Published on January 24th, 2017 | by Clint Davis
Summary: A stylish and well-acted 1980s thriller that holds up perfectly today. Michael Mann shows his knack for creating tension and mood. It's not the best Hannibal Lecter film but a very close second.
R | 119 min.
Premiered: Aug. 15, 1986
Director & Screenplay: Michael Mann (based on Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon)
Starring: William Petersen, Tom Noonan, Brian Cox
Distribution: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
There’s a scene in Manhunter where Francis Dollarhyde, a man who murders entire families under the monicker “the Tooth Fairy,” is shown standing under a perfectly placed horizontal strip of neon-pink light. The shock of color in an otherwise dark, dull room and its placement in the center of the frame seems to signify it as the dividing line between heaven and hell. There’s no question as to which side Dollarhyde belongs.
It’s a beautiful shot, simple in its symbolism and evocative of 1980s postmodern design. It’s elegant shots like frames like this that elevate Manhunter above the average killer thriller. That, and the fact that it carries the unenviable burden of setting the tone for one of fiction’s most legendary characters.
In the 30 years since Manhunter hit theaters, Dr. Hannibal Lecter has become one of pop culture’s truly iconic villains. But when this movie came out, audiences had never seen the character on screen and many had likely never heard of him. Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon had been in print for five years and its sequel The Silence of the Lambs was still two years from being released in hardback.
Director Michael Mann took Red Dragon, wrote a script and turned it into Manhunter, which will forever be known as the first adaptation of Harris’s ubiquitous book series following Lecter and his uneasy relationship with the FBI.
In 1986, many audiences and critics didn’t dig Manhunter. Probably because, as Marty McFly would say, I guess they weren’t ready for it yet. With decades of hindsight into the entertainment behemoth the Lecter series has become (four novels, five films, a network TV series), it’s clear that all filmmakers and actors who’ve handled the material since owe Mann and his cast a debt of gratitude … if not a royalty check.
In the decade following Manhunter, Mann would direct two of the finest Hollywood thrillers ever made in 1995’s Heat and 1999’s The Insider. But in 1986, he was most well known for his work as executive producer of the massive hit NBC series Miami Vice, which oozed style out of the small screen. There’s a lot of Miami Vice in Manhunter, sometimes to its detriment but often to its benefit.
The movie follows Will Graham, a former FBI “manhunter” who, despite a phenomenal knack for getting into the minds of criminals, quit the job after he was nearly killed catching a serial killer named Hannibal Lecktor (yes, for some reason it’s spelled “Lecktor” in this movie, despite Harris spelling it “Lecter” in his novel). When we meet Graham, who’s thin and tan, living in a Florida beach house with his beautiful wife Molly and young son Kevin. Catching sadistic killers is the last thing on his mind but his old FBI boss Jack Crawford comes calling, bringing a case folder that the Bureau needs Graham’s empathic skills to solve.
A murderer known only as “the Tooth Fairy” is killing people whenever a full moon is in the sky. He’s struck twice already and Crawford urges Graham to come out of retirement before a third batch of victims is slain, using Graham’s trademark empathy and love for his family against him. The Tooth Fairy doesn’t just kill people, he leaves bite marks on the victims, places shards of mirror glass into their eyes and seems to know their homes intimately. Graham agrees to help and is forced to get back in touch with the dormant dark side of his own mind that allows him to slip into the skin of monsters like Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy.
In many ways, Manhunter is a typical serial killer mystery where a dedicated cop obsessively examines clues and hunts for his man. But this movie separates itself from lesser procedurals because of the memorable characters Harris has created and the strict attention to detail paid by Mann in his presentation of high-stakes police work.
As a protagonist, Graham is one of the most interesting detectives that’s ever been written. He’s truly a good man and a great investigator, but his gift for hunting criminals comes at the cost of his mental wellbeing. Graham’s process involves visiting murder scenes alone, often under cover of darkness, and putting himself in the mindset of the killer. This process is shown in great detail in NBC’s fantastic, now-defunct series Hannibal but Mann handles it with much more subtlety in Manhunter. In this film, the audience watches as this gentle, intense man becomes volatile as he figures out the Tooth Fairy’s moves. Graham doesn’t need a partner, as he often talks to himself and looks quite insane in the process.
