The Film: Manhunter (1986)
The Principles: Michael Mann (Director/Screenwriter). William Petersen, Tom Noonan, Dennis Farina, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Stephen Lang, Brian Cox, David Seaman, Benjamin Hendrickson, etc.
The Premise: Former FBI profiler Will Graham is drawn out of retirement to help track down a serial killer, nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy” by the press, before he strikes again.
Is It Good?: Yes, I am proud to say it is. Why did I phrase it like that? Because this was my second viewing of the film and I hadn’t seen it in close to 20 years. Normally I shy away from getting personal on Movie of the Day, but given the nature of this film and its place in cinema, I feel the situation calls for it here.
To set the saga, let’s roll back time to 1993. The Silence of the Lambs was a huge hit a few years earlier and Daniel (then 9 years old) sits down to rewatch it by himself. I had likely watched it with my father upon its initial home video release, but this was the first time I actually took it in. I was hooked. I noticed that my father owned Thomas Harris’ existing Hannibal Lecter novels at the time and devoured them. Still hooked and wondering why they made the second book, instead of starting with the first. Through some roundabout fashion in that pre-internet era (likely involving a movie guide), I stumbled upon Manhunter‘s existence. At some point later that year, I came across a cheap VHS copy in a store (probably Hills or K-Mart) and bought it with my allowance money. I naturally plopped it into the VCR shortly thereafter and expected to be transported away into another film just like The Silence of the Lambs. For those of you who have seen this film, you know that is definitely not what I got. I was supremely disappointed. Minus a change in the ending, which pissed me off, all of the crucial story elements were there. The performances were great. The film was stylish and atmospheric. But it wasn’t what I expected going in. It wasn’t like the other movie. And Brian Cox was Anthony Hopkins. Now I knew going in that Hopkins wasn’t in the film, but to little Daniel who watched movies purely for entertainment purposes at the time, subconsciously I think I expected Hannibal to still be played exactly the same as Tony had done it. Forgive me, people. I was only nine.
Why bring this up? Because I suspect it is the exact same reaction that many have had over the years upon seeing Manhunter after being exposed to Demme’s Silence (and its “official” follow-ups) first. Manhunter was never intended to line up with those films tonally or stylistically, just like Jonathan Demme was not beholden to Mann’s film when he made his own movie. They are entirely different entities that involve some of the same characters and should be viewed accordingly. This notion is important not only when viewing Manhunter with nonjudgmental eyes, but the upcoming NBC series Hannibal as well (no matter what its quality may be). One should not look at Brian Cox or Mads Mikkelsen as a predecessor or successor to Anthony Hopkins “signature role”. They are not trail-blazing for Tony, nor following his footsteps. This isn’t Lon Chaney Jr. trying to follow Bela Lugosi as Dracula. This is a Hammer-type deal where Christopher Lee is doing his own thing, which is something that should never be held against an actor.
Manhunter is a film 100% of its time and a hallmark of the director Michael Mann used to be. That isn’t a statement of his quality as a director then versus now, but merely a statement of what his sensibilities and style were like in the earlier portion of his career. Stylistically, this isn’t the Michael Mann who brought us Collateral. This is the Michael Mann that gave us the horror acid trip of The Keep and unleashed Miami Vice onto television screens in the early ’80s. This is the Mann who embraced the MTV generation and gave them what they really wanted, but in some instances were too dumb to understand that…both in regards to Mann’s own work and that of others. Every generation have a handful of films that fully embrace the themes and aesthetic of the “now” (for better or worse) that seemingly go unrecognized for at least a decade, except by a select few. Manhunter is one of these. It’s hard to imagine two cop films more “early 80s” than the duo of classics that William Petersen lucked into, the other being William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (which was previously essayed in this column here). While an argument can easily be made for the likes of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, they are really their own high-octane thing and the “buddy cop” subgenre had yet to fully take off at this point.
Instead of the corrupt and cool dude that Petersen portrayed in Billy Friedkin’s masterpiece, his former agent Will Graham is a mess. We open with him on the beach with his family in Florida. It’s obvious that he is enjoying retirement on the whole, but still deeply-scarred from the past trauma that caused him to walk away from the job. That trauma, of course, being the capture of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (spelled Lecktor in the end credits here) and the physical and emotional damage that Will incurred while doing so. At one point in the film, Will’s son (around 12 or so years in age) expresses concern for his father’s well-being and questions him about his past. Will openly admits to his boy that he had a hard time dealing with what happened to him and how this caused him to undergo a stint in a psych ward. Graham is a broken man, the living embodiment of the toll that such a profession takes on an individual, but his family is the super-strong glue that holds him together. It is this love of his family and his understanding of its importance in his life that drives Graham to take his former boss, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), up on his offer to help them stop “The Tooth Fairy” from butchering more families just like his own. Petersen gives an excellent turn in the role and it’s really a shame that he never hit the big time, instead mostly working in television off and on until finding success investigatin’ dem crime scenes and Who’in about Vegas.
