A few years before Anthony Hopkins immortalized the role of Hannibal Lecter, Bryan Cox was breathing life into author Thomas Harris’ psychopath in the 1986 film Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann. Cox played the role in a more even-keeled, sedate manner. Didn’t win any Oscars for it, but it was definitely a solid performance to an otherwise excellent thriller. Maybe he didn’t trump Hopkins, but the film, in our opinion, did. Here’s why:
Before his Oscar nominations, Mann had done some pretty amazing work, including the heist drama Thief, the TV film The Jericho Mile, and, of course, his work on Miami Vice. He took Manhunter two years into his run on Vice, and every frame of this Hannibal Lecter movie is a textbook example of a guy at the top of his game. While some elements are dated today, keep in mind it was his goal to make a contemporary thriller. This film belongs in the Eighties, no doubt, but most of it still feels fresh even 20 years later. It also set the stage for a smarter breed of thriller, and thanks to this, the Academy would start looking at these films differently when it came to considering them for Best Picture. Because of Mann’s work here, director Jonathan Demme was able to reap the benefits a few years later with an Oscar win for Silence.
While Mann’s film is a strong police procedural, he builds up Dollarhyde’s presence with the right amount of monster movie panache, keeping him an enigma until the murder of obnoxious news guy Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang). From there, he uses Tom Noonan, who proves to be far creepier than Ralph Fiennes was in the role in Red Dragon several years later. Plus, Mann’s Dollarhyde doesn’t have to resort to the twisted dancing and body piercings of Buffalo Bill from Silence to be effectively nerve-wracking.
William Petersen would reach the height of his popularity as Grissom on the original CSI, but some will remember him first from this and William Friedkin’s often-overlooked masterpiece To Live and Die in L.A. No idea why this guy didn’t have a bigger movie career. He’s likable, intense, and the full embodiment of a “mind hunter” in the role of Will Graham (later played in Red Dragon by Edward Norton). He brings a nice balance of vulnerability and machismo to the role.
The Cop-Killer Dynamic
In Silence of the Lambs, Demme knew he had something special on his hands with Hopkins as Lecter. Unfortunately, the relationship between Clarice and Lecter overshadows the cop-killer collision, in spite of the fact that the ending is pretty solid. But with Manhunter, Mann does a much better job of emphasizing the cop-killer dynamic and it builds to an unforgettable finale, which, while we’re on the subject…
In A Gadda Da Vida, Baby…
The Iron Butterfly song Dollarhyde plays while he’s terrorizing his blind colleague Reba McClane at the end of the film is such an effective build to detective Graham’s balls-to-the-wall rescue attempt. While Red Dragon played closer to the book’s ending, Mann’s liberties with the finale are the perfect payoff to the cat-and-mouse game he’s created through the majority of the film. The other films are far less stylish.
So what do you think, FG Nation? Are we right or wrong? Share your thoughts below!