Hollywood blows it -- again

The first chapter of the Hannibal Lecter trilogy, "Manhunter," is still the best.

By Allen Barra

Published October 4, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

When will Hollywood cure itself of this awful habit of fixing something that's not broken? Why go to all the time, trouble and expense of a tony, star-studded remake of Thomas Harris' novel "Red Dragon" when the original version, "Manhunter" -- the best Hannibal Lecter movie and one of the greatest suspense movies ever made -- is still waiting for a large audience?

Written and directed by Michael Mann and released in 1986, "Manhunter" is that rarest of films, one that builds a large cult following despite a lack of both studio and critical support. The mainstream critics dissed it as vulgar and violent, though within a few years most of them would go rabid for big-budget suspense thrillers far more graphic than "Manhunter." Serious critics did not so much pan it as miss it altogether; James Wolcott, writing in the Village Voice, was one of the few writers to seek out and champion it.

"The project was probably doomed commercially from the outset," Mann told me last year in a conversation that developed out of an interview for the New York Times on his film "Ali." "I read 'Red Dragon' not long after it was published in 1981 and thought it was the best thriller I'd ever read, bar none. But Harris hadn't written any other crime thrillers at the time, only that book 'Black Sunday' about terrorists at the Super Bowl, and he had no large following among readers of crime fiction. 'Silence of the Lambs' wasn't published until two years later.

"Second, there was the title. The film's backers all said, '"Red Dragon?" It sounds like a Chinese movie. Who cares about kung fu movies?' Boy, what a difference a few years makes. Anyway, 'Manhunter' was a compromise title and a bit too much in the mode of generic police thrillers."

The film's biggest problem, though, was a lack of star power. William Petersen, a fine actor and currently a success on the TV series "CSI," was largely unknown when he played the central character in "Manhunter." (Played by Edward Norton in "Red Dragon.") The rest of the film's featured actors were, like Petersen, just coming into their own, including Stephen Lang as the pushy reporter played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the remake, Dennis Farina as Graham's boss (now played by Harvey Keitel), Joan Allen (whose role in the remake has gone to Emily Watson) and, especially, Brian Cox as the original Hannibal Lecter.

"If we had made the film today," says Mann, "we'd have tremendous audience recognition. Of course, those actors would have cost us a bit more." Mann neglects to mention the punch his own name recognition from films such as "Heat" and "The Insider" would have brought to the film. At the time he directed "Manhunter" he had no commercial hits and only one critical success, "Thief" (1981, with James Caan).

It's fascinating watching Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott and now Brett Ratner strain in an effort to capture the same sense of unsettling horror that came naturally to Mann. "Essentially," says Mann, who wrote the screenplay for "Manhunter" himself, "we filmed the book kind of like the way I'd always heard John Huston had done with 'The Maltese Falcon.' Just flip it open, take the best stuff, and start filming."

The result is a lurid masterpiece that pays homage to the seductiveness of pulp, not by dressing it in the trappings of fine art but by stripping it to the essentials of what we responded to in the material in the first place. The contrast between the way Mann and Demme first introduce their Hannibal Lecters is revealing. In "The Silence of the Lambs" we first see Anthony Hopkins' Lecter in a virtual rats' nest, a dank, fetid dungeon that looks like something out of a traditional horror movie. In contrast, when Graham first visits the imprisoned Hannibal in "Manhunter," the mental hospital is all antiseptic white, bathed in harsh glaring lights. In "The Silence of the Lambs" you strain to see what's in the background; in "Manhunter" you recoil from what you can't block out -- Hannibal Lecter is the nightmare you can't wake up from.

The other Hannibal Lecter movies have used orchestral scores with classical influences to establish the background mood. "Manhunter's" music is all contemporary American, featuring a throbbing electronic score by the Reds and Michael Rubine as well as popular hard-rock songs.

Brian Cox's Hannibal Lecter is in only three scenes in "Manhunter," but his influence pervades the movie. While some critics have pointed to a Holmes-Moriarity type relationship between Graham and Lecter, the real appeal of Hannibal Lecter is that while behind bars he is both Holmes and Moriarity, using his genius to solve otherwise impenetrable crimes while instigating others. Though he put Lecter in prison, Petersen's Will Graham makes no pretense of being Lecter's equal. Graham's specialty is putting himself into the minds of serial killers, a talent that is rapidly eroding his own stability. But unlike Clarice Starling in "Silence," Graham has mastered enough psychology to throw a few jabs back at his tormentor. "If you don't think you're smarter than me," Cox slyly asks Petersen, "then how did you catch me?" "You had disadvantages," Petersen answers quietly. "What disadvantages?" "You're insane," Petersen shoots back without blinking. Bull's-eye.

Cox suavely underplays Hannibal Lecter, attempting to hide him behind a screen of nonthreatening banality. He would never be capable of the "Senator, love your outfit" or fava-beans-and-Chianti lines delivered by Hopkins that were written for the movie. Cox lures you in a bit, then deadpans the kicker. Looking over the files of the serial killer he has agreed to help Graham catch, he asks, almost as an afterthought, "Would you like to leave me your home phone number, Will?" The way Cox delivers that makes it the most chilling line in all four Hannibal Lecter movies.

In "Manhunter," the killer that Petersen is pursuing is played by Tommy Noonan, a lean 6-foot-7-inch character actor who, with his damaged lip and scraggly white hair, looks like a brain-damaged former NBA center. (Dressed in black, he is a modern incarnation of the somnambulant killer Caesare in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.") Noonan stands in the same relation to Ralph Fiennes in "Red Dragon" that Robert Mitchum's droopy-eyed killer in "Cape Fear" stands to Robert De Niro in the remake, namely that in both cases the actors of greater range and resource struggle unconvincingly to act what the original actors just seem to be. Happily, Mann cut most of the gaudy double-talk in which the story's villains are either explained or try to explain themselves. What evil can be explained in their actions is explained, and the rest is discarded as unexplainable.

What truly distinguishes "Manhunter" from the other three films is an almost total lack of violence. Mann leaves almost all of the film's horrific crimes to the imagination (the one exception is the flaming demise of one character, one of the truly spectacular murders in recent movie history). Petersen's investigation begins on the scene of a crime as he walks in a house empty of furniture with bloodstains still on the walls and carpets. Speaking into a recorder, he frames the action for us as if telling a story. (There's a startlingly creepy moment when his monologue is interrupted by a ringing phone answered by the ghostly voice of the murdered woman, instructing the caller to "leave a message.") "It was hot out that night, so the inside of the house must have felt cool ... " As he taps into the mindset of the absent killer, he slides into the first person. There is nothing in any of the big-budget Lecter movies to approach that moment for sheer unsettling terror.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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