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´The Silence of The Lambs´ (1991) is the more important film. Of course it is. It´s hard to dispute that fact when ´Silence´ raked over 270 million dollars worldwide, won five academy awards and established ´Hannibal Lecter´ as one of cinema´s greatest villains. But Michael Mann´s ´Manhunter´ (1986), based on Thomas Harris´s ´Red Dragon´, is the better film.
Subtler and smaller than Johnathan Demme´s great piece, ´Manhunter´ opened to negative reviews and disappointing box office results, disappearing from cinemas within weeks. A terrible 2002 Brett Ratner remake (which used Harris´s original title), one which sold itself off the back of 1991´s ´Silence´ surely added insult to the injury. But something strange happened. Over the years, ´Manhunter´s popularity grew; hugely!
Perhaps much of this has to do with the three successive Hannibal Lecter films (´Hannibal´, ´Red Dragon´ and ´Hannibal Rising´), which took the faustian design prevalent in Demme´s film, amplifying the resonances to bigger and bigger heights, leaving the film´s legacy a sham of it´s former self. Mann´s film (re-titled from the source material to avoid confusion with similarly titled Hong Kong movies), by contrast, ignored any poetic symbolism, for a simpler tale of cop versus killer, one which resonated more heavily with post 9/11 mediums ´CSI: Miami´, ´24´ and the David Fincher film ´Zodiac´than it did with Mann´s better known work ¨Miami Vice´, as archetypally eighties a show there has ever been.
Much of this brilliance is down to William Petersen´s electrifying performance as Will Graham. A haunting example of subtlety and restraint, Petersen allows his eyes and facial expressions do much of the talking in the film. Graham ( more intrinsically sociopathic than the better known Clarice Starling), is cursed with the ability to think like a serial killer. ´They are the ugliest thoughts in the world´ Graham tells his son, in a sombre supermarket scene. “Enter the mind of a serial killer… you may never come back” reads the film´s tagline. Graham knows this too well, as his wife, superintendent and captive Hannibal Lektor (an odd misspelling never fully explained) are only too happy to remind him. “The reason you caught me, Will, is we’re just alike” Lektor intones, causing Graham to run in acknowledgement that he may one day become Lektor. It´s a wonderful performance, dividing between good and evil, often within the same frame, one that Edward Norton couldn´t come close to matching when he took on the role in 2002.
Countering Petersen´s psychosis is Tom Noonan´s brilliant performance as physical juggernaut ´Francis Doharlyide´. Known as ´The Tooth Fairy´, Doharlyde finds himself the victim to his own feelings towards blind invalid Deba (Joan Allen). Eschewing much of the William Blake imagery detailed by Harris (probably best given the film´s change of title), Noonan´s killer is less the Nietzchean maniac, more the graceless,physical juggernaut commonly found on the everyday streets, making him a credible threat. His interrogation of Freddy Lounds is a master example of how to terrify in cinema: using mono -syllabic words (´good. Watch. Very well´ etc), he circles the journalist, taunting him with the pictures of his dead victims and potential newspaper scoops, suffocating him for the words he has written. ´Bravo´named this as one of the ´Thirty Even Scarier Moments´in 2007; the part proved so immersive for Noonan, he isolated himself from most cast and crew members to elicit genuine fear on set.
Despite these stirling performances, it is Brian Cox who has become the focal point for most retrospective reviews. Constant comparisons have been made between his performance and that of Anthony Hopkins (subsequently, Mads Mikkelsen also). Hopkins may have turned the character of Hannibal Lecter into a cinematic icon, albeit with significantly more screen time and three films to flesh out the character in it´s entirety, but Cox´s menace is more fitting to this down to earth story at hand, rather than the langorous operatics favoured by Johnathan Demme. Cox, if not given enough time to steal the film (this is a film that features Hannibal, as opposed to one based on him, something Ratner´s 2002 remake got sorely wrong), is sinister enough to warrant Doharlyride´s adoration and Graham´s detestation, from a mere three scenes.
A master of suspense (you can´t help but suspect that David Fincher borrowed a number of cues from him), Mann´s decision to cut a number of the existential scenes from Harris´s novel aids to the pacing of the movie. A conjugal visit from Graham´s wife was also left at the cutting room, to further allow the character´s sense of isolation. The film´s opening shot, the killer´s awakening to moonlit night, instantly introduces viewers to the rules of the film; this is the world of the killer, a world of neon green rooms, a world of sepia coloured beach houses, a world where the film´s main character talks to himself in mirrors, imagining interactions with his assailants. A ballsy move for 1986, this psychic probing would prove the template for Petersen´s work in ´CSI: Miami´ and Mann´s work in ´Heat´(1995).
Much of it is visual, much of it is cerebral (save for the pulsating eighties synthesised soundtrack, much of the film relies on simplicity and subtleties). It´s man versus man. It´s brain versus brawn. It´s claustropobic finale, if not the horrific spectacle of the book, is tense enough to keep even Alfred Hitchcock looking through his fingers. One of the true great movies of the eighties.
write by Joyce