Summer of the 80’s: Manhunter

Summer of the 80s is a weekly column that will run until the end of August in which I watch a movie released during the summer movie season of the 1980s that I’ve never seen before. Every Friday, I’ll write about an 80s movie that came out on the same day, or near the same day, that correlates with the post here on the site. So follow me as I travel back in time to discover my lost summer at the movies.

About the movie

Manhunter was released on August 15, 1986 by the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.  It was written and directed by Michael Mann (HeatCollateral).  The film stars William Peterson, Dennis Farina, Kim Greist, Tom Noonan, Brian Cox, Stephen Lang and Joan Allen.  This R-rated film’s production budget is estimated at $15 million and earned $2.2 million in its opening weekend before going onto gross $8.6 million domestically.  It is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.


Will Graham Has The Mind Of A Psychopath – Thank God He’s On The Right Side Of The Law

My thoughts

The whole point of my Summer of the 80s column is to expose myself to new films I’ve somehow managed to never see or, in some cases, never even heard of.  Manhunter is unique to the column in that, while it is a movie I’ve not seen before, I have seen the story through the 2002 release of Red Dragon.  I realize that Red Dragon was directed by studio-friendly Brett Ratner, who lacks the raw talent that Michael Mann has, but the stories are very similar as they are both based off of the same Thomas Harris novel.  While there are story similarities, Michael Mann’s take on the material feels much more like it was approached from a place of character and not strictly as a piece of entertainment.

Manhunter marks the first time that Hannibal Lecter appeared on celluloid.  We’ve all come accustomed to the character as Anthony Hopkins has played him but before Hopkins there was Brian Cox.  I have to admit that, despite being first, I strongly prefer Hopkins’ performance over Cox’s.  I didn’t dislike Brian Cox’s take on the character but it definitely feels less chilling to me.  Hopkins performance is creepy and there is a dark vacancy to the character that for me really demonstrates the sheer terror one would have if they came across Hannibal Lecter.  In Manhunter, he seemed intelligent and a little crazy but I didn’t feel threatened by him.  Even Tom Noonan, who I’m a fan of, didn’t really evoke much creepiness to me as the killer Dollarhyde.  He wore a stocking over half of his face which came across slightly more silly than crazy.  I hate saying that as I could tell that Noonan was really trying to make the character frightening, but it didn’t work for me as much in this film as Ralph Fiennes did in Red Dragon.

One aspect of Manhunter that I liked more than in Red Dragon was the handling of the character Will Graham.  Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen Red Dragon, but I don’t remember feeling a sense of unease with Graham’s character.  In Manhunter, William Petersen plays him as a mostly calm and collected person with moments of crazy popping through.  He seemed fairly normal on the surface but there was an underlying feeling that he could flip his shit and go off the deep end at any moment.  I actually felt more afraid of Graham than I did of Lecter in this movie.

Another great thing about Manhunter is Michael Mann’s direction.  He basically treats most of the movie like a horror film.  There are a lot of shots in the film that made me feel like I was watching a slasher film (sans the slashing).  There is a deliberate mood in the movie that evokes a sense of fear that I associate with horror films.  Now you may ask, can’t Manhunter technically be classified as a horror film?  Yes, that is true.  I don’t consider it to be one myself.  I’d call it a dramatic crime thriller.  So treating it like a horror film felt kind of cool to me and gave it a different flavor than most crime thrillers.  Plus the score of the film, by The Reds and Michel Rubini, was very reminiscent of the original Nightmare on Elm Street at times and that certainly helped it in giving me the impression of a horror film.

As much as I thought that Manhunter was better handled creatively than Red Dragon, I still feel I prefer Ratner’s version, though mainly because of Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of their characters.  Hopkins is so engrained in my head as Lecter that it is hard to see him portrayed any other way.  That being said, Manhunter is a more thoughtful and well-constructed film.  Fans of Michael Mann’s work should certainly enjoy seeing this and I’m glad I finally got around to watching it.


This is the only Hannibal Lecter movie where his last name is spelled “Lecktor.”  In all future movies, it’s spelled “Lecter.”

Michael Mann’s direction to Brian Cox about playing Hannibal Lecktor was to play him like a British public schoolboy.  Cox based his performance on his then 15-year-old son who was attending public school at the time as well as Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel.

The film was originally going to be entitled Red Dragon, the same name as the novel.  However, when Year of the Dragon became a box office failure, Dino De Laurentiis decided to avoid a “dragon” title.

The prison where Hannibal Lecter is being incarcerated is the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

During the filming of Manhunter, Anthony Hopkins was playing King Lear at the National Theatre.  During the filming of The Silence of the Lambs, Brian Cox was playing King Lear at the National Theatre.

by Ben McBride


2 thoughts on “Summer of the 80’s: Manhunter

  1. Ben, great pick this week. “Manhunter” is one of those lost films that wasn’t noticed due to poor publicity and advertisement. I do love this film. It’s a completely different take on Harris’ novels. I personally enjoy it more than “Red Dragon”. However, that’s due to the fact that I love Mann’s direction. His use of colors, lighting, and set direction is unreal in this film. First off, William Petersen is Will Graham. He plays it to a T regarding his mental stability. I love how Harris really got into the idea that a cop and a criminal are so similar. Another great Petersen role is in, “To Live and Die in LA”. Gritty, smart, and real. Most moviegoers won’t like this movie due to the fact that it’s “dated”. In all fairness, it is dated. However, it does hold up to a true crime drama. Some of the images are striking and distinct. Also, regarding Cox’s portaryal of Lector, true, Hopkins killed it. However, if you listen to the comentary and listen to Cox’s explanation of his performance, he played it much truer to the Harris novels. Again, I love this movie.


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