Why you should watch Michael Mann’s Manhunter

With Manhunter making its Blu-ray debut on Monday, we take a look back at Michael Mann’s classic 80s thriller, in Hannibal Lecter's movie debut...

While some movies enjoy immediate and vocal adulation, it’s a sad fact that many others pass by unnoticed. It’s only after several years that, after a period of obscurity, these unlucky movies finally receive the attention they deserve.

Such is the case with Manhunter, an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel, Red Dragon. Where the next rendition of the author’s work, 1991’s The Silence Of The Lambs, earned critical acclaim, won five Academy Awards, and brought in more than $270 million at the box-office, Michael Mann’s 1986 movie was largely ignored by audiences and critics alike.

The grotesque, belated sequel, Hannibal (2001) raked in even more cash than Silence Of The Lambs – over $351 million – and just to add insult to injury, even Brett Ratner’s star-laden but inferior adaptation of Red Dragon (2002) made around 26 times more money than Manhunter.

Movie-goers in 1986, it seems, weren’t ready for a glacially cool procedural thriller, that went for an atmosphere of unease rather than overt horror.

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It’s fascinating, in fact, to compare Michael Mann’s approach to Manhunter with Jonathan Demme’s treatment of The Silence Of The Lambs. Where Demme goes for shadows and dungeon-like interiors, Mann, aided by the startling cinematography of Dante Spinotti, opts for oppressive brightness, empty space and disconcerting splashes of colour.

Before Manhunter, Mann was well known as the showrunner on the cop show Miami Vice. He brings a similar 80s machismo and cool air to Harris’ story, while sticking quite closely to the basics of the novel’s plot.

Will Graham (William Petersen), once one of the FBI’s most talented criminal profilers, is enjoying his early retirement at his family home in Florida. He’s just about recovered from the physical and psychological injuries he suffered while arresting serial killer Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) a few years earlier, so when his old boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) shows up asking for help with another murder case, Graham is initially reluctant to get involved.

Eventually prodded back into action, Graham begins the hunt for a serial killer dubbed the Tooth Fairy who, in Graham’s own words, “Butchers whole families to fulfil some sick fantasy.” With the killer operating on a strict lunar cycle, Graham only has a few days to catch him before the next full moon.

In an attempt to “get the old scent back”, Graham pays a visit to his old nemesis, Doctor Lecktor. It’s not clear why Mann chose to misspell the cannibal’s name in his screenplay – subsequent films would correctly refer to him as Lecter – but their meeting is one of the film’s electrifying highpoints.

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Brian Cox’s performance as Lecktor is remarkable. Trapped in the pristine white cube of his cell, his Lecktor is an eerily restrained animal, his words laced with sardonic humour and malice, even as the tone of his voice soothes and insinuates.

Behind bars, Cox’s take on Lecktor is charming, even funny (“I don’t tear out the articles” he says off-handedly about the Tooth Fairy’s newspaper coverage. “I wouldn’t want them to think I was dwelling on anything morbid.”). It’s clear, though, that he’d be more than capable of committing the unspeakable acts Thomas Harris would write about about in his later novels.

Placed in the same room as Lecktor, William Peterson’s haunted ex-cop seems almost lost, like a mumbling child. When Lecktor gently teases Graham about his early retirement (“You’re very tan, Will. Your hands are rough. They don’t look like cop’s hands anymore.”), he has no answer, no witty retort to give, until the topic of conversation turns to Graham’s capture of Lecktor years earlier.

When Lecktor asks how the intellectually inferior cop had found his man, Graham curtly replies: “You have certain disadvantages. You’re insane.”

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In 1986, some critics wrote disparagingly of Petersen’s performance. The New York Times, for example, wrote that he played Graham with “unmodulated self-absoption”. Petersen’s performance isn’t the finest in the film, but it’s still a great one, and superior, I’d argue, to Edward Norton’s rather flat portrayal of the same character in Red Dragon. 

Petersen doesn’t get an opportunity to invest Graham with much light and shade, but he does succeed in giving him a memorably neurotic edge, as though he’s a mere hair’s width away from becoming as predatory as the killer he’s attempting to track down.

Dante Spinotti’s unusual framing and occasional, queasy hints of green – some shots look like a scrubbed-up homage to Suspiria – imply that both Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy’s psychosis is like a disease that Graham has to constantly stave off, a malaise that hangs over Manhunter’s lonely hotel rooms and cityscapes.

