When Silence Of The Lambs became an Oscar-win­ning smash hit, it devel­oped into the foun­da­tion of a fran­chise that con­tin­ued suc­cess­ful­ly via addi­tion­al films and books as well as a crit­i­cal­ly-acclaimed exten­sion into tele­vi­sion.  However, it’s worth not­ing that Silence Of The Lambs was actu­al­ly the sec­ond film fea­tur­ing the char­ac­ter of Hannibal Lecter.  That dap­per psy­cho made his debut in Manhunter, an adap­ta­tion of Thomas Manhun-posHarris’s Red Dragon that is the odd man out of Lecter cin­e­mat­ic canon — and all the more impres­sive for hav­ing its own sin­gu­lar style sep­a­rate from Silence and its fol­low-ups.

In Manhunter, the focus lies square­ly on Will Graham (William Petersen), an ex-FBI agent cursed with a unique skill for track­ing psy­chopath by “inhab­it­ing” their mind­set.  His old boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) coax­es him out of retire­ment to track down “The Tooth Fairy,” a seri­al killer with the habit of killing entire fam­i­lies at one time.  Despite his fear of los­ing con­trol or his life, Graham plunges into his dan­ger­ous task, occa­sion­al­ly turn­ing to impris­oned for­mer killer foe and ace psy­chol­o­gist Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) for a view into the killer mind­set.  Unfortunately, Lecktor is wily enough to con­tact the killer, a hulk­ing mis­fit named Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), and this sets hunter and killer on a col­li­sion course that leaves sev­er­al peo­ple in the cross­fire.

Manhunter pre­fig­ures the wave of seri­al killer thrillers that would fol­low almost a decade lat­er in the wake of Se7en, offer­ing a unique mix­ture of mys­tery, detec­tive pro­ce­du­ral and psy­cho-dri­ven hor­ror.  It didn’t click with 1986-era view­ers because of its mix­ture of grim sub­ject mat­ter and art­house style… but that same com­bo of Manhun-01ele­ments has made it an endur­ing sleep­er clas­sic.

Its unique style direct­ly flows from Michael Mann, who brings a gen­uine auteur sen­si­bil­i­ty to the mate­ri­al that also pre­fig­ures David Fincher’s approach to Se7en.  Mann adapt­ed the Harris nov­el him­self: he pares it down so Graham’s work can be the  pri­ma­ry con­cern but is dar­ing enough to also devote a sec­tion of the film late in the sec­ond act to Dolarhyde’s sub­plot (this deci­sion pays off nice­ly, set­ting up a tense finale with more char­ac­ter lay­er­ing than usu­al in a seri­al killer thriller).

Mann’s direc­tion lends a baro­que flair to the mate­ri­al: using a puls­ing elec­tron­ic sound­track from Michel Rubini and lush ‘scope-for­mat lens­ing from Dante Spinotti, he cre­ates an intense­ly art­ful style that often plays like a more aus­tere and nar­ra­tive-con­scious respon­se to Dario Argento’s gial­lo films.  His min­i­mal­ism mir­roManhun-02rs the obses­sive­ness of the film’s lead char­ac­ter, real­ly draw­ing us into Graham’s mind­set.  Mann uses this style as a vehi­cle for sev­er­al thrilling sequences, includ­ing an amaz­ing moment where Dolarhyde lash­es out when he thinks he’s been betrayed by his new girl­friend Reba (Joan Allen) and a pulse-pound­ing finale that makes effec­tive use of a house with huge win­dows and a cer­tain clas­sic-rock epic from the ‘60s.

Finally, Manhunter ben­e­fits from an excel­lent cast that synchs up with Mann’s cere­bral-thriller style beau­ti­ful­ly.  Petersen brings an appro­pri­ate inten­si­ty to a hero who qui­et­ly strug­gles to bal­ance his human­i­ty with his scary abil­i­ties while Noonan pro­vides a mir­ror image, effort­less­ly ter­ri­fy­ing the audi­ence as a killer whose gift for sav­age vio­lence con­ceals a fright­ened and eas­i­ly-hurt inner child.  Farina is effort­less­ly con­vinc­ing as the FBI boss and there is also stur­dy sup­port from Allen as Dolarhyde’s charm­ing­ly uncon­ven­tion­al love inter­est and Stephen Lang as a glee­ful­ly nasty tabloid reporter.  The char­ac­ter of Lecter is used sub­tly in this adap­ta­tion so Manhun-03Cox gives an appro­pri­ate­ly restrained per­for­mance, using the character’s intel­li­gence and rhetor­i­cal ruth­less­ness to con­vey chills.

In short, Manhunter is an oft-over­looked gem that hor­ror and thriller fans weaned on Silence Of The Lambs should redis­cov­er.  Its art­ful, intel­lec­tu­al approach was per­haps the biggest influ­ence of any of the Lecter films on the Hannibal t.v. series — and that approach gives the film a dis­tinc­tive mood and feel that helps it remain potent decades after the fact.