It actually took me twice to watch the film before I could review it. The first time, I realized I was watching a criminally underrated film that had been all but buried by Silence of the Lambs. You see, this had been the first adaptation of a Hannibal Lecter (spelled Lecktor in this film for some reason) novel. As such, it serves as a wonderful example of how two completely different filmmakers approach the same material. However, as much as the film worked, I thought many of the box blurbs (ie, those unusual quotes on the box making it seem like the contents of the DVD can cure cancer or at least gingivitis) were overdone. One even proclaimed this to be superior to Silence of the Lambs. I was laughing at such quotes. How can anything compare?
The second time, I realized something. Entertainment Weekly’s quote about it being “better than Silence of the Lambs” was not completely unfounded. Well, alright, Silence is still the superior film. But this was more than just an overlooked film. This was a masterpiece of suspense that is one of the best films Michael Mann (yes, Heat and Collateral Michael Mann) has ever made.
I feel guilty even recapping the plot. Oh well, here it goes: William Graham (William Petersen) is dragged out of retirement to track down the “Tooth Fairy” (Tom Noonan). He briefly seeks help from the captured Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) before trying to find the serial killer before he can attack his family.
In other words, this is the exact same plot as 2002’s Red Dragon. Of course, they are adapted from the same book. But Manhunter uses the material to far better ends. For one, it uses the same meticulous detail with its FBI investigation as Silence. One scene in Silence even recalls Manhunter. Clarice Starling was forced to enter Lecter’s mind. Yet this was dangerous territory and no real scene in Silence of the Lambs captured that terror. Manhunter did. Graham, time and time again, replayed the crimes in his head to disturbing detail. He is slowly going as mad as the people he chases.
“What was my disadvantage?” Lecktor asks Graham
Yet is Lecktor the only one who is insane? Is Graham and the FBI becoming as callous and unfeeling as Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy had been. Manhunter doesn’t answer, but at least is not afraid to ask. So many scenes here recall that dialogue, be it an agent laughing at the Tooth Fairy’s sexual problems or Graham’s dreams. Later filmmakers (especially Ratner) never bothered to address this. To them, it was about the killers. Mann knew differently.
Also, frankly, Manhunter is the only film that uses Lecter as intended by Thomas Harris. Lecter was a supporting character. He was used as a foil to the agents. Yet the agents are the focus of the work. People forget that Anthony Hopkins was only on screen for 17 minutes of Silence of the Lambs. Why? The focus was Clarice. Ratner’s Red Dragon morphed into a sort of Hannibal 2 with Hopkins upstaging Edward Norton at every possible moment. That was not how it was supposed to be.
In Manhunter, Cox and Petersen are on an even level. Granted, Cox is in the film for only three scenes. However, we find as much about the character in those few scenes as Hopkins did in the running time of Hannibal. Cox is cunning, intelligent, methodical, and hungers for revenge. The viewers get a complete character in ten minutes. It takes a very talented filmmaker to accomplish this. And an equally talented actor. Cox portays a “Lecter” that is perfectly capable of standing next to Hopkins. Sadly, we never saw Cox in the role again. It would be an interesting exercise to have seen him in Silence of the Lambs.
I apologize if this review sounds too much like a comparison. Frankly, though, that is the only way to address the film at this point. People will ask if it is better than the other Lecter films. The answer is yes. It is a direct peer to Silence of the Lambs and deserves some recognition. I highly recommend this film for those who are seeking the perfect alternative to the worn out “Hannibal” series.