Manhunter (1986) [Midnight Movie]

Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorites—easily in my top twenty—yet I almost always hate movies about serial killers. It’s not the subject matter so much as the sloppy way its handled. On the other hand, the first three Hannibal Lector novels were like crack to me and I inhaled them in a single week. (I never bothered with the newer stuff that dug into Lector’s childhood because I don’t want that particular mystery ruined.) The way Lector turns the tables on his captors in Silence was one of the earliest moments I can remember in which I knew I wanted to tell stories.

Before Anthony Hopkins immortalized the character in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 masterpiece (I rarely use that word so don’t accuse me of being hyperbolic), there was Michael Mann’s lesser known Manhunt, based on the original Lector novel, Red Dragon. Simultaneously an unmistakable product of the 80s and somehow timeless, the movie looks unbelievable in HD. It might even be the best looking film of the series, and the synthy soundtrack gives it a meaner edge than its much more conventional remake (which I also enjoyed).
While Hopkins probably makes a better Hannibal Lector than Brian Cox, overall I prefer Manhunter’s cast to the remake. William Peterson plays Will Graham, the FBI agent who captured Lector and almost got killed in the process. Brian Cox plays Lector a little more brutishly than Hopkins while Tom Noonan (who was born to play psychopaths) plays Francis Dollarhyde, the Red Dragon killer. Then you’ve got Dennis Farina as the old colleague who drags Graham back into the FBI, and Joan Allen as the blind woman to whom Dollarhyde unexpectedly warms up.
Manhunter is remarkably faithful to its source material until the action-packed finale, but Dollarhyde’s affair with Allen’s character is so rushed it’s a wonder why they included it at all. The movie quickly stumbles through these scenes (and I suspect there was a better cut at some point), which are ultimately resolved by a cheat. It’s one of the few aspects the remake did better.
Nonetheless, Manhunter is exactly the kind of movie I live for, the kind of electric stuff that makes routine thrillers and police procedurals sickening to the stomach. It’s the reason lesser movies like Kiss the Girls are so unimpressive. We’ve seen what this kind of movie is capable of accomplishing, so why do we have to suffer through bottom-of-the-barrel shit like Tyler Perry playing Alex Cross?

Silence of the Lambs is still the absolute best of these films, but Graham, who managed to catch Lector because he’s haunted by thoughts only serial killers should have, is almost as complex as Clarice… almost. Even if you’ve seen Red Dragon, it’s worth seeing it done from Michael Mann’s perspective. Manhunter is a fantastic movie.

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