Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Tale of Two Hannibals: Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter

William Petersen as Will Graham in Manhunter (1986).

Hannibal Lecter, the psychiatrist who moonlights as a cannibal (or is it the other way around?), has been a household name since 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. In Jonathan Demme’s thriller based on the novel by Thomas Harris, Sir Anthony Hopkins ushered the good doctor into the cultural milieu opposite Jodie Foster’s FBI Agent Clarice Starling. Eleven years later, Hopkins reprised the role in 2002’s prequel, Red Dragon, which explored the relationship between Dr. Lecter and his first FBI pet, the fatally empathetic FBI profiler Will Graham (Ed Norton). While the film received mixed reviews, the unique relationship between Graham and Lecter captivated audiences, paving the way for another adaptation in yet another eleven years. In 2013, Mads Mikkelsen brought the character to the small screen in Brian Fuller’s critically acclaimed TV series Hannibal. Co-starring Hugh Dancy as the newest and shiniest Will Graham, the series finally explored the largely untouched inception of Graham’s friendship with Lecter, culminating three seasons later in a rehashing of Red Dragon’s hunt for serial killer Francis Dollarhyde (Richard Armitage).

Bookended by two other middle-of-the-road titles (namely, 2007’s origin story Hannibal Rising and, at the opposite end of the storyline, 2001’s Hannibal) cinema’s favourite cannibal has had a rich and lengthy on-screen life. But did you know (and I’m looking at you, Millennials) that The Silence of the Lambs wasn’t Hannibal’s big screen debut? And, furthermore, that Red Dragon isn’t the first time a director has tried to tackle the symbiotic relationship between Graham and Hannibal that the TV series ultimately popularized? I didn’t. So imagine my surprise when my monthly trip to Toronto’s Royal Cinema to catch the latest neo-noir film selected by the Neon Dreams Cinema Club exposed me to Michael Mann’s Manhunter – a film I’ve somehow managed to avoid despite my deep adoration for Doctor Lecter’s corpus.

My ignorance of the film is especially mystifying given that Manhunter, as it turns out, has a slew of cult followers that hail Michael Mann’s adaptation of the Thomas Harris story as a cinematic masterpiece. Manhunter’s impressive 80s soundtrack, its moody lighting struck through with flashes of neon,and its tiny shorts on William Petersen’s (CSI) Will Graham coalesce into a crime drama so emblematic of the 1980s that it might as well be sipping a Jolt soda and rocking a car phone. Critics who give the film a near perfect score praise the writing, citing Manhunter as the birth of the sympathetic villain, praising Tom Noonan’s portrayal of Francis Dollarhyde, a man crippled by his own insecurities, as hitherto unheard of. Dollarhyde, alias “The Tooth Fairy,” is a tragic figure, criminally insane by every definition, but ultimately, apparently, just wanting to be loved in spite of his hideous appearance. I can’t imagine a world where that cliché is still novel and surprising but I appreciate that 30 years ago this was a stroke of genius. To be clear, it was novelist Harris’ genius, not Mann’s.

Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde in Manhunter.

And that statement essentially sums up my feelings on this long lost Hannibal chapter. Mann’s alleged masterpiece was released two years before I was born and while true art may be timeless, watered down versions of genuinely good stories that favour style over substance eventually become dated. This is the destiny for all movies of Manhunter’s type; it’s a necessary trade off that filmmakers have to acknowledge when they begin such a project. Manhunter is nifty, to be certain, a fun retro experience for 80s enthusiasts and lovers of cheeseball cinema alike but – and this might be an unpopular opinion from an out-of-her-element Millennial – it is not a good film. To support my claim, I offer the reaction of the modern-day audience I sat with last week, roaring with bemused laughter as Petersen spouted expository dialogue, sprinted out of a prison in one painfully long shot of an outrageous number of stairs, and came to inexplicably impossible conclusions while resting his hand dramatically on a window pane like the melodramatic “tortured artist” who dated your best friend in college. I’m confident that these are not the reactions Mann intended us to have.

Petersen, bless him, was my chief problem with the film. This is where criticism gets murky as I can acknowledge that my lack of patience for his overwrought, tiny-shortsed performance is retrospective in nature: as a product of my time, I am accustomed to Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham. While Fuller’s television series takes some serious liberties with Thomas Harris’ original text, it is also the most nuanced and successful adaptation of Harris’ work from my subject position, infusing its story with substance, subtext, and a mercifully neutral visual aesthetic that will hopefully transcend its era. Hannibal, in its three gore-laden seasons, better captures the complex and powerful relationship between its namesake and its star but, more importantly, finally gives audiences the thorough understanding of Will Graham that Mann is rumoured to have aimed for. Dancy’s Will Graham is damaged, brilliant, and believable where Petersen appears as a macho 80s action star bestowed with an unreasonable and improbable superpower for reading criminals. Who wants to see an invincible man solve a problem? While Hannibal’s strength is in blurring the lines between patient and doctor, hero and psychopath, Manhunter, despite its visually striking 80s ambience, is no more than a worn out story of good versus evil with just enough empathy to convince a 1986 audience that it was a psychologically driven character story.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario. 

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