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starring William L. Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Brian Cox
screenplay by Michael Mann, based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon
directed by Michael Mann
by Walter Chaw Director Michael Mann's third film is the remarkable Manhunter, the second cinematic adaptation of a Thomas Harris novel (the first being 1977's John Frankenheimer-helmed Black Sunday) and the first to feature Harris's dark serial killer antihero, Hannibal Lecter (spelled "Lecktor" in Manhunter). It is visually lush and possessed of the attention to craft and detail that has become a hallmark of Mann's work; to say that it's superior in nearly every way to the much-lauded and wildly popular The Silence of the Lambs would be something of an understatement.
Relatively faithful to Harris's Red Dragon, Manhunter is a detailed and supremely performed piece dedicated to getting into the mind and the psyche of the monster and the monster's twisted hunter. A disturbing parallel between Ahab's mad quest surfaces here in the image of the disintegrating orbit between quarry and prey. As Will Graham (William Petersen) watches a home video of a slain family, puzzling out that their killer has possibly handled the corpses with his bare hands by playacting the movements of the maniac, there arises a distinct sense of Will's sanity in mortal peril. We learn, in this static scene of Will sitting on a hotel bed by himself, exactly why Graham has decided to retire from his occupation: Chasing monsters is staring into the Nietzsche abyss and Manhunter is successful in conveying the existential depths that experiencing that void inflicts on good people.
Graham (Petersen) is an alienist and a tracker--he profiles and pursues serial killers at the expense of his own well-being. His most famous capture is Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), a brilliant psychotherapist who suggests to Graham that "if you want to catch the scent [of a serial killer], smell yourself." Mann underscores Will's connection to Lecktor by shooting the first interrogation sequence of the film (coming thematically at the same point as in The Silence of the Lambs) with identical perspectives through Lecktor's prison bars, giving the effect that both men are incarcerated and that if not for a simple twist of providence, one would be the other. It's interesting to note, as well, that the soft blue filter Mann uses to shoot the inside of Graham's home in the earlygoing is replicated inside the home of the serial killer Dollarhyde during the film's violent conclusion.
Asked to come out of a retirement by his friend and former superior Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina, in the role played by Scott Glenn in The Silence of the Lambs), Graham attempts to track down a murderer, known as the "Tooth Fairy" for his propensity to bite his victims, before he strikes again. Because this Tooth Fairy works on a lunar schedule, Graham has only eighteen days to catch him before he strikes again.
As Lecktor, Scot actor Brian Cox is reptilian and terrifying. Although Anthony Hopkins, clearly, has staked his claim for the role (Cox refused an invitation to reprise his role as Lecter in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, noting that he didn't do sequels), Cox's Lecktor is every bit as menacing, glib, and repulsive as a genius-level human predator by all rights should be. Of all the laudatory aspects of Manhunter, the most notable is the resistance towards glamourizing murder and mayhem in its dedication to humanizing victim and monster alike. It's a trait missing from Demme's glossy treatment of similar material.
Michael Mann visually re-imagines Thomas Harris's obsessive interest in transformation. William Blake's etchings in Dollarhyde's home remind that the Romanticist poet believed in the transforming nature inherent in the creation of art, something that he referred to as the "infernal process." Blake dedicated himself to creating templates with acid and then employing a hand-roll process to press out unique copies of his "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience". That Dollarhyde's occupation involves the developing of photographs using toxic chemicals may reference Blake's philosophy of production, and his belief that the only sin is the sin of inaction.
The original conception of Dollarhyde had his body tattooed with the Blake etching called "Red Dragon," but those scenes were discarded as "trite." Dollarhyde's "art" (the manipulation of mute audiences and the ritualistic murder of women), then, is Harris's extended literary trope shifted to image; look to further references of the infernal method in Lecktor's messages to the madman and in Graham's evolving grasp of Dollarhyde's "dream" of transformation. Manhunter is a fantastic, dark, complicated, disturbing, and exceptional film. It's the best of Mann's early career, the best of the so-dubbed Hannibal Lecter Trilogy, and arguably one of the better films of the Eighties, despite the occasional discordant wardrobe and soundtrack choice that date it.
Anchor Bay's non-special edition but THX-certified DVD release of Manhunter is a handsome widescreen (2.35:1) offering enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Shots featuring Graham and Crawford sitting atop a giant driftwood log on a Florida beach look astonishing, almost like a postcard--something Mann was surely aware of, as he uses here a series of crime-scene photographs presented to our reluctant hero as an ironic counterpoint. The subsequent scenes featuring an ocean sunset and the cool blue of the Grahams' bedroom illustrate not only the DVD's clarity and lack of bleed, but also cinematographer Dante Spinotti's (Heat) dazzling lighting schemes, his cunning use of shadow. Of additional note is a verdant shot of a field of grass that demonstrates, in its utter perfection, a lack of pixellation. The Dolby 5.1 remix is rich and particularly overpowering in the finale, where Iron Butterfly's "In a Gadda Da Vida" blares to the staccato reverberation of gunfire and breaking glass. The rear channels get a hearty workout throughout and Michel Rubini's Vangelis-esque score is given a resonant weight that contributes a great deal to the film's doom.
Dante Spinotti chimes in with a ten-minute featurette called "The Manhunter Look", which disappoints with too little real information coupled with a general statement of the obvious. Some time is devoted to Mann's decision to use colour cells on several shots (an effect that is difficult to miss), and Spinotti repeatedly falls into the trap of praising Mann overmuch. Surprisingly good, however, is a second, eighteen-minute featurette called "Inside Manhunter" that features conversations with William Petersen, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, and Tom Noonan. Though Cox comes off as sort of a pompous fellow, all four stars lend a great deal of insight on the arduous shoot and the behind-the-scenes demands of perfectionist Mann. The highlight is Noonan relating how he spent literally an entire night lying in a pool of fake blood in case Mann decided he needed coverage of it; when the day finally wrapped, Noonan had to be pried from the congealed gunk.
The talent files are also unexpectedly satisfying since they contain extended biographies and quotes. Thank Anchor Bay's Jay Marks for his dissemination of a great deal of information in a limited space and format--those who normally skip by the bio section of any DVD would be missing a wealth of insight and history in this instance. Anchor Bay also wisely includes the "THX OptiMode" option on its main menu, a welcome means to test that your speakers are properly set up for the Dolby 5.1 environment (five speakers plus one subwoofer), and that your television is displaying a quality picture. Originally published: June 27, 2001.