Barely creating a financial ripple at the box-office in 1986, Manhunter has since become regarded as a cult classic. Later adaptations of Thomas Harris’ books would be far more successful, and Sir Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of gentleman serial killer Hannibal Lecter became a screen icon. But Michael Mann’s earlier film, his personal take on the 1980 novel Red Dragon, stood in stark contrast.
By turns quiet and ferocious, the tone and pace of Manhunter is exemplified in Brian Cox’s understated turn as Hannibal. His version of the caged sociopath is cool and wryly intelligent, cunning and frighteningly intuitive. Where Hopkins’ performance was perfect for Jonathan Demme’s grand, horror-laced Silence Of The Lambs, Cox is equally remarkable in the subtle, seductive Manhunter.
It was a genuine pleasure, therefore, to get the chance to talk to Brian Cox about his role in the film, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. Here, Cox speaks candidly about working with Michael Mann, Manhunter’s initial box-office failure, the development of Hannibal’s character in the subsequent films, and exactly what he thinks of director Brett Ratner…
Given the way it performed at the box-office in the 80s, are you surprised at how well Manhunter’s endured?
You know, the film got its cult status very early on, really by default. Because, basically [producer] Dino De Laurentiis went bust and couldn’t afford to make any more prints. There were very few prints of it around, initially, and of course, it didn’t do very well.
Dino never liked Manhunter, because it reminded him of when times were bad for him. He’d invested in this studio down in Wilmington, and he forgot that Wilmington’s where they have hurricanes. The studio had a corrugated iron roof, which meant that sound was very hard to do.
The way the cult status gathered [around Manhunter] was quite fascinating, because it was all by default. When it opened, we had great reviews and we should have gone on. And it would have been great if we’d opened in a lot of cities, because it would have been seen – but it couldn’t be seen because there weren’t enough prints of it. That’s purely what it was – De Laurentiis went into liquidation, and there were a lot of problems with getting stuff made.
The film did well critically, but he never got it out there. And it was purely his own idiocy, because it was terrible mismanagement. But what happened was, it was something like three years later, probably about 1988, when it was finally released in the UK.
It was Jeremy Thomas who came to the rescue, because he found it and released it in the UK. Gene Hackman, of all people, originally owned the rights to Silence Of The Lambs, and then he let it go, and Jonathan Demme did it – and the rest is history.
What was Michael Mann like to work with? I understand your scene with William Petersen took a couple of days to shoot.
He was very psychologically sound, Michael. He understood the ruthless psychology of the scene incredibly well. He worked for a long time in the commercial world – in fact, he used to make commercials in the UK, a lot like Ridley Scott and his brother Tony. He was that generation, who made all these amazing films. So he was into that, he knew that corporate world.
And he’d made a couple of films, he made one called Thief, which was wonderful. He was very stylistic, and influenced by David Hockney. You see a lot of David Hockney in Michael’s work.
And then he got this film, and he got this great casting director, who was Bonnie Timmermann, who got me involved.
How did you approach playing Hannibal? What was in your head as you were playing him?
I knew it was one of those great roles that demanded, above all, a sense of dexterity, lightness of touch, and speed. Because he’s quite an intellectual. He’s very bright, and kind of vain in his brightness, so I played him very, very quickly. I’m quite proud of the fact that the scene is very quick, and when they did it later on [in Red Dragon], they went a little slower with it.
And this is a thing that came from Michael: he kept saying, he’s got that sense of entitlement thing. He’s got a thing about entitlement. “The only time I’ve ever come across that kind of entitlement is all those public schoolboys I worked with when I was in commercial work in England”. Michael asked if I’d ever known any public schoolboys, and I said, “No, I don’t, as it happens.” And then I realised that I do know one, which is my son, Alan. And I remember thinking, yeah, I know, he’s got that. He was about 14 or 15 at the time, and he still has it, that hunger for things and knowledge.
Ironically, when I look at the film now, and he’s so like my son. My son’s slightly older now than I was when I played it, but he’s very like [Hannibal]. I keep thinking, “Oh, it’s Alan!”
That must be very strange.
It is very odd. And he’s grown up to be a very good actor, which is doubly strange.
I understand you’d read the original Red Dragon book…
I did, I read the book, and I just loved it. I particularly loved Francis Dollarhyde. I particularly love the bit where he eats the painting. They didn’t do it in Manhunter, but I loved it in the book.
