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 Harris’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 elements 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 mirrors 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 Cox 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.