30 years ago this week, legendary horror villain Hannibal Lecter made his debut screen appearance – played by Scottish character actor Brian Cox
Three decades on, here’s why Cox’s performance in Manhunter remains the most underrated and under-appreciated interpretation of an iconic killer.
“If one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is.”
There’s something especially unsettling about Brian Cox’s 1986 take on Hannibal Lecter (or ‘Lecktor’, as he was known back then).
Languishing almost lazily in his clinical, brightly-lit cell, yet staring out at his quarry with startling intensity, Lecter has all the manipulative prowess, superior attitude and probing, nefarious dialogue you’d expect, yet he hides it behind a veil of normality that is all too plausible in Manhunter.
Michael Mann’s stylish cult thriller, adapted from Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon, turns 30 on August 15.
And in the ensuing decades, it’s fair to say that this first appearance of Lecter on screen has been overshadowed by successive, high-profile versions of the character.
First by Anthony Hopkins, who won an Oscar for his portrayal in instant ’90s classic Silence Of The Lambs; then more recently by Mads Mikkelsen in the acclaimed TV series Hannibal.
But while Hopkins’ charismatic, leering nemesis was beautifully theatrical, and Mikkelsen’s complex anti-hero an otherwordly presence, Cox’s genius was to make Lecter terrifyingly down to earth.
His Lecter is mild-mannered, casual rather than formal, and outwardly normal. You wouldn’t give him a second glance in the street.
Wolf in sheep’s clothing
Yet this same seemingly ordinary man could be holding a civil conversation with you one minute, and then brutally mutilating you the next. Or using his fiendishly high intelligence to get word to a fellow serial killer of where your home is located, and advising said killer to massacre your entire family (as he does in Manhunter).
Cox’s Lecter is the wolf in sheep’s clothing. The nice guy next door who keeps bodies in the basement. And it is that surface-level normality that makes him the scariest iteration of the character.
Speaking to WOW247 about his performance as Lecter back in 2014, Cox remarked:
“Hannibal felt like a very dangerous, plausible individual. I remember seeing these films of Ted Bundy, and thinking about the highly delusional way these people see themselves.”
Indeed, he turned to real-life sources for inspiration.
“The guy who influenced me was Peter Manuel, who haunted Scotland when I was a boy. He actually defended himself in court. He was very clever, very plausible, and almost succeeded in trying to pin it on someone else. I remember getting an extraordinary frisson from the story.”
Not mad – insane
“With Hannibal, I wanted to play him like that. I didn’t want to do what Tony did later – that very theatrical thing. It was very successful, and he’s a great actor, but I wanted something more intrinsically evil.
“I’ve always said Tony played him mad, and I played him insane.”
Manhunter as a whole excels in its portrait of the banality of evil.
The film’s main bad guy, family-slaughtering misfit The Tooth Fairy, is portrayed with sensitivity and humanity by Tom Noonan. His strange towering physicality and flawed appearance go hand-in-hand with his shy, socially awkward nature.
Much as Lecter later became a quip spouting Hammer Horror villain, The Tooth Fairy’s re-imagining in 2002’s Red Dragon (played by Ralph Fiennes) turned him into a two-dimensional Norman Bates cliche, with little subtlety to his explicit psychosis.
But in Manhunter, he’s a sensitive, sincere outcast whose deluded motivations are clear – but we’re largely left to wonder just what past trauma and aberrations could have led to a state of mind which could conceive and commit such monstrous acts.
Cox notes that the Lecter of Manhunter also had an element of mystery about him.
After all, he too comes with little backstory, or context for his insanity; existing as both a specific torment to FBI profiler Will Graham, and a general embodiment of very human, and very believable, evil.
Less is more
This is something that has been gradually lost as Lecter has been brought back to the screen time and time again, a truth that Cox himself acknowledges.
“I feel very proud to have had the opportunity first.
“I have to say though that the mistake Thomas Harris made was to fall in love with the character. He’s lost his mystery since.
“You never really knew who he was originally, and that was what I liked about it.”
Manhunter is available on DVD and Blu-Ray