Movies you should own: Manhunter

The best Hannibal

¡Madre Mia! I’ve finally got round to writing it. The reasons you should own Manhunter! Will wonders never cease?

As far as most people are concerned, The Silence of the Lambs was the film that introduced serial killer Hannibal Lecter to the world. Starring (Sir) Anthony Hopkins as the ex-psychiatrist and people-eater, it was one of the first horror movies to do respectably at the Oscars and catapulted both Hopkins and Jodie Foster, who played the FBI agent trying to mine him for information, into the league of A-list stars.

Since then, we’ve had Hannibal and Red Dragon, both starring Hopkins as Lecter, and young Lecter movie, Hannibal Rising – all to diminishing effect.

What not many people realise is that back in the 80s, Michael Mann, director of Heat, Collateral, The Insider and Last of the Mohicans as well as creator of Miami Vice, had already adapted the original Lecter novel, Red Dragon, as Manhunter.

Way before Millennium, Profiler and CSI made popular forensic science, psychological profiling and the idea of thinking inside a killer’s mind to catch him, it featured CSI‘s William Petersen as Will Graham, the man who caught Lecter by risking his own sanity and daring to think the same thoughts. Equally notably, it also featured Brian Cox as Hannibal – and he’s a damn sight better than Anthony Hopkins.

Which is why Manhunter is a movie you should own. Here’s the original trailer for Manhunter – forgive it for being made in the 80s.

Manhunter: the poster


To a certain extent, Manhunter mirrors The Silence of the Lambs in plot: FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer has to meet with Hannibal Lecter (spelt Lecktor in Manhunter but I’m going to stick with Lecter for consistency) to get ‘the crazy scent’ and generally regrets the experience.

Here, though, instead of Clarice Starling, intrepid FBI novice, we have Will Graham, washed out FBI agent. Formerly one of the bureau’s high-fliers, Graham caught serial killers, including Hannibal Lecter, by imagining their thoughts to work out what they would do and who they were. It was his experiences with Lecter, however, that caused him to drop out of the FBI after nearly turning insane.

However, when a new serial killer starts killing families and the FBI have no idea why, Graham’s boss (Dennis Farina) asks him to help one last time, even if it means risking his sanity to do it:

Why it’s so good

There are many, many reasons why Manhunter is a better film than Silence of the Lambs. Honest, reliable, slightly vulnerable Clarice Starling is an interesting feminist role model/hate figure*, but somewhat tedious. Manhunter‘s Will Graham though is a far more interesting character, a man, who in the words of the movie’s poster “has the mind of a psychopath – thank God he’s on the right side of the law”, and who had himself institutionalised because he was starting to have scary thoughts about his own family once the case was over.

Graham’s reluctantly guilted back into working for the otherwise stumped FBI. Unwilling to go loopy, he spends the earliest portion of the movie trying to catch the killer without recreating the thoughts that pushed him to the brink. It’s only when he realises the futility of his efforts that he turns back to his old way of hunting.

The script is full of subtle touches. Little is really made explicit about the extent of Will’s insanity, and it’s left to the viewer to read between the lines as to how bad it got. But through acting and clever scripting, it becomes clear just what happened and the difference between sane Will and the man he becomes when tracking killers.

Before turning back to ‘the dark side’ for the first time in the film, he calls his wife just to hear her voice, knowing it’s potentially the last time he’ll hear it while he’s ‘normal’. The scene isn’t explained, but it’s meaning is clear:

Will’s realisation pays dividends later on – and scares the hell out of everyone because of what it means about him:

Eventually, however, Will becomes immersed in his new, frightening thoughts and begins to piece together the killer’s fantasies – with a little help from Hannibal Lecter:

When it’s finally revealed how the killer chooses his victims, the film is genuinely unsettling, not because it makes us think about how easy a method of selection it is, but because we can see Graham is now dangerously close to insanity: his mind is now in sync with the killer’s and he’s able to see with frightening clarity what no one else in a million years would be able to see:

Multi-dimensional villains

What’s also interesting about Manhunter is that while Silence of the Lambs had a crazed killer demonstrating Manichean misogyny – wanting to become a woman while hating women, but being forced to steal womanhood – that the audience can only hate, Manhunter‘s villain is even more crazy but is almost sympathetic. Tortured by his parents as a small boy, hated by others because of his cleft palate, he becomes obsessed with William Blake’s painting “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun” and believes that by killing people and making their worship him in death, he will ‘become’ the dragon.

The Tooth Fairy

Yet “The Tooth Fairy”, as he’s called because he bites his victims, ends up with a blind girlfriend (played by Joan Allen) and shows tenderness towards her. He’s not simply a hate figure or a monodimensional serial killer as so many later movies featured.

The Tooth Fairy and girlfriend

Lecter, too, is a more interesting figure. In the hands of Anthony Hopkins, Lecter is an evil Sherlock Holmes of epic Grand Guignol proportions. Would you trust that man as your psychiatrist? Never in a million years.

