I recently filled in a pretty big blind spot in my mental library of the film canon: I had never seen The Silence of the Lambs, despite it being one of the biggest films of the nineties and occupying a massive place in the American pop culture landscape of the past thirty years. Every single part of the film has been parodied, homaged, recreated, dissected, and interpreted musically; its influence loomed huge, and looms still to this day. I’ve also seen virtually everything else in the Thomas Harris adaptation canon, as I was a fan of the Hannibal TV series and I’ve seen all of the other film adaptations of the Lector works other than Lambs. I was inspired to finally seek it out and watch it after recently seeing two works that referenced it: I’m finally getting around to watching The X-Files, and early Dana Scully is very clearly based on Clarice Starling (even the X-Files wiki has a page about this), as well as the introductory scene of Betty Cooper in the first posts-timeskip episode of this season of Riverdale, in which Betty runs the Quantico course that Clarice does at the beginning of Lambs. All this hype is well-deserved; that Jodie Foster has delivered a lifetime’s worth of fantastic performances makes her portrayal of Starling no less fantastic, Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal is delightfully creepy, the mystery elements of the plot are perfectly constructed, and it’s a movie that earned its place in pop culture. My biggest complaint, really, is in regards to the workmanlike quality of Jonathan Demme’s directorial work.
To put it simply, Lambs just isn’t very stylish, and a lot of the storytelling is in the (admittedly great) performances. That’s typical of how I feel about Demme’s work; a few years back, one of the weekly summer specialties that the Alamo Drafthouse ran was called “Un-Hitched,” featuring films inspired by Alfred Hitchcock. I saw all four features that ran as part of the specialty program and wrote about three of them: Body Double, Special Effects, and (as a submission for Movie of the Month) Who Can Kill a Child? Even though I disliked Special Effects, I still had something to say about it, but Demme’s Un-Hitched contribution, The Last Embrace, left me completely apathetic. His productions are substantial but lack a quintessential auteurism, and that shows though in Lambs, despite it having a fairly long-lasting legacy. There are a few moments that stand out: the nightvision stalking of Clarice in Jamie Gumb’s basement is inspired, and the shooting of Clarice’s initial interviews of Lector place him behind glass while the camera (and the viewer) stays outside of his cell, then having her final scene with him in Memphis show with the camera in his cell while Clarice paces on the other side of the bars is a great depiction of the inversion of their power dynamic. Overall, however, what Lambs made me want to do was revisit my favorite Harris adaptation, the oft-overlooked Michael Mann flick Manhunter, which was released in 1986, just five short years after the publication of its source material, Red Dragon.
When it comes to the general public’s interest in the Hannibal Lector character, the story with the greatest staying power and most mainstream recognition is Silence of the Lambs, but to my mind, the plot of Red Dragon is the Hannibal Lector story. It’s certainly had the most adaptations, with Manhunter coming first in the eighties, then getting a second adaptation under its original Red Dragon title as a Lambs prequel in 2001 and starring Edward Norton as Will Graham, before finally being adapted as part of the third season of NBC’s Hannibal TV series helmed by Bryan Fuller. Although the last of these was a Tumblr darling and had a devoted following which praised the show’s visual flair, Manhunter is also no slouch in the visuals department. When I think of the quintessential eighties neo-noir (neon-noir?), Manhunter is the film that I think of.
Surprisingly, the Red Dragon plot outline is pretty consistent across all three adaptations: some time prior to the “current” events, FBI profiler Will Graham was investigating a series of serial killings by a man named Garret Jacob Hobbs. During the course of that investigation, Graham partnered and coordinated with well-regarded psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Hannibal Lector. Graham shot and killed Hobbs in self defense, and Graham was himself grievously injured by Lector while attempting to escape the doctor upon the realization that Lector was also a serial killer and cannibal. While recovering, Graham’s injuries are photographed and published by sleazy tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds, and although he heals physically, his mind takes longer to recover. The very thing that allows Graham such great insight into the mind of the killer, his empathy, also makes him susceptible to the same pathological tendencies of the killers he pursues. Now, with the emergence of a new prolific serial killer nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy,” Will comes out of retirement to consult with Lector once more in order to catch him. The Tooth Fairy is in fact one Francis Dolarhyde, a bodybuilding film development specialist with a slight facial deformity about which he is extremely neurotic.
