***½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A
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 mimicked inside the home of the serial killer Dolarhyde 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 Dolarhyde'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 Dolarhyde'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 Dolarhyde had his body tattooed with the Blake etching called "Red Dragon," but those scenes were discarded as "trite." Dolarhyde'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 Dolarhyde'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 dating it. Originally published: June 27, 2001.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Scream Factory brings Manhunter to Blu-ray in a much-anticipated Collector's Edition with a comprehensive batch of extras that finally makes retiring the Anchor Bay DVD(s) possible. Scream has actually reused MGM's Blu-ray transfer from 2009 (an A/B comparison shows identical print spotting at 1:15:40), but the good news is it holds up, with the breathtaking clarity of the 2.35:1, 1080p presentation suggesting it was sourced from something very close to the camera negative. A fine, gratifyingly cinematic layer of grain twinkles over the image and betrays nothing in the way of authoring defects. Blacks are slightly dense below the mid-range but shadow detail is well-defined. Perhaps my only disenchantment is with the colours, lacking vibrancy as they do--at least as far as interiors are concerned. Mann's blue filters dull the palette when they should electrify it, and the reds in Dolarhyde's pad are more brown than infernal. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is a loud, dynamic, synth-pop fever dream with a phat bottom end. Voices lack the same fullness but it's a minor gripe and expected of an '80s movie. While the 2.0 DTS-HD MA alternative probably better represents the theatrical mix (and possibly Michael Mann's intentions), it's not nearly so transporting.
The bulk of special features are contained on Disc One, starting with "The Making of Manhunter"--really an umbrella heading for a quartet of lengthy one-on-one interviews. William Petersen is the subject of "The Mind of Madness" (18 mins., HD) and says he met with Mann initially not for Manhunter but for Heat. Petersen discusses Mann's notoriously specific tastes in some depth, recalling how Mann sent the production all over town searching for a room that not only could pass for a hotel suite but also had a view on a particular building (because it had an external elevator that lit up at night and would look cool on camera). There's a fair bit of crossover and surprisingly little contradiction between Petersen's anecdotes and those of Tom Noonan in the riveting "Francis is Gone Forever" (22 mins., HD). Noonan concurs that he avoided contact with Petersen until it came time to shoot their climactic confrontation (a guerrilla effort remembered fondly by both), after which they went out for pancakes. Peppering the segment with anecdotes about producer Dino DeLaurentiis's unorthodox working methods, Noonan is dryly hilarious as usual but seems somewhat downcast, for what it's worth. The word "sad" comes up a lot; maybe he's just tired of talking about Manhunter.
In "Courting a Killer" (16 mins., HD), Joan Allen admits that her memory of how she got the part of Reba is hazy. What is fresh in mind is Mann's tireless attention to detail and overall tirelessness, along with her techniques for getting into the mindset of a blind woman. Running a whopping 36 minutes, "The Eye of the Storm" (HD) finds the gravel-voiced, thickly-accented cinematographer Dante Spinotti reflecting on this first film with "dream" collaborator Mann. I struggled with it but enjoyed his dissection of the iconic shot of Petersen and Dennis Farina sitting on a log and the shoptalk in general; Spinotti tends to place equal importance on aesthetics and execution. Though Mann himself does not take part in the nostalgia-fest, Scream Factory has scored something of a coup in rounding up composer Rick Shaffer of The Reds, fellow composer Michel Rubini, Barry Andrews of Shriekback (whose "Coelocanth" serves as that awesome cue over the tiger-petting), Gary Putman of The Prime Movers ("Strong As I Am"), and Gene Stashuk of Red 7 ("Heartbeat") with the 42-minute "The Music of Manhunter". It's a lovely tribute to the film's unsung heroes, many of whom were veterans of the Mann-produced Band of the Hand. Stashuk still appreciates that Mann took the time to speak to his wife (he wanted her opinion of the title change from Red Dragon), while Shaffer, who handled the "dark, metallic sounds" (like the cue attending Dolarhyde's "P.O.V." in the opening shot--incidentally Mann's first use of video in a feature), credits Mann's work ethic with improving his own.