But Brian Cox’s cold, intellectual, superior Lecter is a man you can imagine getting away with murdering college girls for years. Indeed, the mere fact that he’s doing something as relatively mundane (!) as killing college girls is a much-needed tether on what could be an over-the-top character.

While Hopkins’ Lecter is a man of intellect, it’s an intellect of horror, an intellect that can think the unthinkable. It’s Lecter’s ability to wear someone else’s face and murder without qualms that are supposed to frighten. In Manhunter, it’s Cox’s intellect and ability to blend in with everyday society, exploiting people with his knowledge of psychiatry that are even more truly frightening:


Silence of the Lambs has a very distinct, dark, near-Gothic horror look that’s designed to tap into feelings of older horrors to scare. Manhunter offers the complete opposite: it’s modernity and the clinical that are designed to frighten, mimicking the cold, empty thoughts of the killers being chased.

Will Graham

Dr Chiltern

Every scene is beautifully composed, almost on a par with Kubrick’s best, with an incredible palette of colours exploited by Italian DoP Dante Spinotti.

A scene from Manhunter

A scene from Manhunter

A scene from Manhunter

A scene from Manhunter

A scene from Manhunter

The film also has an incredible sense of architecture, with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta doubling as Lecter’s asylum, for example.

The High Museum of Atlanta

Or this piece of work for Will’s hotel.

Will Graham's hotel

Wide-angles, weird optics, a steadiness of shooting and a refusal to draw in close also make the film seem off-kilter, slightly mad and cut off from society and normality in its own right.


Another notable aspect of Manhunter is its respect for law enforcement and psychiatry, in contrast with the Keystone Cops of Silence. No one, with a few exceptions, comes out of Manhunter looking stupid – just insensitive or stumped when faced with the madness of a serial killer.

Dr Chiltern, Hannibal’s psychiatrist, isn’t the idiot of Silence, but is smart and quick to understand what he’s dealing with when he gets a note from the Tooth Fairy to Lecter is found in Lecter’s cell:

As you can see, the FBI’s psychiatric and forensics teams are shown to be similarly clever and on the ball, just out of their league. Even local police comes out of it well, thanks to Mann’s decision to cast real-life police officers (including former cop Dennis Farina) in key and supporting roles.


There are, of course, flaws with the movie. It is very 80s and reflects many of the obsessions Michael Mann had back then – imagine a Miami Vice version of Silence. Some of the dialogue’s a bit hokey and the hard rock/electronic/weird soundtrack won’t be to everyone’s taste – although I loved it.

And then, of course, there’s the showdown with the killer, which is perhaps just a bit too cool for school:

Then there’s William Petersen, who does the crazier parts very well, but his actorly choice of a low-key, psychological wounded and therefore quieter Graham for most of the film just feels ineffectual.

While some of the more interesting aspects of the book have been dropped from the movie, such as the chapters on the Tooth Fairy’s upbringing, the worst changes have been the slight downgrading of the female characters, so that they’re much weaker here than they are in the book. The different conclusion to the movie from the book’s more upsetting ending is more Hollywood, with everything being restored to its rightful place – status quo re-established and we’re all protected by the nice guys in law enforcement from the crazies.

All in all though, it’s a beautiful looking, beautiful sounding and downright creepy thriller that’s probably up there in my top five movies ever, if not the top two.

Manhunter Special EditionDVD

Thanks to its cult status (which has resulted in Brian Cox having been in more or less every film of the last ten years), there have been multiple DVD releases of Manhunter. However, the Special Edition is the best. It carries a remastered director’s cut with missing scenes on a second DVD – although the standard DVD also contains some scenes that aren’t in other versions of the movie – and has a commentary by Michael Mann. Since this is the first time (I think) that he’s done a commentary for any of his movies, it’s interesting for that alone, although it does feel like he doesn’t quite understand the character of Graham, surprisingly.

Also on the two DVDs are:

  • an interview with Dante Spinotti
  • a featurette (and a very long one at that) with interviews with William Petersen, Joan Allen, Brian Cox and Tom Noonan
  • the theatrical trailer

It’s absolutely brilliant, although since there are a number of different versions of the film floating around, it’s not quite the definitive release, and there are a number of scenes that appear in the cable version (the extended discussion between Graham and Graham’s son that reveal his Lecter-induced feelings towards his family when he was sick, for example) that don’t show up anywhere on this release. But it’s by far the best release so far.

For faithful Manhunter fans, here’s a couple of bonuses: a deleted scene featuring Doctor Chiltern and Will Graham and an explanation of why the Tooth Fairy doesn’t have the tattoo that he has in the book and some publicity photographs:

* Is she really showing that women have what it takes to catch the bad guys or is the movie simply exploiting her vulnerability and putting her in danger to get its jollies?


  • Natalia Romanova

    The Gloria Steinem of the jumpsuit set. Russian ballerina-assassin. Redheaded Scarlett Johansson look-alike (yes, really. No, I won't send you photos). TMINE's publisher and Official Movie Reviewer in Residence. I've written for numerous magazines, including Death Ray and Filmstar, and I've been a contributor to TMINE since I was at university and first discovered I really wanted to write about movies, oh so many years ago. Sob.