Dolarhyde has an obsession with the William Blake Revelatory poems/paintings about the Red Dragon, and he believes that he is transforming his victims in his murders of them, as they “bear witness” to a transformation that he calls “The Great Becoming.” Graham attempts to bait Dolarhyde into a trap by leaking false, inflammatory information about the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon to Lounds, but an enraged Dolarhyde captures and kills Lounds instead of Graham. It is discovered that Lector and Dolarhyde have managed to send each other messages via personal ads in Lounds’s newspaper, and Lector provides Dolarhyde with information that endangers Graham’s wife and stepson. The Red Dragon aspect of Dolarhyde’s personality is temporarily pacified when he strikes up a relationship with his blind co-worker, Reba McClane, but his jealousy regarding an innocent interaction with another co-worker leads the Dragon to reassert itself. The only major narrative deviation from the source material and the other adaptations here is that, in Manhunter, Graham attacks and kills Dolarhyde in his home to save Reba; in the Red Dragon and Hannibal TV series adaptations, as well as the original novel, Dolarhyde stages his death so that he can pursue Graham’s family in vengeance without interference, only to be killed by Graham’s wife Molly when invading their home.
Manhunter is a great movie, one of the best neo-noirs ever made. Not to throw a fantastic movie like Silence of the Lambs under the metaphorical bus, but Lambs has nothing on Mann’s sense of style and his cinematic eye. Every frame of Manhunter is gorgeous, even when it’s shocking, disturbing, or creepy; at this point, audiences have seen three different versions of Francis Dolarhyde take three different versions of Reba to pet three different sedated tigers, and although neither Tom Noonan’s Dolarhyde nor Joan Allen’s Reba are the best or most interesting versions of those characters, this is still the most visually striking interpretation of that scene (for the record, Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon is the best Dolarhyde, and Hannibal’s Rutina Wesley is the best Reba). Manhunter’s various tableaux run the gamut from oppressive institutional white spaces to vibrant, almost violently purple sunrises, to stunning salmon sunsets, neon blue night scenes in Graham’s beachside Florida home, and moody shots of Graham inspecting his reflection in various darkened windows. This is used to great effect; when we first meet Brian Cox as Dr. Lecktor (as it is spelled in this film), he’s clothed entirely in white and housed in an all-white cell. When we see reverse shots of Graham from Lecktor’s point of view, the white lines of the cell bars blend into the background of the walls, there’s an impression of Graham, metaphorically fractured into pieces in a white void. That same whiteness is mirrored in the home of the family that was most recently slain by Dolarhyde, which shares that same ascetic aesthetic, other than the Pollock-esque splatters of arterial spray. In an early scene, Graham’s wife Molly (Kim Greist) sits with FBI behaviorist Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) in a lovely silhouette against the sunset over the ocean, and you think to yourself, “God, this is a gorgeous shot,” and then that shot is succeeded by another beautiful diorama, and another, until the film ends.
Cutting the final Graham home invasion scene and killing Dolarhyde early is a strong choice, but I think it works well here, giving the film a cleaner (and more expedient) resolution. Like most Harris adaptations, this one clocks in at a pretty significant length—120 minutes, alongside Lambs’ 118, Red Dragon’s 124, and Hannibal (2001)’s 132—and omitting the final scene allows for earlier sequences to “marinate” a bit more, last a little longer, and have a greater impact. If there’s anything that it stumbles with, it’s Dolarhyde. Both Red Dragon and the TV version of Hannibal weave the Dolarhyde point of view into their texture a bit more evenly, while Manhunter takes perhaps a little too much time before getting to him. As a result, the back half of the film contains long periods of screentime with the focus shifted to Dolarhyde and Rita with very little Graham, which makes for a slightly uneven, but still very rewarding, viewing experience.
There’s so much to love and praise here: the occasional giallo-esque score, the dream sequences, the lingering shots of stillness that create tension, the palate, the acting choices, but it really needs to be seen to be enjoyed. Although Manhunter is older than I am, it’s not streaming for free anywhere, but I guarantee it’s worth the rental price.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond