Steve Mosby on Manhunter

imgresSteve Mosby, author of Black Flowers and Dark Room, among others, and current chair of the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, kicks off our Read a Great Movie month with a look at the most terrifying serial killer of them all: Hannibal Lecter.

Anthony Hopkins received the cultural recognition for the role, but for me, Brian Cox will always be the definitive Hannibal Lecter – or ‘Lecktor’, as he’s credited in Michael Mann’s 1986 thriller Manhunter. It was based on Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon (1981), an extraordinary book that not only introduced the world to the now infamous psychopath, but folded the horror genre into crime, and provided at least one template for the serial killer novel: the troubled investigator returning to hunt down one last monster. These days, that’s a familiar storyline. But it’s never been done better.

Cox’s Lecktor is many things that Hopkins’ isn’t. For one, he’s a genuine physical threat. While you never doubt his intelligence or insight, it’s never superhuman – no Holmesian sniffing out and naming of perfume brands – and whether he’s lounging in his cell, chewing gum while social engineering on the telephone, or staring through the cell bars at William Petersen’s nervy Will Graham, he’s always as much thug as aesthete. Cox is only in three scenes (and one of them is just his voice) but his presence dominates the film.

That Lecktor doesn’t overshadow it is testament both to Harris’s driving narrative and Mann’s memorable framing of so many scenes. Graham turning on the light in the murdered family’s bedroom. The fractured conversation with his stepson in a claustrophobic supermarket (and his subsequent declaration to his own reflection in a diner window). Climbing the tree and finding the carving. Dollarhyde’s sex scene with Reba, followed by his desperate hug outside in the beautiful morning sunlight. Reba stroking the sleeping tiger. Graham’s interview with Lecktor, where the cuts to their faces keep the cell bars in the same places.

There are almost too many great scenes, in fact, and I can remember the music to each of them, because the soundtrack is superb. Two stand out. The first, beginning with Graham and Crawford arguing and ending with Graham’s fingers on the glass (again, staring out at his own reflection), having figured it out, is probably my favourite scene in cinema. The second, as Graham confronts the Tooth Fairy, to the thumping soundtrack from Iron Butterfly, is a departure from the ending of the novel, but is far superior to the ending of the other film of the book (Red Dragon, 2002).

In fact, Mann trims away much of the novel. The attacks on the families’ pets are referred to only fleetingly – almost confusingly. Will Graham’s past is only glimpsed in dialogue: Lecktor taunting him about enjoying shooting Garrett Jacob Hobbs to death; Graham’s reference to Lounds sneaking into the hospital and taking photos of his injuries after arresting Lecktor. And Petersen manages to convey so much with silence. You can give more in a book, but to do so in a film risks overloading it, and Manhunter is a masterclass in providing you with the relevant backstory without you even noticing.

There have been a number of excellent serial killer films since – Zodiac and Snowtown come to mind immediately – but for me, nearly thirty years later, Manhunter remains the pinnacle of the genre.

Steve Mosby is the author of seven titles, the most recent of which is Dark Room. His next novel is due out in May 2014. His books have been translated widely and longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award.