One of the biggest injustices of pop culture is that Michael Mann’s Manhunter has been lost in the shadow of the (admittedly brilliant) Silence of the Lambs, as well as the film’s 2002 remake Red Dragon. While I can understand people choosing Silence as their favourite of the series, for me Manhunter stands tall as the best these adaptations have to offer.
It was the late ’80s when the VHS became the dominant videotape format and prices fell to a point where they were affordable. We begin with this home video aesthetic, something that was low quality to see in a movie theatre in 1986, and feels even more dated with the increasingly accessible and high-definition standards of today’s cameras.
Before we even see the relevance of family home videos to Manhunter‘s mystery, we are shown perfect homes filtered through the lens of an intruder, disturbing the idyllic sleep of a couple by observing them in the dead of night. The score, partly composed by New Wave band The Reds, builds dread and scatters inflections in the synth drones suggesting that something strange is invading this world. As the wife wakes from her slumber, before she even matches the killer’s gaze, the title card hits.
The score, which often sounds like an amalgamation of Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream and Angelo Badalamenti, fades out to the sound of waves, and the electric blue of the neon title fades into blue sky of Will Graham’s home life. It’s a safe place, always presented either under the warm glow of the Florida sun or drenched in the blue filter created by Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti.
Will is a former FBI criminal profiler who retired because of a mental breakdown after being attacked by cannibalistic serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. He eventually becomes involved in the “Tooth Fairy” case, but the serial killer whose perspective we shared in the opening scene doesn’t appear until 56 minutes in, only showing his face unobscured at the 72 minute mark.
It’s at that point that we learn more about the private life of Francis Dolarhyde, but the first half of the movie is exclusively focused on Will Graham, namely who he is, how he works, what his struggle is. Many procedurals spend a lot of time on the psychology of the killer, with the detective given little depth beyond a reductive collection of noir tropes. Mann is as (if not more) interested in the psychology of his hero as he is with the villain, and the case becomes about not just stopping a killer, but whether Graham can make it out of the darkness of that world unscathed.
Despite the tranquillity of Will’s life in Florida, and the dangers of the work, he chooses to leave its comfort despite his wife’s clear resistance. The night scenes in bed with her feel like they’re from another world – a dream he willingly leaves to go back to the horrors of the real world. His technique for finding criminals is to try and empathise with them, getting into their mindset so he can understand how they think. Even before we know of his methods we see Will following the same steps as the killer from the opening scene, the same camera angle, the same song playing.
His connection is so specific it almost feels supernatural, as he imagines occupying their mental space to the level that he notes “It was hot out that night, so inside the house must have felt cool to him”. Graham watches the family tapes of the victims over and over again, as we later learn Dolarhyde is doing too. When Graham discovers a clue to finding the killer, his frantic exultation of “You took off your gloves to touch her, didn’t you? Didn’t you, you son of a bitch?” is more than just angry. It’s full of fear, and maybe even excitement.
Manhunter erodes the comforting boundaries between hero and villain, monster and human. Dolarhyde is contextualised as a desperately lonely man who is irreversibly disturbed but capable of loving a woman, while Will immerses himself in “the ugliest thoughts in the world” to the point that it becomes unclear which side of the boundary he will come up on. The film doesn’t overstep the mark and become too direct, but is downright confrontational about these ideas at times:
Will Graham: This started from an abused kid, a battered infant. There’s something terrible about…
Jack Crawford: What are you, sympathizing with this guy?
Will Graham: Absolutely… My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he’s irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies… As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks…
Do you think that’s a contradiction, Jack? Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable?
Petersen’s performance has an intensity to it that propels even the slower moving scenes forward, so it almost isn’t surprising to learn that the actor had difficulty ridding himself of the character after filming wrapped. He eventually went to a barbershop and had them shave his beard, cut his hair and dye it blonde so that he could see a different person in the mirror. Still, we pretty much know everything we need to know about Will Graham in the first 15/20 minutes, during which very little is said.
Mann’s filmmaking is so concise that it can be both economical in its storytelling and take its time exploring the psyche of its characters. Will falls asleep on the plane with his files in hand, and dreams of being home with his wife. He is awoken to the cries of the young girl sat next to him, his files having fallen open and exposing her to photos of mutilated corpses. This may not be his handiwork, but it is still a private world he is tapping into; one that he works in, but is terrifying to an average person.