When you have antagonists that are as memorable as Lecktor and Francis Dollarhyde (the Tooth Fairy), it’s difficult for a hero to match up, but Graham is every bit as fascinating. In Manhunter, Graham is played by William Petersen, who’s best known for his work as Gil Grissom in the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a role he played for the better part of 15 years. Petersen’s look is perfect for the style of this film. He’s handsome and rugged but looks thoughtful and smart enough to be a top FBI profiler and he looks great in the Miami Vice-style shirt/tie/jacket combos that exude ’80s noir. Petersen also plays the part with strength and compassion.
We genuinely like Graham and are rooting for him to crack the case. We appreciate the quiet, methodical nature of his process but also get fired up alongside him when he snaps at Crawford in one fantastic scene, telling him “Don’t tell me about late, pal! I’ll tell you when it’s too fucking late! Until then, we go as late as I want to take it.” This was only the second starring role of Petersen’s career and he took full advantage, holding the audience’s attention for two hours.
But Manhunter is far from a one-man show. A 30-year-old Joan Allen also gives a breakout performance as Reba, a blind co-worker and lover of Dollarhyde’s. In an interview included with the DVD extras of Manhunter, Allen said she prepared for the role by spending time with blind students in New York City, learning to navigate as they did. Allen is one of the most gifted female actors when it comes to being sexual but not allowing that to define her characters. She shows this talent in Manhunter, making Reba an unapologetic character who controls her sexuality and doesn’t allow blindness to make her fragile in any way. Allen would show this knack for balancing passion and composure in later films like 1998’s Pleasantville and 2000’s The Contender.
As Graham’s wife Molly, Kim Greist brings soul and weight to what could have been a routine part. The handful of scenes between she and Petersen really made me buy into their marriage. Although she obviously doesn’t want to see Will go back to the FBI work that left his mind in shambles, Molly isn’t played as a nagging caricature. Their marriage appears healthy, passionate and honest, and they both come off as good parents. In one scene where Will calls Molly from a hotel room in the middle of the night, Greist plays perfectly what it’s like to be awoken by a phone, speaking in a half-asleep mumble. It was a short scene but showed the attention to detail that Mann as a filmmaker is famous for.
Tom Noonan, whose lanky, pale figure has led to a career being typecast in villain roles, is spot-on as Dollarhyde (the Tooth Fairy). Noonan doesn’t simply play Dollarhyde as an irredeemable psychopath — which would have been easy, given his predilections toward mutilating families and stalking women — but as a deeply troubled person who longs for acceptance and idolatry. Noonan miraculously avoids taking Dollarhyde over the top and somehow inspires a touch of sympathy during one scene in bed with Reba where he guides her hand to cover his mouth, which has the scar of a cleft lip. But don’t get me wrong, Dollarhyde isn’t a gentle soul. This character is frightening and Noonan does everything he can to make you scared of him by movie’s end.
Although for as much praise as the principal cast of Manhunter earns, it’s Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecktor who perhaps leaves the deepest mark on the audience. Obviously Lecter is the type of character any actor would dream to take his turn with: A brilliant, manipulative, egotistical madman who exudes control over a situation even from behind three inches of plexiglass. We’ve seen Anthony Hopkins earn an Oscar playing Lecter and Mads Mikkelsen embody him for 39 gripping hours of television — but it was Cox who first defined the cannibalistic genius for viewers. And although Lecktor only appears in Manhunter for a few scenes, his spirit hangs over the entire film, haunting Graham from a heavily guarded cell.
Cox’s Hannibal isn’t as frightening as Hopkins’s, nor as debonair as Mikkelsen’s, but he’s just as evil as both and every bit as intense. Lecktor admires Graham and constantly beckons the mentally frail detective to give in to the murderous urges he feels are locked inside him. In Manhunter, Lecktor acts more as a temptress than a villain and he seems to hinder the investigation more than he helps it. Cox’s Hannibal is more mischievous and playful than any other screen version we’ve seen of the great character.
Unfortunately, not all the performances in Manhunter are immaculate. Dennis Farina brings nothing interesting to his performance of Jack Crawford. His portrayal is by the books and mostly blends into the background as Petersen dials into Graham. Stephen Lang is also terribly on-the-nose as the sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. In a movie about serial killers and obsessive cops, Lang manages to be the only actor who goes totally over the top. In every onscreen iteration, Lounds is meant to be an irritating foil, but the character didn’t feel so transparent when played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Red Dragon or by Lara Jean Chorostecki in TV’s Hannibal.
