Quickie movie review – Manhunter

Another dip into my DVD collection this week. While researching the thriller genre I struggled to find a list of the top thrillers of all time. Maybe I’ll do that in another post. Hmm. Meanwhile, here is my review of the much-overlooked prequel to “Silence of the Lambs”.

“Manhunter” was not a commercial success on release. But in fact it is better than its bigger and somewhat dumber sequel, although Anthony Hopkins certainly portrayed Hannibal Lektor with much aplomb. So without further ado I present to you…

MANHUNTER, 1986

Brian Cox is a different kind of monster in "Manhunter", 1986.

Brian Cox is a different kind of monster in “Manhunter”, 1986.

Will Graham is a former FBI Agent with a difference. He is able to put himself in the mind of a serial killer. His talent has almost cost him his sanity. But when the “Tooth Fairy” starts wiping out whole families, Graham is called out of retirement to help catch the murdering monster. His first task, however, is to re-establish his serial killer mindset. And to do that, he needs the help of  one Hannibal Lektor…

Manhunter is a gorgeous film. Michael Mann, fresh from the TV series Miami Vice, used every trick in the book to make the film reminiscent of 1940s Noirs. There are some beautiful shots, such as Graham’s house overlooking the ocean – shot entirely in blue. Mann, whose earlier film effort “The Keep” also had some excellent photography, provides us with more memorable images here: tigers, the Tooth Fairy’s stocking mask, and of course the death of one rather unpleasant reporter who becomes one of the killer’s victims.

The acting is also pretty nifty. William Peterson plays Will Graham with heart – although he is sometimes a little too downbeat for his own good. But he carries the “leading man” part off nicely. A shame his talents would never be utlilized to such a degree again. Character actor stalwart Brian Cox steps into the biter-mask of Hannibal Lektor this time. Cox is chilling, especially in a bravura scene where he manages to use a telephone from inside a high security cell. The slicked-back hair is something that would remain part of the character in “Silence of the Lambs”.  The late Dennis Farina plays Graham’s FBI buddy to good effect, while Tom Noonan (who appeared recently in “The House of the Devil”) is scary and believable as the damaged, murdering monser. In fact, Noonan’s portayal is much more sympathetic than Ralph Fiennes’ would be in the by-the-numbers remake, “Red Dragon” (2002).

Indeed, by comparing “Manhunter” with “Red Dragon”, we can see how superior “Manhunter” is. There is poetry to this movie. It takes place in a kind of hyper-realism. The strange lighting, the memorable music, all serve to make this a masterpiece of thriller cinema. “Manhunter” is also more generous with its emotions. We see with both unease and pity the heartbreaking attempts of the Tooth Fairy to connect with another human being. But it is an act doomed to failure. Although the filmmakers bring us within a hair’s breadth of sympathy for the killer, it seems that some sins cannot be expurgated.

The action builds from unease to a tense climax that has plenty of surprises. “Manhunter” is psychologically realistic, without the overblown theatrics of “Silence of the Lambs” or “Hannibal”. More than any other film based on the Thomas Harris books, “Manhunter” takes us deep into the world of the serial killer, and shows us that it is a twisted, frightening place. And it does it with style.

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