Slashers & Serial Killers in Review: MANHUNTER (1986)
You Owe Me Awe!
Manhunter (1986) – essay by Kit Power
Expect spoilers. If you don’t want to be spoiled, go watch the damn movie. I’d recommend it.
As soon as the list of movie titles went up for this project, I knew I wanted to cover Natural Born Killers. And I had initially promised myself that’d do – there’s a lot of talented writers in the machine mean pool these days, and it’s not like I don’t have the odd other project to be getting on with.
And then I saw that Manhunter was on the list.
So here we are.
And it’s impossible for me to talk about the movie without talking about it’s more famous cousin, Silence Of The Lambs – covered on this site with admirable enthusiasm by Chad A Clarke. I don’t have much to add to his piece, but I do want to note that like many, if not most people, I saw …Lambs first, and discovered Manhunter later – my memory is as part of a late night film season on Channel 4.
The reason that’s important is that, although the two movies don’t have a single member of cast or crew, as far as I know, they do share a common ancestry, in that both are based on Thomas Harris novels, and even more crucially, both feature a certain erudite doctor with a taste for human flesh.
Red Dragon was the first novel to feature one of the great cinema bogeymen of the last quarter century – Hannibal Lecktor (spelling from the film). And Manhunter is the first movie to feature him.
I think a big part of the reason I wanted to talk about Manhunter was that I have this vague idea it’s still a relatively under discussed film. …Lambs is, inescapably, the ground zero Hannibal movie, in the public consciousness, and the brilliant performances and deserved awards and plaudits seem to suck all the oxygen out of the room – especially given the many sequels it spawned, none of which came even close to recapturing the dark magic of …Lambs itself. And of course, more recently, the critically acclaimed (and it must be said rather gorgeously made) Hannibal TV series retold the Will Graham/Hannibal origin story at satisfying length.
Still… Manhunter came first, and it’s a fundamentally different animal from anything that came after.
It’s also my favourite Thomas Harris adaptation so far.
There’s a few reasons for that, but many of them are tied up in the direction and editing. This is a gorgeously shot film, with understated brilliance in almost every set up. The beach house in which we first encounter Will Graham and his wife is beautifully framed, and throughout, the decisions about the use of tracking shots, location framing, and angles exude a quiet brilliance and a ruthlessly focussed cinematic eye.
It’s true that, as with much of even Mann’s best work, there is a certain coldness that can border on sterility, at times – especially in some of the none-more-’80’s architecture and musical cues this movie employs – but, for me, that almost clinical approach fits so perfectly with the subject matter that it elevates the viewing experience. At its heart, this is a police procedural with psychological insight in place of standard investigation, as Will forensically tries to analyse and then recreate the mindset of a serial killer, in order to find them before they strike again. The mostly matter of fact, static film making very much feeds into that, allowing the tension to build via the performances and the content of the story, rather than overt use of flashy techniques or crazed editing.
Whist the film does, eventually, introduce us to The Tooth Fairy killer (a mesmerising turn by Tom Noonan) this is resolutely WIll Graham’s story, and for my money William Petersen does a great job with the role. Like the film making, his performance is for the most part very contained, and most of his best moments are slow burns, as he stares into the camera and just thinks, gears turning as he tries to recreate the killer in his own mind. There are a couple of moments where he explodes into emotion, and frankly I don’t find those as strong – especially on the occasions where he’s talking to himself – but on the whole, his descent from family man to obsessively focussed investigator is very well realised – as is his spikey relationship with the manipulative Jack Crawford, played here with admirable shiftiness by Dennis Farina.
One of the features I love most about the movie is that it’s an incredibly slow burn, with very few scenes of overt violence or action; and yet, despite that, I find it to be an utterly gripping experience from start to finish. I also think the sparing use of graphic imagery – the bloodstained bedroom Will begins his investigation in, the glimpses of crime scene photographs, even the incredibly fast shot of the burning man in the wheelchair – enhances that tension, the implied violence of sudden intense bursts of imagery serving to ratchet the tension rather than diminish it.
That’s also baked into the story, in that as soon as Graham has gone to visit Lecktor, the movie shifts from a straight investigation into a… well, I was going to say cat and mouse affair, but it’s really more cat and cat and cat, as Lektor tries to manipulate The Tooth Fairy into killing Graham, and Graham tries to use his partial knowledge of their communications to snare The Tooth Fairy.
