to the studio being concerned it would be mistaken for a martial arts film. Surprisingly, it follows Harris's novel very closely, with a script virtually identical to the later 2002 adaptation. But, is Manhunter any good? Let's begin by talking about our three main players: the hero Will Graham, the villain Francis Dolarhyde, and Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter.
Since Manhunter, Will Graham has been portrayed by Edward Norton in Red Dragon, and Hugh Dancy in the TV series Hannibal. In Manhunter, he is portrayed by William Petersen, who many of you will recognize as the heroic Gil Grissom from CSI Las Vegas.
The main trait of the character of Graham is his ability to experience the fantasies and desires of the killers he hunts. Graham is a man who could just have easily been a serial killer himself, but chose to use his skills to help law enforcement. Norton and Dancy both delivered great performances, and though they seemed engaged and consumed by their work, they never seemed thrilled. Petersen was able to capture that thrill in his portrayal.
Graham in this film refers to the killer in very affectionate terms, using phrases like "My Man" and "Sport." As he delves deeper into the killer's mind, he becomes increasingly engrossed in his fantasies, growing excited on several occasions while looking over crime scenes and evidence. One of the best scenes is when he returns to one of the crime scenes and envisions how the Tooth Fairy imagines his victims — not as grisly corpses, but as beautiful angelic beings that love and accept him.
"I see myself accepted, and loved, in the silver mirrors of your eyes." Graham says to the ghostly apparition before him, a reflection of what the monster he hunts can see.
The character of the killer, Francis Dolarhyde, was later portrayed by Ralph Fiennes and Richard Armitage in Red Dragon and Hannibal respectively. Here, he is portrayed by Tom Noonan. Like Petersen, Noonan gives an astonishing performance and is easily the highlight of the film. Noonan is able to capture the character's more pitiful nature, which somehow makes him all the more terrifying.
Noonan's Dolarhyde is almost otherworldly, not only boasting a great physical presence, but speaking in strange, unnatural ways, as if he's forever fighting the urge to explode. His anger is not shown with words, but visuals, such as when he sees his lover with another man and rips the dashboard off the inside of his van.
The character's most terrifying moment is when he kidnaps his lover, the blind Reba, and traps her in his house. He blasts the radio with the song "In A Gadda Da Vida," which masks the sounds of his footsteps as Reba tries to escape, unaware that Dolarhyde is always only a few feet away. The ending of Silence of the Lambs featured a similar scene, and it's no less effective here.
Let's talk about Hannibal Lecter. Hopkins's performance is iconic and no one will ever be as instantly recognizable in the role. However, Cox's more down-to-Earth portrayal is special in its own way. As a matter of fact, Cox was offered the role in the sequel, but due to conflicting schedules and studio bickering, the role eventually went to Hopkins. If Hopkins was a snake, Cox was a jackal.
Often while speaking, Cox's Lecter comes across as incredibly vain, and not in the same way as Hopkins. Cox is more boisterous and lively, his face always fighting not to smile, and his words coming out in such an unrelentingly quick bombardment that he forces the tortured Graham to run out of the room just to escape.
Brian Cox based his performance off serial killer Peter Manuel, and it is plainly visible in the way he works. He is sickeningly full of himself yet also strangely casual. One of the funniest but also most chilling parts of the film is his final on-screen conversation with Graham over the telephone. He calls Graham, gloating that he is unable to find the Tooth Fairy, while at the same time giving him cryptic clues. He has the demeanor of a high schooler taunting a fellow student over boys. That we know he is a cannibal makes this behavior very hard to watch.
Mann is also every bit as skilled a director as Demme, and may have had an even greater attention to detail. In one scene for example, Graham talks to Lecter on the phone. Lecter's taunts eventually cause Graham to have a revelation about the man he is hunting, visually cued by an elevator in the next building rising above his head. This was not an accident. Mann ordered his crew to hit the button for the top floor to correspond with the scene being shot.
Cox had an interesting comparison when questioned about Manhunter vs. Silence of the Lambs. Silence of the Lambs, he said, was gothic. Manhunter by contrast, is very clinical. Environments are shown to be very clean and sterile, which makes the grisly crime scenes "pop" all the more. Manhunter has some fascinating cinematography, done masterfully by Dante Spinotti, who would later work on Red Dragon in 2002. In that film, he captured the look and feel of Lambs very well. Here, he works with a very different palette, creating a film that appears very unnatural, surreal, and dreamlike at times.
The differing styles are best illustrated in the abduction and murder of reporter Freddie Lounds, played in this film by the future villain of James Cameron's Avatar, Stephen Lang. Dolarhyde torments Lounds by forcing him to watch a slideshow of his victims before biting out his tongue and setting him on fire.
In Red Dragon, the grisly slides and the severing of the tongue are shown onscreen. Here, they are not. Instead, we watch the sleazy reporter reduces to tears by the offscreen slides. Given that his character has been so unlikeable beforehand, that he is so deeply affected lets us know how horrible the images must be. Though we don't see them, we too are afraid. When Lounds's tongue is removed, Dolarhyde leans in as if for a kiss. The scene cuts outside and we hear Lounds's agonized cries fill the air.
Lounds meets his end in the same way it transpires in the book — with him tied to a wheelchair, set on fire, and rolled out front of the National Tattler. Unlike in Red Dragon, this delivers a much greater punch to the audience. It is well built up, with the curious guard spotting a faint orange light peaking around the corner of the parking garage. He pays it no mind until the sounds of creaking wheels get louder. He turns and is greeted by the horrific sight of Lounds's body racing right towards him (and right at us).
The movie does have some major departures from the novel. The final confrontation at Graham's house couldn't be shot due to budget cuts, so the film ended with a more typical police shootout at the Dolarhyde home. Still, Mann managed to save face. Dolarhyde's body lays on the floor before Graham, blood spreading out beneath his arms as a grotesque pair of wings. Again, this was deliberate. In death, Dolarhyde has been transformed into the Red Dragon.
Manhunter was one of the first films of its kind, and remains the most unique film in the series. It sports fascinating stylistic choices, a unique brand of acting, and an atmosphere and look that firmly plants the film in the '80s. This, however, shouldn't be considered a detriment to the film. Just because a film isn't ageless doesn't mean it isn't good. One could make legitimate arguments that Manhunter is just as good as (if not better than) Silence of the Lambs.
I am a massive fan of both movies and the styles they showcase. Honestly, as someone who has been studying film for over seven years, I can say with a straight face that Manhunter, like Silence of the Lambs, is a masterpiece.
Speaking of serial killers, if you like horror movies then you may have watched at least one season of American Horror Story. Did you know that many of the characters on AHS are inspired by serial killers just like those above?
Which Hannibal Lecter depiction do you think reigns supreme?