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Shelf Life: Manhunter

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Every week, Shelf Life sees Tom White select and talk about a movie that lives on his DVD shelf, one he thinks we should all see.

Mention the name Hannibal Lecter, and everyone will immediately know you are talking about the psychiatrist turned cannibal that lives in Thomas Harris's novels. In 1991, he was brought to the big screen in Silence of the Lambs, with Anthony Hopkins making the character a cinematic icon, and his own, with a memorably chilling performance. The subsequent movies, Hannibal, Red Dragon, and Hannibal Rising, saw the law of diminishing Lecters, with each one going some way to lessen the characters impact. It wasn't until 2012, that t.v. series Hannibal injected new life into the character, and Harris' formula of psychological thriller mixed with a police procedural. But there is one Hannibal Lecter movie that everyone forgets about, one that did things a little differently than what we are used to with adaptions of Harris's work. That was in 1986, with Michael Mann's Manhunter.


Going into Manhunter, you should push Silence of the Lambs, and any thoughts of Anthony Hopkins, out of your head. Mann does away with most of the psychological aspects of Harris's first Lecter novel,  Red Dragon, and presents the story as more of a straight police procedural, with a huge focus on forensic science. William Peterson takes on the role of Will Graham (his look and demeanour seems to have influenced Hugh Dancy's portrayal of the role in the t.v. series), the gifted, but troubled, FBI profiler who is brought on to investigate a series of murders perpetrated by Tom Noonan's Francis Dolarhyde. There is an ominous tone is an ominous tone present in this movie from the opening frame, as we are treated to an atmospheric POV shot of Dolarhyde going about his crime, cutting off just before the murder, and only paid off scenes later as Graham begins his investigation. The look of this film also goes a long way to giving it a lingering sense of dread, with Mann using colour, from warm blues, sickly greens, and clinical whites, to great and unnerving effect.

The only real holdover from the book is Graham's fragile mental state. You are left wondering at all times if his uncanny ability to get into the mind of the killer has damaged, and Peterson plays into that, his Graham being very detached and emotionally distant. When Brian Cox's Hannibal Lecktor (the only time this spelling of the name is used) is introduced, we get to see a different side of Graham. Gone is the confident profiler we were introduced to at the start, all that is left being a scared child which lets us know a lot about the back story between the pair without saying a word. Cox's portrayal doesn't really hold a candle to Hopkins, but he is playing the character drastically different. The menace is there, but it's more overt. You feel Lecktor's hatred for Graham, and overall Lecktor feels more terrifyingly real than Hopkins' Lecter. That is the same for the rest of the movie. Manhunter has a darker, more realistic tone than subsequent Harris adaptions, which had an almost dreamlike air to them, wile still having a similar pitch black tone.


After an hour of following Graham and his investigation, Mann ingeniously flips the script on us, and turns the focus onto Dolarhyde. Our time is short with the character, but Noonan does such a fantastic job with him that he becomes the most memorable part of the movie. You have a picture of Dolarhyde in your mind, and that image is completely shattered when you see the six foot seven inches Noonan, pantyhose on top of his head making this soft spoken killer even more menacing than you could imagine (the actor refused to mingle with the rest of the cast members during breaks in filming, remaining in character the whole time). Noonan does a lot with the little time he is given, and goes through a movies worth of character development in just thirty minutes as he might have found the only thing that can stop his murderous tendencies in the form of blind co-worker Reba (Joan Allen). When his and Graham's stories finally intersects it leads to the biggest departure from the source novel, and one of the greatest shoot out in film history, a hugely entertaining sequence set to the strains of Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

Looking at the Lecter series as a whole, the character, and Thomas Harris' novels, are better served with the approach taken with Silence of the Lambs, which has informed each subsequent movie, but Manhunter works exceptionally well in it's own right. An accomplished spin on a familiar story, the movie's focus on forensic science went onto be a major influence on a variety of t.v. shows and movies, including CSI, which also starred Peterson, The X-Files, Seven, and Fallen. Manhunter is probably a movie that has gone under your radar till now, but one that is definitely worth your time.


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The Movie Bit: Shelf Life: Manhunter
Shelf Life: Manhunter
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