It’s a tremendously exciting section of the film, as Graham’s initial trap fails, the journalist who Graham used to try and bait The Tooth Fairy is horribly killed (his ride in the aforementioned flaming wheelchair an authentic jump-in-your-seat moment, especially if you have the surround sound cranked) and Graham has to make a snap decision about whether or not to allow a communication from Lektor to go out to The Tooth Fairy when the FBI has yet to crack the code – a decision that comes back to haunt him when they later uncover the massage Lektor was passing on contained Graham’s home address. SImilarly, the sequence where Lektor’s message is discovered, and the lab has 30 minutes to analyse it before it must be returned to its hiding place or Lektor will know his communication channel has been compromised is utterly pulse pounding – a remarkable feat for a sequence that is mainly just people sitting or standing around and talking in a series of oddly lit rooms.
But that’s a huge part of the attraction of this movie, for me, and why it’s a film I return to so often and with so much pleasure. It understands that for tension, you don’t always need huge, world threatening stakes, or nonstop kinetic action (not that there’s anything wrong with those types of stories, of course – Robocop rules, y’all!). All you need are characters you desperately care about, a dangerous situation with decisions being made on incomplete information and with unclear outcomes… and a ticking clock.
And that brings me neatly onto Lektor – played here by Brian Cox.
As with …Lambs, Lektor is only in a handful of scenes, and as with …Lambs, he nonetheless dominates the narrative, his coded communications with The Tooth Fairy driving the bulk of the narrative tension, at least up to the final act. And look, like most people, I saw Hopkins first, and like most people, I felt for a long time that he simply was Hannibal, in all his deranged, mannered glory…
But then I rewatched Cox in Manhunter.
It’s such an understated performance, that’s the thing. Like the rest of the film, there’s a muted quality to the way Cox plays it, a calmness. Hopkin’s eyes gleam in the role, Mikkelsen twinkles with dark amusement… but Cox is simply dead eyed, like a shark. You see the intelligence, the bland curiosity, and sure, the violence beneath the surface, as with the others… but with Cox, you also see the banality, the boredom that Lektor experiences in his day to day.
See, here’s a confession, I actually don’t like Hannibal Lecter as a cultural icon. Let me be clear what I’m saying – he’s brilliantly written and realized (at least in his first two appearances, and in the TV show) and each actor has brought something superb to the role (even if, in Hopkins case, diminishing returns kicked in for the sequels). My objections are philosophical, perhaps even moral, and expressed simply; it’s that I find the whole idea of the sociopathic Nietzschian superman utterly repellent and bogus. Repellent, because serial killers are not misunderstood geniuses but (as the Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill more realistically display) deeply damaged people who commit evil acts; and bogus, because the vast majority of serial killers are not hyper genius philosophers. They just aren’t.
Again, to be clear, both Red Dragon, and Silence Of The Lambs are superb novels – breathtaking works that blur the line between crime and horror fiction, and Manhunter and …Lambs are both favourite movies of mine. I’m not saying I don’t like these works, or that you shouldn’t.
I am saying that I find Hannibal kind of gross, and Hannibal festishization I find really gross, and while I enjoy Hannibal on screen and in the books, I don’t like the fact that I enjoy him, because I think he really is evil, and I do not enjoy how some of his charming quirks seem to work to mitigate that evil.
Which is why the Cox portrayal is my favourite. Because it contains that final component that the others are missing, I think – the boredom that truly lies at the core of Lektor – that boredom, that, for all his fetishization of manners and decorum, is the real reason he delights in killing and eating people.
It’s telling that, certainly in his movie career, his murder of ‘innocents’ all occur off camera and in the back story, whereas the people he kills on screen are either to necesitate his escape, or because they have earned the animus of both the audience and Lektor himself. It really stacks the deck, and I think goes some way to explaining how this character has become so likable, even beyond the normal tropes about safely enjoying the movie villain.
But with the Cox portrayal, you can see the man who murdered his female psychiatric patients in ‘bad ways’ and ate them. Not because they’d offended him, or been rude, or any of the bullshit excuses we might, in our own dark, Falling Down power fantasies, twist into a valid reason to unleash the worst instincts of our ids – at least in the safe environment of a movie or novel, anyway. No, Cox’s Lektor did it, you feel, just because he could – and because he was bored.
That’s why I still think his version of the character is the truest, most definitive take, and it’s also a huge part of why Manhunter is my favourite Thomas Harris adaptation.
Well, that and the last seven minutes of the movie, where the tension finally breaks, Graham confronts the killer, and all hell breaks loose, to a soundtrack choice that I am sure to this day makes Tarantino green with envy.
But if you’ve already seen the movie, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
And if you don’t, go watch it. It’s really fucking good.
Kit Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as front man (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo, http://www.disciplesofgonzo.com