Scream supplements Disc Two with even more content, including a reconstruction of Manhunter's 124-minute Director's Cut (DC). Here's the thing: film elements of the DC-only material apparently no longer exist. When Anchor Bay first released the DC on a long out-of-print Limited Edition DVD, they transferred the whole thing from a low-quality tape source, and although it looked dreadful, at least it looked consistently dreadful. Later, when they reissued the DC under their much-touted Divimax banner, Anchor Bay "restored" it by sourcing untouched scenes and shots from their THX master of the theatrical cut. Scream has gone them one better by editing footage exclusive to the DC into their HiDef master of the theatrical version (TV), but the qualitative difference is often so dramatic despite the added benefit of upconversion that the inserts tend to interrupt the flow of the film, perhaps preventing an honest assessment of the DC's relative worth (as beneficial as this self-annotation is to the reviewer). It doesn't help that the DC's framing zooms in on the image, cropping it by about 25%. Oddly, Scream has also tucked what appears to be the Anchor Bay restoration under "Bonus," in SD and DD 2.0. Seeing the whole thing in a lower resolution marginally levels the playing field, but as long as they were providing a standard-def option the raw bootleg would've been preferable.
Frankly, so few of Mann's Director's Cuts are essential, and Manhunter's is no exception. I dislike the very first change, which relocates the opening titles from that now-deleted, gloriously empty shot of the blue sky to the establishing shot of Graham and Crawford on the beach, over which the (suddenly aliased) credits pop on and off the screen in an impatient, inappropriate evocation of episodic television. The briefing on the Tooth Fairy has been significantly extended to underscore tensions between lone-wolf Graham and by-the-book FBI personnel, but because this interdepartmental friction ultimately has no narrative repercussions, it feels gratuitous. I'm no fan of another major restoration that features Annabella Sciorra as the Tooth Fairy's next chosen victim: Looking like he just went 12 rounds with Rocky, Graham pays her a visit after killing Dolarhyde to quiet his soul and the effect is comical. Kim Greist's Molly profits most from additional screentime in the DC: Watching her struggle to recognize the gravity of Graham's work without trivializing her own marriage deepens a stock "dutiful wife" role. It's worth noting that the occasional stuttery edits in the TV do not in fact indicate missing footage, as they're no less prevalent in the DC. Perhaps this was Mann attempting to exert an unprecedented level of control over the tempo of scenes and dialogue. I wouldn't put it past him.
Mann recorded an audio commentary for Manhunter's DC that Scream has seen fit to recycle, and it's unfortunately a bit of a dud. Waiting until almost two minutes in to utter his first words, he mostly plays anthropologist instead of director, analyzing the characters' behaviour and in turn narrating the film. He singles out Red Dragon novelist Thomas Harris for praise, a refreshing change of pace from his dismissive attitude towards the original writers of Thief and The Last of the Mohicans that alas leads to more endless discussion of FBI profiling and the psychology of serial killers. Rounding out this second platter are two David Gregory featurettes produced for Anchor Bay in 2001--"Inside Manhunter" (17 mins., SD) and "The Manhunter Look" (10 mins., SD)--that see the interview subjects of the first disc (plus actor Brian Cox; minus the musicians) looking less grizzled but relaying the same information in digest form. Cox tells a funny story about Mann--whose obsessiveness he admits to finding more silly than imposing--letting him sing "I Just Called to Say I Love You" to Petersen during their mid-film phone call, but then they couldn't clear the rights. Per Scream Factory tradition, the sleeve beneath the slipcover is reversible, sporting custom art on one side and a reproduction of Manhunter's domestic one-sheet on the other. I know that will be important to some people.
The target audience for this package are those who missed the boat on or want to upgrade from the Anchor Bay release(s). If you already have the MGM Blu-ray and don't care about frills or the DC, save your pennies.