Graham spends long stretches of the film in solitude, watching videotapes of the killer’s victim over and over again, or staring out into empty back gardens, combing them for clues. Michael Mann’s fascination with procedure and the hunt for tiny scraps of evidence is infectious here, and Manhunter has since been cited as a major inspiration for hit shows such as CSI, in which Petersen also starred.

The film really clicks into gear, though, when the Tooth Fairy is properly introduced. Played to perfection by Tom Noonan, he’s possibly one of the most unsettling and downright odd murderers in all cinema.

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Noonan plays him as a psychologically wounded outsider rather than an outright monster, and in spite of his heinous acts elsewhere in the film – not least his horrible treatment of sweaty, luckless paparazzo Freddy Lounds (a young Stephen Lang) – the Tooth Fairy’s brief relationship with blind co-worker Reba (Joan Allen) is extremely poignant.

For one evening, the Tooth Fairy is able to put aside the murderous part of his nature – the red dragon of the original novel’s title – and taste the life of a normal human being in a conventional relationship, before his jealous, murderous nature comes flooding back to sweep it all aside.

The portrayal of the Tooth Fairy as both a victim and a predator is best summed up by Graham: “As a child, my heart bleeds for him. Someone took a little boy and turned him into a monster. But as an adult… as an adult, I think someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks.”

That the Tooth Fairy is something more than a heartless villain to be apprehended is part of what makes Manhunter enduringly engaging, even 25 years after it was made. It’s easy to dismiss Mann’s film as all style and little substance (as some critics did at the time), but here, the style actually provides the substance.

Its distractingly loud music, a mixture of rock and synth tones that is quintessentially 80s, is used to occasionally startling effect, conveying an oppressive atmosphere of barely suppressed rage. This is exemplified in a scene where the Tooth Fairy, while sitting in his van, thinks he sees Reba in an amorous clinch with a fellow co-worker.

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In a jealous fit, he reaches forward and tears back the vinyl on the van’s dashboard. As the pounding rhythm of The Prime Movers’ Strong As I Am churns in the background, the tearing vinyl sounds like the roar of a tiger. It’s a nerve jangling, striking use of sound effects and music.

In shooting Manhunter, Michael Mann was as meticulous and methodical as the film’s central character. He trimmed out the more excessive parts of Harris’ novel – the Tooth Fairy’s tattoos, which were designed but left out of the final cut, and a ridiculous moment where the killer eats a William Blake painting – and in order to get the performances he wanted, made his actors run through take after take. The brief conversation between Graham and Lecktor alone took two days to shoot.

This attention to detail ultimately took its toll, however.

Manhunter was shot almost entirely in chronological sequence, and by the time the final scenes were due to be filmed, much of the crew, exhausted and disgruntled, had packed up and gone home. This perhaps explains why, after a careful build-up, Manhunter’s climactic shoot-out feels rushed and perfunctory.

William Petersen later revealed that many of the gore effects in this sequence were improvised by Mann himself. If you look closely, you can see little jets of blood being sprayed on to the Tooth Fairy’s body from a crewmember lurking just outside the frame.

Its faltering conclusion aside, Manhunter still stands up as a classic procedural thriller. It’s an example of a film that uses cinematography, music and unusual performances rather than bloodshed to unsettle the viewer. It’s a film about a cop catching a killer, but in the hands of Michael Mann and his filmmakers, becomes something much more deep and unusual.

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No other film since Michael Powell’s infamous Peeping Tom has dealt so thoroughly with the theme of voyeurism, and the two films share other parallels, too. Both deal with a film-obsessed killer who remains sympathetic in spite of his crimes, who later strikes up a brief, doomed relationship with an innocent young girl.

Like Peeping Tom, it took some time before Manhunter’s brilliance was recognised. The subsequent adaptations of Thomas Harris’ novels would gradually become more violent and sensational as the years went on, and this devolution is reflected in Brett Ratner’s faithful yet thuddingly obvious adaptation of Red Dragon.

The elements of the book gently implied by Michael Mann are explicit in Ratner’s film. Exactly what the Tooth Fairy does with tiny pieces of broken mirrors, for example, is explored in grim detail in Red Dragon. In Manhunter, it’s illustrated in one sequence, with Will Graham’s poetic line, “I see myself accepted, and loved, in the silver mirrors of your eyes,” along with this surreal, beautiful shot:

This scene sums up everything that is brilliant about Manhunter – it tells a familiar story, but finds unfamiliar means to tell it. Its plot is simple, but the film reveals layers of complexity that a gorier, faster-paced film might overlook.

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