These days most people associate Anthony Hopkins with the role of Hannibal Lector, but before his urbane, pantomime version came along Brian Cox had the first stab at the role in this oddball thriller that eschewed the horror aspect of the story in favour of a more straight forward procedural thriller.
I say oddball because in some ways Manhunter was ahead of its time. A flop on its release, it’s easy to see it twenty five years later as the beginnings of Michael Mann’s career. Not all of the preoccupations are in place at this stage (many from the practical point of view of money, Mann was unable to call the shots on what he was involved in at this stage) but the obsessions of duality between authority & criminal, of single-minded individuals pursuing their ends at the destruction of all else and the sense of visual style that would come to dominate his films from Heat onwards. Mann is a man obsessed with obsessive men (if anyone could lend a coolly dispassionate sense to Atlas Shrugged, Mann would be that man). Elsewhere, the obsessive detail of the investigation has become the raison d’etre of numerous television shows since (although Mann had a hand with this with both creative input in Miami Vice and CSI), whilst the use of music as become widespread in numerous action films as well. This isn’t to say that the film is a case of style over substance, but rather that at times the style is almost the substance.
He also has a better understanding than most of what works cinematically. The finale of the book has a Dollarhyde fake his own death and then prey upon Graham’s family at the behest of Lector. Mann didn’t want Lector to be the focus of the film so instead opted for a more traditional race against time structure at the end of the film. The fake out works in the book where the reader can determine the pace of the action, but doesn’t work on film as the later (Hopkins staring) version showed. Instead Mann slowly increases the intensity of the film until the finale is the only thing that makes sense. Come the end, with Dollarhyde defeated, his Graham still has to defeat himself. He also dropped the more fantastical elements surrounding the destruction of Blake’s painting (the source of the novels title), realising that visually it is a step too far. Mann boils the story down to its purest essence, the pursuit of a killer and its effect on the man who hunts him.
On a personnel level I must also note that I don’t think any other director is as good at understanding modern architecture as Mann. He understands that it’s often about movement and often shows his actors gliding through modernist masterpieces as a means of focussing attention on the character rather than the background. This film shows this better than his others, Lector’s cell resides with Richard Meier’s Museum of High Art in Atlanta (far from where the action takes place within the confines of the film) because of the stark nature of its appearance. Later he would also add a greater sense of real geography to his films as well, but this is the film where occasionally the buildings also take centre stage at the expense of the actors.
Cox essayed a different take on Lector than Hopkins, less pantomime villain, more coldly dispassionate killer. His Lector doesn’t acknowledge that he’s insane, isn’t given to commentary on the arts as a means of feigning sanity. He feels more dangerous, less histrionic. The lack of a theatrical backdrop of course increases the sense that he is a caged animal (as does Cox’s physical presence, he looks like a man who could hurt people with his bare hands) rather than someone wheeled out to crack wise about the situation and offer pithy insights. Likewise Peterson’s Graham feels more of an intellectual equal to Lector, and it’s more impressive that he has been broken by him in the past (as good as Foster was in the role, the fault lies with the book – why send a rookie to question someone so dangerous?). Elsewhere, Mann assembles a cadre of actors who would almost form the core of his later films, none more impressive than Tom Noonan as the killer, all awkward physicality when around people, only himself when committing an act of violence (save for an horrendous moment in the middle, the film is relatively bloodless, relying on descriptions of what has happened to deepen the sense of unease). There’s a similar language to his movements as those of Michael Myers, although here is a killer more grounded in reality. His every movement shows an economy, nothing is overstated and come the end he is a truly terrifying physical presence when he suddenly bursts into life.
Mann would go on to make better films, but it’s rare for you to be able to trace all of the stylistic ticks back to such an early film. Save for the weird (but interesting) “The Keep”, he’s been one of the most consistent directors working within the studio system, even his lesser films are still interesting. Manhunter is a fine introduction to a screen villain that eventually would become a classic, but it’s also a superb film in its own right, a slickly made intelligent thriller that would in its own way create its own genre. it also just happens to be one of the best films that was released that year, and a rare thriller from the period where the action didn’t dominate the film, but rather was essential to the story.