After 2001’s Hannibal adapted the then last book in Thomas Harris’ series featuring the cannibal, the next step to keep the franchise going was to adapt the first entry once again. Red Dragon (2003) made some small additions to the plot of Manhunter, namely some details from the book that had been left in Mann’s interpretation, but the real reason for its existence (aside from money, of course) was to give Anthony Hopkins another reason to play Hannibal Lector.
Manhunter bombed at the box office, not even breaking even on its modest $8 million budget. Silence of the Lambs, however, made well over ten times its money back, and Hannibal made an additional $80 million on top of that. Hopkins’ version of the character had captivated audiences, so why not bring the original story back to a culture that had mostly forgotten Mann’s adaptation? As it turns out, Red Dragon only achieved one thing – it proved what a phenomenal film Manhunter was by failing with near-identical material.
In Manhunter, Brian Cox plays Hannibal as a contemptuous intellectual with a weary disdain for everyone he comes into contact with. His anger direct and not under a veneer of cheery grace like Hopkins portrayed. While I prefer Hopkins’ performance, which elevated the character to something ethereal and more unnerving, his scenes in Red Dragon are needlessly extended to satisfy his fans, and there’s no sense of history between him and Edward Norton’s bland portrayal of Graham. Mann kept his Lecter scenes short, believing he was such a charismatic and dangerous presence that he wanted the audience to want more, and so he never dominates the screen in a way that distracts from the core narrative.
Red Dragon also gives us more time with Dolarhyde, but the only scenes that land are the ones that are copied almost shot-for-shot from Manhunter, while the rest give us Ralph Fiennes running around naked in hysterics and eating a painting. It’s a little disappointing, since the casting is so excellent (Philip Seymour Hoffman as a sleazy tabloid journalist is a perfect idea), but what is the most perplexing is how the scenes that feel completely lifted from the 1986 film still don’t resonate. As a case study, these two films would be fascinating to compare. In what ways does colour, shot composition, and mise en scène affect our emotional response? What makes Brett Ratner a bad director, and what makes Michael Mann a great one?
It’s hard to talk about Manhunter without talking about the climactic shootout. Mann must have known it was such a pivotal scene as he jettisoned the final confrontation from the book to end the story here. Part of the intensity comes from Tom Noonan, who crafted a distinctly intimidating presence in Dolarhyde. During production, Noonan asked that no one playing his pursuers or victims be allowed to see him on set, and that those he spoke to should refer to him by his character’s name. He stayed in his trailer alone, only allowing the director to join him, and stayed in different hotels than the rest of the cast. The first time Noonan met Petersen was when their characters first came to face-to-face, when Graham jumps through the window during this final scene.
The theme of voyeurism runs throughout, but it’s at this point that Graham’s gaze finally lands on the object of his search, at which point he is attacked with a shard from Dolarhyde’s mirror – a weapon the killer sees his own reflection in as he holds it to his lover’s throat. This shoot-out begins with Graham’s glass-breaking badassery completely undermined by Dolarhyde’s strength, who immediately overpowers him and viciously cuts his face; a disfigurement that will stay with him when he returns home to his family.
It’s not just the climax of the chase, or the emotional peak, but a culmination of a myriad of details. Mann has spent time mapping the layout of the apartment, so the action remains coherent even as the director uses multiple frame rates in his filming. The scene is recorded alternately at 24, 36, 72, and 90 frames per second, giving it what Spinotti called an “off tempo staccato feel”, while Iron Butterfly’s ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ reaches a crescendo. It’s disorientating, and an unusual turn, but one that satisfies the audience’s need for catharsis and still adheres to the horror at the heart of the film.
Iron Butterfly’s song continues to play even after Dolarhyde’s death; Graham is still occupying the space of the killer, full of adrenaline and amongst the “ugly thoughts” of a terrifying world. The return to his home, safe and happy, suggests that good prevailed. When he is asked how many of them made it, he answers “Most of them made it”. Regardless of the ugliness along the way, maybe that’s enough. The director’s cut gives us an additional scene where Will visits the family who were next in line to be killed by Dolarhyde. They react with fear, but when they realise it’s the man who saved their lives they thank him and ask him if he wants to come inside. He refuses, telling them “I just stopped by… to see you. That’s all”.
Manhunter explores what it means to observe and interact with each other, and is concerned with the oddity that is filming and watching film. Mann is fascinated by the voyeuristic tendencies of humanity, and how the advent of video will affect our lives. Like Hitchcock and Cronenberg before him, Mann seems to be both fearful of how these primal natures emerge, yet in love with the screen itself.
Featured Image: MGM