Manhunter (1986) Review

by Eleanor Sciolistein

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Though somewhat dated (the almost nostalgic synth-led soundtrack, in particular, is so rooted in the 80’s it might as well have shoulder pads and a perm) 1986’s Manhunter represents a definite rise in quality from the previous two entries which, in fairness, is mirrored in the respective quality of the novels on which they are based.  

The plot, in which former FBI agent Will Graham, played here by a young William Peterson, recognisable to most as Grisham from the similarly themed cop show C.S.I. is coaxed out retirement in order to lend his expertise to the pursuit of serial killer Francis Dolerhyde, christened by the media as the ‘Tooth Fairy’. 

Graham’s retirement from the force had been foisted upon him by his successful but deeply damaging pursuit and arrest of Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter. A villain he is forced to once again confront in order to consult him for help with the psychological profiling of The Tooth Fairy. 

Featuring Hannibal’s first appearance on screen, Micheal Mann’s adaptation of Harris’s novel Red Dragon, chose not only to change the title to ‘Manhunter’ (because De Laurentis thought people would see the word ‘dragon and think it was a kung-fu movie)  but to also slightly renames Hannibal himself, the spelling of his name being changed to’ Lecktor’ for some peculiar reason. 

Whilst this detail is inconsequential, the contrast in depictions of the character is fascinating. 

It is worth mentioning here that Hannibal’s creator Thomas Harris is said to have based Lecter at least in part on his exchanges with the real-life murderous surgeon Alfredo Bali Traverno

 Whilst visiting a prison in order to interview an inmate for another story, Harris encountered Traverno and, so the legend goes, mistook him for the prison doctor. In a description which is oddly reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins portrayal of Lecter, Harriss described Traverno as a  ‘lithe’ man with a ‘certain elegance to him’ who ‘stood very still’. 

Harriss went on to converse with the ' doctor’ in an exchange that clearly influenced his later depiction of the interactions between Clarice Starling and Lecter, with the convicted surgeon asking probing questions about Harriss’ personal reactions to the other inmates and his feelings. 

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What is interesting about this ‘origin’ story for the character is that although we can see elements of it in Hopkin’s interpretation of Lecter,  Scottish actor Brian Cox chose to go in a slightly different but no less intriguing direction. 

Rather than Balli Traverno, Cox chose to base his portrayal on British serial killer Peter Manuel (who ‘brilliantly’ but unsuccessfully provided his own defence in court, having previously been acquitted of other crimes after representing himself). 

Cox’s version of Hannibal, though perhaps less satisfying overall and lacking the permeating malice of Hopkins’ version is nevertheless unsettling in its oddly believable realism, the hypnotising intensity of his stare giving the impression that beneath the veneer of geniality something dark and extremely dangerous is lurking.

Cox’s Hannibal, wet lipped and predatory, is more fast-talking than Hopkins, giving the character a probing malevolence. As a viewer, you almost feel him darting and searching around the other character’s minds, feeling for chinks, cracks and ways to enter. It is interesting that in casting Cox was asked to audition with his back turned so that those in charge of casting could consider the effect of his voice alone. Ironic, when much that is disturbing about Cox’s portrayal is the intensity of almost unblinking gaze, Mann cleverly using the bars of the cell to frame Hannibal’s stares, an element which would be taken a step further by Demme in The Silence of Lambs but with is nevertheless used effectively here. 

Though Hannibal is given only a relatively small amount of screen time (reflective of his less prominent role in the novel) Cox’s is a memorably menacing interpretation which is all the more affecting because of its apparent lack of Hollywood sheen. Whilst Hopkin’s version is instantly a movie monster for the ages, Cox somehow looks and feels like he might actually have stepped from the headlines. 

His is not the only noteworthy performance however as Tom Noonan as Francis Dlerhyde deserves credit for an understated but emotionally rich portrayal. The sight of him quietly crying in anguish after having placed his partner's hand over his scarred mouth captures beautifully the flickers of sympathy that Harris aimed to elicit for the character. 

Considered by some to be a better interpretation than the later ‘Red Dragon’ Manhunter remains an interesting and well put together thriller, more than deserving of your time. 

Also interesting is the list of other actors considered for the Hannibal role in this movie, with John Lithgow, Brian Dennehy and even director of that other horror classic The Exorcist Willaim Friedkin, being considered for the role 

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