Hannibal Lecter didn't enter the cinematic lexicon with a scream, but with something of a whimper. Lecter first appeared in Michael Mann's Manhunter in 1986. The film was a commercial failure, recouping less than half its cost on its initial release.
Your average viewer may be unaware that 2002's Silence of the Lambs prequel Red Dragon had been filmed 15 years earlier without Anthony Hopkins in the role that made him a household name. In the twenty-plus years since Silence of the Lambs Hopkins's portrayal of Lector has seen him voted the number one greatest villain of all time by the AFI. This while slipping into self parody, thanks to colossal overexposure and a string of increasingly ridiculous sequels.
In Manhunter Lecter is played by Brian Cox. It is, needless to say, an entirely different performance than what Hopkins delivered. Ask me to choose between the two, and I'll tell you Brian Cox is a finer actor, hands down. Lecter in this film is a decidedly small role, and played with subtlety and finesse. In Red Dragon Hopkins has more scenes, serving up the hammy portrayal of the filmdom's favourite cannibal, channeling what seems to be Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, not a brutal serial killer.
Cox's Lector is menacing for an entirely different set of reasons. His stark white cell is a huge contrast to spooky, dark confines of the later films. (That starkness too manages to set the character apart from the rest of the film, his barrier of harsh, bright white, isolating him from the rest of the film's oversaturated colors.) Cox's performance is one of calm nonchalance. Where Hopkins never lets you forgot he's a monster, Cox wants you to forget; that's his strength. That's what makes his performance all the greater. Hopkins is cruel, calculating, menacing. Cox takes the far more risky approach as an actor, keeping the killer just below the surface. His mannered, if slightly askew, performance might let you forget what a monster he really is.
It's only when he directs the film's villain to Agent Graham's home and commands him to slaughter the whole family that he reveals his true nature.
But even that is a small part of the plot. The story is about Graham and his pursuit of a murderer dubbed the Tooth Fairy. Graham is brought out of retirement by the FBI in the hopes he can find the Tooth Fairy. Graham is, as the cliché goes, the best at this sort of thing. He has a rather uncanny ability to get inside the heads of serial killers which gives him a decided edge. Unfortunately being in the mind of a serial killer isn't a pleasant place to be. The implication is, getting inside Lecter's brain so fried Grahams own psyche he damn near became a serial killer himself. Only by quitting the FBI and checking into the loony bin was Graham able to save himself.
The film is as much about Graham's walk on the proverbial tightrope as it is his pursuit of the killer. In fact, the Tooth Fairy himself doesn't even appear on screen until well after the film's halfway point. It's another risky move that pays off, and when the Tooth Fairy is finally revealed, he's pathetic lump, not a nightmare visage.
Of course, this being a Michael Mann film and this also being 1986 the film is awash in skinny neckties, sea-foam green color-schemes and a healthy dose of Shriekback tunes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, mind you. (I loved Shriekback as a kid and there are more than enough embarrassing photos hidden up in my mother's attic somewhere of me wearing pastel shirts.) There is just no mistaking that this film was made at the height of Mann's success with Miami Vice.
Does this detract from the film? Not really. It dates it, certainly. But the film is strong enough to overcome the design, and features outstanding performance across the board. Of course, there's Cox, proving brilliantly why he's a better actor than Hopkins, and William Peterson shows how he ended up TV's favourite cop. There's no missing Tom Noonan's performance as the Tooth Fairy, but look for Mann regulars Dennis Farina, and, in perhaps my personal favourite performance, Stephen Lang as a super-sleazy tabloid reporter.
Directed by Michael Mann • R • 1986 • 119 minutes