There’s a ghost shadowing Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, and it’s not that guy whose head Jodie Foster finds in a jar. It’s Manhunter, a creepy 1986 thriller written and directed by Michael Mann, the guy who gave us Miami Vice.
If you like making your own home video double features, you won’t find two movies that interlock more obligingly. Both are based on novels by Thomas Harris (Manhunter uses 1981’s Red Dragon as its source). Both pit a grim FBI stoic against a methodical serial killer sharpening his knives for his next victim. And both use the character of the brilliant, jailed psychopath Hannibal Lecter as an amoral envoy between cop and quarry.
In other regards, though, the movies are opposites. Silence was a box office hit from a maverick filmmaker sowing his mass-appeal oats. Manhunter is never as entertaining as Demme’s film — it’s not an audience gooser — and the cast, while solid, isn’t a patch on Silence’s transfixing leads. But in its quiet, unnerving way, it’s the better film.
Manhunter follows FBI agent Will Graham (William Petersen), whose specialty is getting into the heads of the psychos he chases; he absorbs evidence until he can think like the killer and predict his next move. This isn’t good for his health, needless to say, and we learn that in catching Hannibal Lecter, Graham came close to insanity. In Manhunter he is pulled out of pastel Florida retirement to divine the motives of the ”Tooth Fairy” (Tom Noonan), a soft-spoken cipher who butchers entire families by the light of the full moon. Graham visits Lecter to ”get back into the mind-set,” and in so doing finds that the Tooth Fairy has already been in touch with his mentor.
There are plenty of little things wrong with the film. It’s laden with an aggressively hip mid-’80s portentousness (three-day stubble on the hero, moody synthesizer riffs) that already have dated badly. Brian Cox plays Lecter as an officious British prat rather than a scary Übermensch. But the towering, alien Noonan is terrifying as the Tooth Fairy (much more so than Silence’s pathetic villain, Buffalo Bill). More to the point, Mann understands that the soothing intricacy of FBI procedure is Graham’s only way of dealing with irrational evil. We grab onto the agent’s slow filling in of the puzzle for the same reason he does: as a banister leading out of the pit.
The Silence of the Lambs is more interested in the who than the how. Its main order of business isn’t agent-in-training Clarice Starling’s (Foster) pursuit of the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill; that’s reduced almost to a subplot. It’s the moral confrontation between Starling and Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) that Demme latches onto, in a series of tight, vivid, in-your-face close-ups that work especially well on video.
Demme is awfully blasé about his story line, though. Among other plot lumps, we’re asked to swallow two massive coincidences, both of which were set up better in the novel: that Buffalo Bill happened to be a former patient of ex-shrink Lecter and the out-of-left-field manner in which Starling finally meets the psycho (maybe it’s meant to be disorienting, but it disorients you right out of the movie).
Hopkins and Foster both have startling clarity of presence — you can’t take your eyes off them — and Demme directs in a jolting high style as effective as it is cynical. That makes The Silence of the Lambs a series of brilliant frissons that never quite cohere. Manhunter looks equally slick, but it has an undertow of genuine dread in keeping with its dire subject. The bottom-line difference is that Demme treats Hannibal the Cannibal as a dark pop joke — Freddy Krueger for the Mensa set. Mann looks at his serial killer, and he’s scared. B+