It’s an odd distinction, being the least successful film with Hannibal Lecter in it. It’s a fate that Michael Mann’s 1986 serial killer procedural Manhunter doesn’t deserve, but as William Munny once said, “deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
To start out, let’s just say, mistakes were made.
The genesis of Manhunter is a pretty tortured one. Famed – and somewhat infamous – producer Dino DeLaurentis acquired the rights to Thomas Harris’ bestselling novel Red Dragon. However, he had also just come off the box office failure of Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon (1985). For reasons that would escape even the most sage-like, DeLaurentis concluded that using the title of the book was “too soon” after Year of the Dragon, and, despite the fact that the films were being released an entire year apart, ol’ Dino thought moviegoers might get them confused.
Which is where the no good, white-label/black-text, generic name “Manhunter” came from. It’s atrocious, really – it threw away an entire built-in audience from the book, and it tells you nothing distinctive about the film. Imagine Star Wars being called “Space Movie” or The Silence of the Lambs as “Female FBI Agent.” (I like “Space Movie” better than Manhunter).
The film also suffered a bit of bad luck in its casting of William L. Petersen as the lead. That’s not to say that Petersen was bad – on the contrary – he was just unknown. In fact Petersen is so good in Manhunter that it’s depressing to think of the career he should have had, instead of going on to become famous for his 206 seasons of CSI. Petersen shimmers in his role as Will Graham, a former FBI agent whose skill of getting inside the minds of murderers takes such a personal toll on him that coming out of retirement for “one last job” is not just a risk to his newly settled life, but to his sanity. Petersen never goes over the top with his acting, even when it would be easy to do so. His confidence as an actor who at the time held only one other significant film role under his belt is truly something.
That other significant role is how Petersen landed the part in the first place. Big names like Paul Newman, Richard Gere, and Mel Gibson were all on the short list to play Will Graham before Mann spotted Petersen in William Freidkin’s sorely underseen To Live and Die in L.A.. Petersen gives a live wire performance of a man who isn’t even looking for the edge, he’s so far past it. After one look at To Live and Die in L.A., Mann had his man.
Sadly, To Live and Die found no great audience either in theaters, making Petersen an unknown quantity when Manhunter came out nine months later.
So, we have a poorly named film, a lead actor who audiences couldn’t pick out of a line-up (it maybe didn’t help that Petersen barely looks like the same guy in To Live and Die in L.A.), a studio with no idea how to market the movie, and a producer who thinks it’s a good idea to sever obvious ties to best-selling source material.
As for Mann, he had suddenly become a hot commodity again after bringing Miami Vice to the small screen in 1984. His first film, Thief starring James Caan from 1981 is a crime-noir classic. His second film, The Keep, from 1983 (an odd European horror film that flopped badly) cut his career momentum off at the knees. The huge success of Miami Vice restored his capital in Hollywood and Mann chose Red… (sigh) “Manhunter” as his return to film.
You can see the visual pallet of Vice throughout Manhunter. It’s a slick film with a distinctly 80s style. Pastels, sun-baked beach-side scenes, and suit jackets with shoulder pads. The dating is of mild impact though, because what Mann produced is so intense and relentlessly devoid of commercial concerns. What’s unique about the movie is how it handles the internal life of Will Graham and what he is chasing. Namely, a terrifying Tom Noonan as “The Tooth Fairy” – a serial killer with a fetish for a William Blake painting, and a mean pair of dentures.
Manhunter spends a lot of time with Graham; walking through crime scenes, putting himself in the killer’s footsteps. He’s not just striding into a house where horrors took place, he’s walking through the Tooth Fairy’s mental space, and with every second he spends there, you feel the psychological strain he’s under (the short-lived but brilliant Hannibal series on NBC leaned into this aspect even more heavily). While the film has its share of cop stuff, even that is muted – all in the favor of having you watch Will Graham think. Which I suppose doesn’t sound exciting. But the intensity of what’s going on behind Petersen’s eyes feels like nothing less than a series of life or death, hanging on by a thread type moments. It feels that way because that’s exactly what they are to Graham.
Now, let’s get to Hannibal Lecter (or Lecktor, as it’s spelled in Manhunter). Long before Brian Cox began psychologically tormenting his children on Succession, he did it here with Will Graham. Cox’s take is less theatrical and more matter of fact than Anthony Hopkins’ famous performance in The Silence of the Lambs. Cox’s screen time is even shorter than Hopkins’ 16 minutes. He sure does make great use of it, though. While Hopkins leaned heavily on the highly cultured nature of his Hannibal, that aspect is only implied in Manhunter by Cox’s near-perfect diction. He comes off as slightly less aristocratic – almost like an unusually well-read longshoreman.
While it’s hard to compare the work of Cox against the iconography that Jonathan Demme and Anthony Hopkins created in Silence, it is more than fair to say that Cox, with his dead-beady eyes and casual malice, is more than serviceable in the role. In fact, I can imagine a small universe of people who might wave their hand at blasphemy and find it more grounded. Superior, even.
Petersen has only one in-person scene with Cox in the film (they later speak by phone). Graham may have been Hannibal’s captor, but when they meet in an impossibly pale, antiseptic jail cell, you soon see that Graham is a prisoner of a sort too. Hannibal Lecktor still lives in his head. And when Lecktor so expertly pushes Graham’s buttons, Graham runs from the cell and down a winding path of stairs as if chased by wolves. The thing is, he can’t escape the pack. Because the wolves aren’t behind him. They’re inside of him.
There are a great many other things to praise in Manhunter. There’s a wonderful turn by a very young Joan Allen as a bind woman who briefly makes the Tooth Fairy reconsider his mission to become the Red Dragon. Stephen Lang is remarkably smarmy as the ill-fated tabloid reporter, Freddy Lounds. Dennis Farina makes a fine Jack Crawford too. As well, the procedural detail in Manhunter goes far beyond what most crime films of its day bothered to attempt. It also looks grim and beautiful at the same time. In many ways, I think Mann found the visual aesthetic he has since matched to the masculine themes he’s been making movies about ever since (see HEAT). In that regard, Manhunter is Mann’s template.
I mentioned before that there is a second scene between Graham and Lecktor that takes place by phone. No one is in danger in this moment, but as Hannibal Lecktor elucidates the motivations of The Tooth Fairy, a great unease builds throughout. Lecktor talks about the diabolical killing efficiency of God. That killing must feel good to God since, “he does it all the time.” He speaks of a plane that God took down and a church roof he dropped on top of his worshipers.
“Why does it feel good,” Graham asks.
Lecktor, feet up in bed, replies, “It feels good, Will, because God has power. And if one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is.”
Lecktor prattles on with more examples of God’s wrath. leaving Will Graham speechless. In that moment, Hannibal Lecktor reminds us all of how small we are. Whether it’s God, or a man convinced he is “becoming” William Blake’s Red Dragon, we are at the mercy of forces beyond our reasoning.
What is there to say after realizing that? Just like Will Graham, I’ve never found an answer.