As I stated, Manhunter both benefits and suffers from the style-heavy inspirations of Mann’s Miami Vice. When the film hit theaters, Miami Vice was coming off a season that racked up the highest ratings of its five-season run. It was one of the hottest shows on TV. From a production design standpoint, I think Manhunter echoes Miami Vice in the best ways. The costumes worn by Petersen and Noonan are pure ’80s, as are the interior set designs, and I mean that in the best way possible.
Manhunter is firmly and unapologetically planted in the ’80s. It doesn’t try to be timeless. It captures the era in which it was made and set. If you’ve ever seen the 2011 Ryan Gosling movie Drive — an arresting tribute to 1980s noir and old-fashioned stunt driving — you’ll realize that its director Nicolas Winding Refn was unabashedly ripping off Manhunter, among other films. The spirit of ’80s cool is unshakeable in this movie and its the visuals that secure that legacy. But the soundtrack is a bit more problematic at times.
Overall, the music in Manhunter, including the sparse, synth-heavy original score, is fantastic. But there are a few scenes in which diegetic pop music undermines the weight of the scenes it underlies.
The biggest offender comes late in the film when Dollarhyde sits in his creepy van across the street from Reba’s house, watching as she interacts with a co-worker who drove her home. Dollarhyde’s jealousy consumes him, giving us a front-row seat to the most emotional outburst he has in the entire movie. Noonan extends his long, ghoulish fingers to grab the vinyl cover above his dashboard, tearing it at the seams. It’s an intense scene but I found myself distracted by a song blaring from the soundtrack as we watch Dollarhyde’s tantrum.
The song playing is “Strong As I Am” by the Prime Movers, an act that would later morph into the reggae-meets-Led-Zeppelin tribute band Dread Zeppelin. My first issue with the music choice is it’s just not a very good song. It’s grating, in-your-face and it sounds like a rip-off of The Cult. But to be fair, the pan flute part in the intro is awesome. My second issue is the volume of the song in the soundtrack. This is a scene of quiet anger and it seems Mann is trying to use the song as diegetic music, showing Dollarhyde just happens to be listening to some power pop on his van radio while he creeps on Reba. But if he’s right across the street and blaring music, there’s no way Reba wouldn’t hear him. She’s deaf, not blind! The scene is still powerful, thanks to Noonan’s conviction, but it could have been flawless with a different choice of soundtrack.
At the end of the film, we hear another questionable soundtrack choice. A tune called “Heartbeat” by Red 7 plays as the action wraps up. It’s not a terrible song but it sounds awfully generic for a commissioned soundtrack choice. When I first watched the scene I just thought it was a so-so deep cut from Phil Collins but it only sounds like one.
But the soundtrack is mostly a success and I confess I’ve found myself spinning it on Spotify for days after watching Manhunter. There are three songs by Shriekback used in the film and they fit like a glove, especially “This Big Hush,” which is used during a romantic scene. The piéce de résistance of the movie’s musical selections comes during the climax, when Graham and Dollarhyde finally meet. Mann cranks up Iron Butterfly’s epic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and lets it fly during a violent showdown. This is one of those movie moments where it pays to have a kickass surround sound system. It’s the film’s signature musical moment and it delivers big time.
Cinematographer Dante Spinotti deserves as much of the credit for Manhunter’s artistic success as Mann or anyone else involved in the production. His shots are beautifully crafted and interestingly framed. There are no boring visuals in Manhunter. Spinotti won a BAFTA award in 1993 for his work on Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans but he’s never won an Oscar, despite nominations for LA Confidential and The Insider. It’s obvious Spinotti had a blast shooting Manhunter and he proved to be the perfect man for the job.
Manhunter is an impressive movie in many ways. Its characters are nearly all memorable. Its mystery is engaging doesn’t play tricks on the audience. Its production style is eye catching and memorable. Its performances are cocksure. Its direction is controlled. It’s easy to see why this has become a cult favorite and understandable why some have claimed it’s the best Lecter movie ever made. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s a damn close second and a guaranteed favorite for anyone who digs creepy thrillers and all things ’80s.
Stills courtesy: Film-Grab.com