Why Haven’t You Seen It: Manhunter (A.K.A the original Red Dragon)


Flashback many, many Summers. I am working overnight as a Forest Ranger at a little state park on Cape Cod. Most nights were slow, so I would read to kill time. I will never forget the impact the Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon had on me. It was one of the last books I ever remember actually scaring me. It was so effective in parts, I would have to put it down to regain my composure. While my surroundings may have factored into that terror at times, there is no denying that book was phenomenal (and kickstarted the Hannibal Lecter saga, which is still going, now on television). So you can imagine my joy when I found out that it was already made into a movie by the time I read it. Yes, there are two cinematic version of Red Dragon out there. Today, I am going to talk about the first one from 1986, which they (mistakenly) renamed Manhunter for the silver screen. Name change or not, why haven’t you seen it?


Was Cox better than Hopkins? Let’s debate this over a beer one night. I could on for hours about it.

I will start this out where it needs to be started. With Lecter. Before Anthony Hopkins was the Hannibal Lecter the world knows and fears (and well before Mads Mikkelsen put his own unique and chillig spin on the character for TV) there was another actor who portrayed the brilliant psychopath. His name is Brian Cox, and much like his two successors, the man is a f*cking marvel to watch on-screen.

As most of you who know the series knows, Lecter doesn’t get much screen time in Manhunter, as he is actually, initially seen as the lesser of two evils (as he is already captive by this point). But I feel compelled to say that Brian Cox is one of my favorite actors on earth, and the man can do no wrong. His Lecter is quite different than Hopkins’ version. Though I will not condemn either (and feel very lucky to have seen both), Cox has more of a “wild dog that is calm right now but may bite at any second” feel, while Hopkins was more of a “I am playing you and controlling this moment right now so I can use it to my sick advantage later” type of Lecter. It may seem insignificant and small, but it is not. These are two uniquely different takes on a mad man, and you need to see both. We have all seen the most recent version (and let us not forget, Hopkins and Mikkelsen both have had way more time to play with and develop the character), but all three will resonate with you. Without picking favorites, though…I would have paid money to see Cox get more of a chance to play this guy. Oh, and I have much to say about the Red Dragon himself soon. Dude scarred me for life.


Pictured: scary-ass shit.

So as you know, Manhunter is all about William Graham (who catches Lecter BEFORE the events in this film take place, and unlike Red Dragon, we get no flashbacks of that in this film) trying to use the skills of Hannibal Lecter to help him catch a new killer out there who seems to be intent on terrorizing. I love me some Edward Norton, no doubt, but in the original, Graham is played by William Peterson, who you all know best from C.S.I. Pretty safe to say he landed the C.S.I gig from doing that same bit so damn well here. He adds a layer of torture to the Graham character that Norton seemed to leave out. He is affected by what he does, and you see the impact that takes on him and his family. Something as simple as grocery shopping with his son can elicit strong emotions and feelings about the kind of darkness he often needs to become just to understand and then capture the people who do those things.

Alright, I am dancing around what really made Manhunter so amazing. Tom Noonan as the tall, albino killer, Francis Dollarhyde. Yes, Ralph Fiennes is amazing in anything he does, but few killers have ever scared me and marked my memory like Tom Noonan as the “Red Dragon” in this film. He is both terrifying and mesmerizing. There is a calmness to the way he speaks and walks, yet you come to find out what he is capable of and every moment you are scared to death of what the guy is capable of. Adding a blind woman falling in love with him to this mix and you have what I can only describe as a “perfect” thriller. It really is.


No words for the impact this performance on my young mind.

So why am I bringing up Manhunter, so many years later, when so many people have seen its (in all fairness, really good) reboot? Because it shocks me how many people I talk to who have no idea there was a Hannibal before Hannibal. People who had no idea Red Dragon was already a film before Red Dragon. This brings us to the name change thing. Why did they go with Manhunter and not the name of the novel, which would have brought more readers of fans of the series into the theater? Truth is, it is hard to know quite why these things are done. There are many heads involved in filmmaking, and 1986 was the time of the “thriller”, so I am led to believe someone thought the name Manhunter had a more dramatic and audience baiting name. Truth is, that sort of failed. Which is the exact reason so many people do not even know this film exists. Sorry, but the name Manhunter makes it sound like a generic action movie Dolph Lundgren (who is cool as hell, by the way, but also a perfect example at this moment) would have starred in.

Also, one final shout out. This is directed by Michael Mann. Yes, the guy who directed Heat and many other amazing movies. So why it is overly ignored by most of cinema is beyond me. Though the reboot may have a few bigger names and some expanded subplots, the original needs to be seen by all. It is the perfect introduction to a character and a world we would all come to know, very well. Oh, and the tiger scene is one of the best scenes ever put on film. Yes, I just said that. It is tense and calming at the same time, and pretty much sums up the whole movie. I will also put in print that the final moments of this film with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida playing is one of the best final acts of a movie I have ever seen. So again, why haven’t you seen it? Yes, it is on Netflix, By the way. You’re welcome.


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  1. I remember a really great shot from this one where the music fades out and then back in just as he jumps through a window, recommencing the Iron Butterfly marathon. It was awesome. It’s a killer flick, but what bugs me is that people act like the modern version is this terrible POS in comparison, which is just hipsterish. It’s mostly the same damn movie with different actors and a little more Lector in Red Dragon because they wanted to link it to the previous films. They’re both fine movies.

  2. I’ve seen EVERY live-action media adaptation of Harris’ Lector series. Read all the books. Manhunter sadly did suffer from a bad retitling and a lot of 80’s filmaking choice cliches, but was ultimately the better written and plotted of the two movie adaptations. And in many ways better acted. Certainly Peterson outdid Norton by miles. The two Dollarhydes were about equal, while being played as entirely different monsters. RD Dollarhyde was the more sympathetic, MH’s the more viscerally terrifying. As for Cox’s Lector? Sadly there just wasn’t enough of him to really compete with Hopkins or Mikkelson on any real level, but that’s not his fault. And in what little screen time he got, he certainly outdid the kid from Hannibal Rising.

    As for declaring the best Red Dragon adaptation, I’m waiting for Hannibal to survive to a fourth season, as, if it does get one, the series plan is for Season 4 to be Red Dragon. With 13 episodes to stretch it out, Mikkelson, Fishburne and Dancy in the cast, and Bryan Fuller at the helm, it could potentially leave both RD and MH in the dust. Plus Season 5 would be Silence of the Lambs, and that’s just too awesome a prospect to ignore.

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