“He Jasper, you know films, right? What do you think is the best film? Ever?” Wow. You know, that is not what I do. Anyone who “knows his films” would be able to tell you that. There is no way to argue that Jaws is better than Fargo, or Casablanca is superior to The Return of the King (well, that’s an argument I’m willing to get into). You can’t compare them. These films were made in different times, under different circumstances, with different means and intentions and different audiences. You can’t ask me which one is better.
And yet so many people do.
But lately someone asked me a much more sensible question. “Jasper, you know your films. Is there anything you could recommend? You know, like something I wouldn’t think of myself?”
Well yes there is! I mean, there are! So many! Like:
Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)\
We all know Hannibal Lecter. The eloquent and highly intelligent psychiatrist cum cannibal. Anthony Hopkins played this role with great success in The Silence of the Lambs, and with less success in its sequels Hannibal and Red Dragon. What very few people know, however, is that Red Dragon is chronologically the first in the series of novels Thomas Harris wrote about Hannibal Lecter. And that It had been adapted for the screen much earlier, six years before Sir Anthony ate liver and drank Chianti, as Manhunter.
The director of Manhunter is Michael Mann, the maker of moody thrillers such as Collateral and Public Enemies, and thundering action films like Heat and Miami Vice. Manhunter, however, predates all these films. And surpasses most of them (all of them actually, apart from Heat). It tells the story of Will Graham (CSI‘s William Petersen, much younger), a former FBI agent who once was Lecter’s capturer. Now FBI boss Crawford (Dennis Farina) asks him to come back to investigate to killings of families, and like Clarice Starling later, Graham needs Lecter’s help.
Manhunter‘s biggest handicap is its more than obvious 1980s style. At his worst Michael Mann offers style over substance (Public Enemies), and at his best the two match perfectly. Manhunter stands somehwere in the middle. The 1980s looks and music of the film are very dominant, but at the same time they capture the heat of the summer in which the story is set and its depressing subject matter. Also, crucially, and this is an argument that can only be made in retrospect, style-over-substance very much fits the hedonism and material preoccupation of the 1980s.
The most shocking and impressing thing in Manhunter is Hannibal Lecter though. His actual screentime is limited, but his presence in Will Graham’s mind and the scars he left there are always tangible. Moreover, he is played with true villainy by the fantastic Brian Cox (who most of you will have seen in supporting roles in Troy and The Bourne Supremacy). In comparison to the calculated menace and cruelty of Cox’ Lecter, Anthony Hopkins’ take on the role is nigh clownesk. Hopkins’ Lecter almost feels like that crazy uncle every family has and secretly loves. Nobody in their right mind would turn an impersonation of Brian Cox in Manhunter into a party trick, whereas everybody can do the liver-and-chianti bit.
Order here (Amazon, if you wanna pay me for these links, you’re more than welcome)