I was going to ask you about that, actually. What did you think of the way Mann chose to adapt the novel?
You have to make choices when you make an adaptation, and Michael’s as much a painter as anything else. His choices are visual ones, though he is, psychologically, incredibly smart. I think his choices are image-led. He’s got a great style in everything he does, and then, of course, there’s the music.
The only thing I’m not mad about, when I look at it – though I saw it recently and I was a little bit more forgiving – but I was never a fan of 80s music. So that always dates the film, for me, the score. Visually, I think the film’s a hundred per cent. Musically I think it’s 50 per cent.
I think it’s interesting, though, that Mann trimmed out some of the more excessive parts of the novel, and made a much more simmering film.
He wanted to imply more, and I think he succeeded in implying evil rather than showing it. I think the opening sequence, when we go through the house while the killing’s taking place – he did it. All the videos of the families. You know their fates, but he doesn’t dwell on any of it.
It’s way, way ahead of its time. I mean, CSI and all those programmes have all virtually ripped that off, in an amazing, successful way. The chemical aspect of criminality. That whole scientific thing.
Michael [Mann] was all about the unsaid rather than the said, and [William Petersen], who every time I see the film, I think his performance gets better and better, because it’s so wrought and tight.
It’s quite a contrast to the Brett Ratner version.
Well, the Brett Ratner is… well, the less said about Brett Ratner, the better. [Laughs] I think he’s a very lucky stiff, Brett Ratner [Laughs].
I think one of the things that people do too often is compare your portrayal to Anthony Hopkins’ performance of Lecter, when they’re two very different films, in two different genres.
They’re two different animals, they really are. It’s like comparing two Hamlets, or two Lears. I thought the interesting thing about doing the film, is that Tony decided to play it in a certain kind of way. He stood in the middle of the cell, and was completely upfront about who he was. I start the scene with my back to the audience, so I can pull them in. I’m trying to seduce the audience in an entirely different way. Whereas Tony’s there, he’s an indefatigable force.
It’s a different style of film, and it works. It has immense theatricality, and it’s powerful. The only thing that went wrong – and this has absolutely nothing to do with Tony, because I think his performance was tremendous – was the franchise element. I thought that where Hannibal Lecter worked was as a character with mystery.
I blame Thomas Harris for this. Harris fell in love with Hannibal Lecter, and undid him, in a way. He undid his dramatic power, because that comes from what you don’t know about him. If you give away all his secrets, there’s nothing to discover about the character, and you know too much about his potential danger.
I felt that was Harris and Ridley Scott as well, later on. Basically, it was the script – it became slightly ludicrous. It was all within the bounds of reality, and it was scary because of that, and I think that was a shame. But not because of Tony, because he’s a great actor. He’s one of our great actors.
Lecter became a kind of Universal monster, didn’t he?
He became like a Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee thing, which is a shame. I don’t think that’s what he was about at all. It was overstated, really.
In Manhunter and much of your other work, you often play small roles that have a huge impact on the story. Your character in Adaptation is one that immediately springs to mind. Are those parts more liberating in a way, as an actor?
I’d rather leave audiences wanting more than feeling full up. When I made the move to America in the mid-90s, when I was younger, we all want to play for the top role or the leading part. I just thought, I’d done leading roles in the theatre, and theatre’s a different animal from cinema, but I realised that the best thing about cinema is the delicacy of it. Making the hugest impact with the minimum of effort.
I’ve been lucky. Adaptation is exactly a role like that. Manhunter’s a role like that. My wonderful role in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is one like that. I cherish those roles, because all I needed was an arc. All I needed was a shape – didn’t matter if it was only one scene, as long as I had a shape.
If he came in one door you didn’t know he’d come in from, and he goes out another door where you don’t know where he’s going to, you know? That’s my criteria.
You’ve had an incredibly busy year already, so what’s next for you?
I’m playing Sir Matt Busby in a film about him [Theatre Of Dreams]. It’s kind of a magical realist film – it’s very bold, where I’m laying to rest the ghosts of his babes. The director [David Scheinmann] is a Mancunian, and used to be a photographer, and this is his love letter to Manchester.
And I’ve been in Australia, doing this TV series called The Straights. It’s about gangster smugglers, and it’s like The Sopranos but with better weather!
Brian Cox, thank you very much.
Manhunter is out now on Blu-ray. You can read our retrospective of Michael Mann’s classic film here.