1986 in Film – Manhunter

Release Date: August 15th
Box Office: $8,620,929

Hindsight always makes people, what, 30% cleverer? Looking back and saying of course that film was going to bomb, of course that actor was going to make it, of course that idea was going to be popular.

Manhunter (1986) was the start of something, something when you look back was obvious, but at the time it was tough see past the sheer 80s-ness of the film to understand what was going on.

The plot of the film is pretty straightforward. Will Graham is a retired FBI profiler who quit after a case ended badly. Now he is needed again to help track down a killer known as The Tooth Fairy who has killed several families and soon will again, set to a moody synth soundtrack and more style than Crockett and Tubbs.

A typical action packed 80s thriller, right? Not really because the reason why Graham’s last case ended badly was because he was chasing down one Hannibal Lecter.

Of course when Manhunter was released Lecter was just another character that was in the book so he took up about ten minutes of the film. It took the release of Silence of The Lambs (1991) and a change of actor to turn the character into a cultural icon. Again, Lecter’s appearance in Silence is about quarter of an hour of actual on screen time but Hopkins’ performance creates an aura that permeates the rest of the film.

This isn’t to say the earlier appearance of Brian Cox in the role is terrible. Far from it, his Lecter (or Lecktor in this film) is much more measured and straightforward. As he sits in his white cell, staring through the bars, he seems almost too normal which accentuates an undercurrent of malice in how he responds and probes the man who captured him.

From this scene could any one have really seen the industry that grew around this character? Three more films and books, a TV series and a slew of imitators?

Truthfully, neither does Manhunter. Michael Mann, the director, picked up on the other aspect of Red Dragon, the best selling book from 1981 that the film was based on; the focus of the forensic and psychological profiling undertaken to track down a serial killer.

Police procedural stories had been part of pop culture for years. In books back a hundred years or so, on TV with Dragnet and The Untouchables in the 50s and in movies from The Naked City (1948) to The French Connection (1971).

These stories, though, would tend to focus on the detective going out and solving the crime. Harris’ original novel marked a shift towards the forensic detective; at the time the police hero was often an anti hero in the mould of Dirty Harry or an action hero in the films that would dominate the 80s. The main character of Manhunter, Will Graham, is closer in spirit to someone like Sherlock Holmes; picking apart crime scenes and solving them from the smallest of details.

Quincy M.E was a popular 70s TV show that marked this shift as well, delving into forensic investigations in greater detail than previous police shows. If Quincy marks a shift in that direction then Red Dragon and later Manhunter marks a shift towards the criminal profiler.

Whilst profiling was part of police work going back to the days of Jack The Ripper, it took the creation of the FBI Behavioural Science Unit in the mid 70s to use it to it’s full potential. Serial killers stalked the Twentieth Century, and people’s fascination not only grew with the killers but also with the people catching them.

Thomas Harris, the author of Red Dragon previously worked as a journalist on a crime beat and used this work to create the book and Graham and Lecter. Graham’s boss, Jack Crawford, was said to be based on FBI agent Jon Douglas who was one of the first criminal profilers. This attention to detail, gained through visits to the Behavioural Science Unit and FBI agents there, created an aura of authority. A stand out sequence, both in the book and film, is where a note from Lecter is walked through the various levels of forensic science available to strip it of any and all clues.

It’s just a shame that the film was ahead of it’s time in this regard, a bit more than a decade the man who would play Will Graham, William Peterson, would be the main character in CSI, the series that launched the mega-franchise into the world. Peterson’s character in CSI, Gil Grissom, shares the same core as Will Graham but with the sharp corners smoothed off. When Peterson plays Graham you can see shades of the character he played the year before in To Live and Die in LA which was a much more morally dubious character.

CSI conquered the world but Manhunter didn’t. It’s legacy is a character whose defining moment was in another film. It’s a shame considering all the great work it contains, from a faultless cast to a great villain. That villain, the Tooth Fairy filled with a looming presence by Tom Noonan, is of course always in the shadow of Lecter as is the rest of the film.

Still, secret best Lecter film? Very possibly.

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