3.5 out of 5 stars

The first screen appearance of psychiatrist-gourmand Dr Hannibal Lecter is inevitably seen in the light of Jonathan Demme’s more successful The Silence of the Lambs (1991). But while Michael Mann’s Manhunter features several of the same characters and the storyline’s broadly similar, it’s strikingly different from Demme’s Academy Award-winner. The darkness of Mann’s film is more profound (despite its frequent visual brightness), and there’s a sense that FBI profiler Will Graha (William Petersen) is dangerously comfortable in adopting the mindset of a serial killer, which one never really feel with Jodie Foster in the equivalent Silence role.

Manhunter begins with a familiar detective-movie trope as Will Graham, retired after a case that proved too harrowing, is lured back to work by a fresh eruption of multiple murders; grim cases which are clearly irresistible to him despite his conflicting desire to stay with his family. The killings have investigators frustrated (“we don’t even have motive, none of us have shit), but Graham recognises that understanding the desires of the murderer, nicknamed ‘The Tooth Fairy’, is potentially key.

“It’s in his dreams,” Graham says, and he proceeds to immerse himself in the case from the killer’s perspective, eventually achieving a breakthrough understanding that enables the team to identify him as Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan). En route to that and the climactic attempt to apprehend Dollarhyde, Graham enlists the help of Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) as well as unscrupulous tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang).

A rather different ending apart, Manhunter stays reasonably close to Thomas Harris’s 1982 novel. But Mann much imposes his own vision on the movie, both stylistically and thematically. Despite its emphasis on realistic methods of crime detection—it helped to bring about the 1990s boom of interest in forensics, not only at the cinema but in the novels of writers like Patricia Cornwell—it’s far from gritty. Even in the crimes themselves, there’s no hint of the sordid. 

Mann, who’d recently come to film from a TV career that included producing the highly stylised crime show Miami Vice, puts far more value on visual impact than on characters or credible mise-en-scène, and then the characters are pushed even further into insignificance by the film’s attempt to illustrate Mann’s underlying ideas repeatedly and overtly. People in Manhunter behave the way they do because that fits the filmmaker’s overarching template, not because it’s plausible behaviour for an actual human being.

Visually, Manhunter is all about light and colour. For example, after an almost abstract opening (the first shot, of vehicle lights in darkness, is similar to that of Mann’s debut Thief), the story truly begins with Graham and his wife (Kim Greist) on a sunny, beautiful beach. Darkness then descends on the pair in their bedroom and has reached real blackness by the time Graham arrives at a murder scene. He now switches on a light to reveal a bloody bedroom every bit as brilliant as the beach. Perhaps he feels just as at home here.

Mann colour-codes entire scenes, too, often with his trademark cold blue. Many shots are against a pastel single-colour background. The institution where Lecktor’s confined is totally, unbrokenly white. On occasions, the screen seems to be filled with nothing but colour. Contemporaneous critics found this excessively mannered, and it is. The extreme crispness of the photography, familiar enough today thanks to digital filmmaking, but much less commonplace at the time of Manhunter, exacerbates the effect, as does the prominent music by the likes of Shriekback. (Mann might’ve been better off sticking with Tangerine Dream, who had scored his first two movies.)

Unsurprisingly, few of the cast can compete and it doesn’t help that Petersen never quite manages to rise above blandness. But there are strong performances in secondary roles. In particular, Joan Allen is convincing as Reba, a young blind woman befriended by Dollarhyde, and the aforementioned Lang catches our attention as Lounds the reporter— the fear in his eyes real when the tables are turned on him. Cox’s Lecktor is markedly different from Anthony Hopkins’s more famous portrayal, though physically he could be a younger version. He’s less preoccupied with aesthetics (ironically, given Mann’s hugely over-aestheticized film) and much less flamboyant.

The standout, though, is Noonan as Dollarhyde; frightening in the way he combines obvious homicidal madness with a casual, offhand, quite normal manner, but almost touching at times too. He could be the Beast pining for Beauty, and right to the end he’s more sympathetic than the comparable character in Silence, Ted Levine’s Jame Gumb. Two of the most striking individual shots feature Dollarhyde and, indeed, emphasize the animal in him (animals can be vicious, but they’re also innocent). At one point, believing himself betrayed by Reba, he stretches his hand like a claw. In an earlier scene, she strokes an anaesthetised tiger in the foreground while Dollarhyde lurks in the background.

The emotional depth achieved by Allen as Reba and Noonan as Dollarhyde is the exception rather than the rule in Manhunter, however, and most characters are seen primarily in terms of their function and their symbolic roles rather than their inner lives. If we see killing as Dollarhyde’s “job”, then this investigative procedural is largely concerned with men and their work (something reminiscent of the films of William Friedkin, and indeed Manhunter bears some resemblance to his 1985 film To Live and Die in L.A., both visually and in the casting of Petersen).

There are evidently intentional parallels between the killer and the investigator, too. Dollarhyde and Graham both watch films of the victims for different reasons, both crave a family life (much like James Caan in Mann’s Thief, though here it’s victims that provide a kind of family for Dollarhyde). Graham confesses to his son that he has the “ugliest thoughts in the world”. Voyeurism and its complement, a need to record their own thoughts and actions, dominate them; the murderer is obsessed with eyes and mirrors, Graham listens to the voice of a murdered woman on her answering machine, Graham dictates his own ideas.

Manhunter is a strange film, indulgently lush in appearance at times, yet austere and bleak in its insistence on highlighting the symmetry between hunter and hunted. The occasional effective, less self-conscious action sequence (notably a bait-and-switch trick played on the viewer that’s almost as accomplished as Demme’s famous one in Silence) was clearly not enough for audiences expecting a more conventional movie, and Manhunter withered at the box office.

It was unpopular with critics at the time, too, though its stock has since risen considerably. Typical responses were those of Sheila Benson in the Los Angeles Times (“like the mirrors that dot it, Manhunter is all flat, brilliant, reflective surfaces”) and Dave Kehr in the Chicago Tribune (“Mann believes in style so much that he has very little belief left over for the characters or situations of his film, which suffers accordingly… Manhunter is full of useful tips on interior decoration, but a movie it’s not”).

That didn’t stop Mann going on to a career in which he has earned much acclaim—even if the charge of favouring style over substance still follows him—as director of  The Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Insider (1999), and Public Enemies (2009). Several Manhunter personnel, including cinematographer Dante Spinotti and editor Dov Koenig, continued to work with him for years after.

Harris’s novel was remade in 2002 under its original title, Red Dragon (supposedly changed for Manhunter to avoid the impression that it was a kung fu movie). Films of his Hannibal (2001) and Hannibal Rising (2007) also followed Silence. And, of course, Hannibal Lecktor/Lecter himself, in the form of Anthony Hopkins, went on to achieve pop-culture superstardom that immediately eclipsed Cox and Manhunter even as its own increasingly grandiose pretensions became faintly ridiculous.

But for Manhunter devotees, Cox is Hannibal. And, of course, there’s much more to Manhunter than that comparatively minor character, as well. It’s an almost impossible film to warm to—much of the time, indeed, its temperature is absolute zero. But it’s certainly one that can entrance, with its unreally exquisite world as the backdrop to a weird mixture of cruel nihilism and family-focused sentimentality.

USA | 1986 | 120 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Michael Mann.
writer: Michael Mann (based on the novel ‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris).
starring: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Brian Cox & Tom Noonan