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Friday, September 2, 2016
Michael Mann's stylish, heavily 80s-centric cop movie-slash-horror thriller MANHUNTER (1986) introduced us to suave, sophisticated, and thoroughly evil Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Will Graham (William Petersen in an excellent performance) is a talented profiler who can get into the minds of the serial killers he's seeking out, but at the price of his own sanity. Retired after an attack by Lecter that almost killed him, Graham is lured back into the game when a maniac known as "The Tooth Fairy" starts murdering entire families. Graham visits Lecter in his cell for advice, and to see if the sight of his old adversary will reawaken his suppressed instincts.
A bonafide cult classic, MANHUNTER's biggest fans will tell you that it's superior to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, while its detractors dismiss it as day-glo 80s cheese on the order of "Miami Vice." I'm not sure which Lecter film is best but I find this one to be first-rate in every respect.
Tom Noonan's Francis Dollarhyde, aka "The Tooth Fairy", is an imposing figure whose calm, deliberate actions and quiet demeanor make him even scarier. Petersen, in a thoughtful, soulful performance, makes for a highly sympathetic hero who's appalled by the thoughts and feelings in which he must immerse himself in order to think like a killer.
The rest of the cast are fine as well. Dennis Farina has one of his best roles ever as FBI man Jack Crawford (played by Scott Glenn in SILENCE), who persuades the reluctant Graham to contribute his special skills to the investigation. The withering look he gives some dubious detectives after one of Graham's unusual deductions is proven right is priceless.
Stephen Lang is also ideally cast as the vile newshound Freddy Lounds--his captivity by the Tooth Fairy is a terrifying sequence--as is Joan Allen as Dollarhyde's blind coworker with whom he fantasizes about a "normal" romantic relationship. (The scene in which Dollarhyde takes her to a vet so that she can caress an anesthetized tiger is brilliantly done.)
The highlight of the film, of course, is Brian Cox as Lecter. Caged in a stark white cell and stripped of anything that might conceivably be used as a weapon, this version of the famous character is cold, calculating, always wary and observant of the slightest detail, yet dulled and weary of a confinement which prevents him from interacting with the world in his own unique way.
In this environment, his pretensions of sanity and normalcy are irrelevant, so he's very blunt and straightforward with Graham. The effect is chilling, with Lecter coming off as a creature of great cunning and intellect but absolutely dead inside, and we dread the thought of this thing ever walking free again.
The only good thing about the 2002 remake, RED DRAGON, is that it manages to make MANHUNTER look even better in comparison. A key scene shared by both films offers a good contrast--Lecter is allowed the privacy of a phone call to his lawyer, but instead manages to call a literary agent and get Graham's home address from the secretary, which he plans to give to The Tooth Fairy and thus place Graham's wife (Kim Griest) and son in grave danger.
Brian Cox turns the scene into one of the film's high points, coolly finessing himself an outside line with a foil gum wrapper and then feigning an unctuous joviality with the secretary until she comes through with the address. Once procured, Lecter drops the fascade, pops the gum into his mouth, and returns to his coldly unsettling self.
Anthony Hopkins, in the remake, performs almost the exact same scene but is too intent on being creepy to make it fun. Several other scenes that are key emotional high points in MANHUNTER--the hidden fingerprint, the sleeping tiger, a stunning videotape revelation, etc.--are either glossed over or botched in RED DRAGON, as are most of the main characterizations.
With a smooth synth score (try to ignore the awful song that ends the film) and visual style to burn, MANHUNTER is an irresistible kitschy-cool 80s period piece whose pastel veneer masks a warm and fiercely emotional core.