Pub quiz trivia question…the million-pound gamble: Who was the first actor to play the infamous cannibal Hannibal Lecter?
And the answer is: Brian Cox. Playing, as he is credited, ‘Doctor Lecktor’.
Kicking off the Brian Cox season at the Bradford International Film Festival is a curiously neglected film, featuring what is essentially a supporting role from our Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. It all sounds familiar: tortured FBI operative enlists the help of the psychiatrist serial killer he helped incarcerate in order to catch another predator at large. Hijinks ensue. Directed by Michael Mann and hot off the success of Miami Vice, came Manhunter, the first film to adapt the characters from the grisly but compelling novels by Thomas Harris.
Though of course Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs won the awards (and rightly so) for the adaptation of Harris’ second novel in the series, it is the first book, ‘Red Dragon’ which has had a murkier existence on the silver screen. Largely forgotten until recently, Manhunter is an interesting film. It is by no means faultless, but pretty close to it. It is in Manhunter we come face-to-face with the original ‘hero’ of the series, Will Graham, and a newly captured Hannibal Lecter. Contained within a white cell and wearing a banal white jumpsuit, Lecter is yet again uniquely enjoyable and yet unnerving to watch, thanks to Cox’s impish and mischievous take on the character. Like Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter, it is within the confinement of his captors that he really excels in demonstrating his hypnotic repartee and the powerful mind games which penetrate much further than the blade of any weapon (or indeed, kitchen utensil) he may have used. Against William Petersen’s dashing but tormented Graham, Lecter’s role within the film is to sow seeds of paranoia and catastrophic mayhem while Graham becomes quickly embroiled in a case he finds impossible to step away from. Tom Noonan as the antagonist, Francis Dollarhyde, is terrifying, committing horrific acts and demonstrating the slightest of emotion which draws you in and catches you alarmingly off-guard…could a serial killer ever find love?! Dollarhyde’s psychological neuroses unfold to reveal an inner dragon, while Graham’s repressed empathetic third eye for the monstrous fans its ruinous flames. Petersen gives a fevered performance and is at times delightfully 80s in his chest-beating, but tempered by Noonan as his counterpart (whose own storyline dominates the second act of the film), the film wanders into neo-noir territory for the ultimate game of cat and mouse.
With the success of the recent NBC Hannibal series, the enduring fascination with these characters shows no sign of fading away. It was fantastic to return to a unique take on the bizarre world of Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham before the revelation of “fava beans and a nice chianti” changed popular culture forever. One of the great ‘what if’s of cinema…imagine if it was Brian Cox who had won all the accolades which went on to kick-start Hopkins’ career…and it’s even more intriguing to learn that when Cox returned to the UK after starring in Michael Mann’s film, he still remained virtually unknown. I’m sure Doctor Lecter would never put up with such rude behaviour…