Farina is Farina. More subdued than he has been over the past decade or so, naturally, but you already know whether you enjoy the man’s work or not. Kim Greist gives a fine performance as Will’s concerned, but supportive wife and Stephen Lang is virtually unrecognizable as reporter Freddie Lounds to those only familiar with his more recent work. Joan Allen is, of course, excellent in her role as our denture-happy killer’s lone hope of finding some humanity within himself, Reba. And what of our big bad serial killer? Tom Noonan cranks the creep factor through the roof as Blake-obsessed dragon aficionado Francis Dollarhyde. His scene with Lang alone is worth watching this film for and it’s no wonder than only Reba could look past his outward uneasiness and (unfortunately) overlook his obvious emotional troubles. The worst (best?) villains are those whom you can’t help but feel at least a little sorry for and Dollarhyde is no exception. That, of course, leaves us with our Lecter/Lecktor. Brian Cox plays the part in a far more subdued fashion (it’d be hard not to), but no less authoritative. His Hannibal is just as playfully calculating, but with less gusto. Many have and will view this as a weakness, but it most certainly is not one and I suspect not too far off base from the route that Mikkelsen might (at least partially) take in our new impending re-imagining of the now-classic character.
The real star of this film, however, is Michael Mann. From the opening frames the film oozes atmosphere and dread. This is a brooding film that pummels you with its beautiful cinematography and haunting synth score (courtesy of The Hunger and Nemesis composer Michael Rubini). Combined with some wonderful song choices by Michael Mann and the stage is set for a singular vision that can be breathtaking when viewed without preconceptions. What’s really shocking is that as dark as the film feels, it is a relatively bloodless affair overall. This is once again further proof that the suggestion of violence is almost always a far more powerful cinematic terror tactic than reveling in bodily carnage and grue. Manhunter is one of his more underrated efforts and it would be nice to see cinephiles as a whole begin to look at Mann’s earlier films with as much love as they do accepted classics like Heat, The Insider, and Collateral. Those that finally do, like myself, will be pleasantly surprised at what they find.
Is It Worth A Look?: Definitely. While the film was unfortunately ahead of its time, the love has been flowing strong for the past decade and rightfully continues to do so. Part of this is undoubtedly do to Petersen’s decade-long almost 200-episode stint as a lead on the flagship CSI series. Another hefty element can be laid at the feet of cinephiles’ reassessment of Michael Mann’s early work post-Heat. Much like the novel it is based on, Manhunter is a bit of a trend-setter that has become more appreciated over time than during its initial release. It’s influence can be felt throughout film and television to this day, particularly the latter, and is well worth your time.
While my rewatch involved Netflix Instant, it is sadly no longer available through streaming via that particular company, though you can still obtain it on disc. It is available for rent at around $2 through Amazon’s own streaming service, however. Beyond that, it isn’t too hard to come by the film online and potentially in stores, depending on the size of the selection. What I’m basically trying to say is, you have no excuse for not seeking it out if it interests you.
Random Anecdotes: This film was remade (or re-adapted, if you will) with a higher budget and more well-known cast in 2002 under the novel’s title, Red Dragon, to give the then still-going film series a Hopkins-fronted adaptation and Dino DeLaurentiis a second chance at making some dough off of it. He succeeded.
Cinematographer Dante Spinotti shot both this and Red Dragon. How does that happen? For better or worse, Dante is the go-to Director of Photography for both Michael Mann AND Brett Ratner. I don’t know about you, but I find this fact rather amusing.
When Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs came along, Dino passed on the rights due to Manhunter‘s poor box office reception. After the resounding success the eventual film was, he rectified his mistake by producing the next three films: the sequel Hannibal and two prequels (Red Dragon, Hannibal Rising).
The film was originally going to go by the same title as the novel it is based on, but Dino demanded it be changed after Year of the Dragon (which he also produced) tanked at the box office.
Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, and Paul Newman were all considered to play Graham. Mann settled on Petersen after seeing his work on William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.. William apparently had a difficult time exorcising the character after production was complete. Funnily enough, Petersen got the Friedken gig after being recommended by fellow actor Gary Sinise, who didn’t get the part. Sinise later went on to front his own CSI spin-off, so it’s nice to see that William very likely returned the favor.
John Lithgow, Brian Dennehy, Mandy Patinkin, and William Friedkin were all considered for the role of Hannibal. Cox was seen after being recommended by Dennehy.
Actors Dan Butler and Frankie Faison appear in both this and other Hannibal films. Butler is “Jimmy Price” in Manhunter and “Roden” in The Silence of the Lambs. Frankie Faison, who is “Lt. Fisk” here, had the distinction of playing “Barney Matthews” in all three Hopkins-starring films. He managed to score roles in four of the five existing Hannibal Lecter films. Perhaps they can find a guest spot for him on NBC’s Hannibal to keep the tradition going?
Cinematic Soulmates: 10 To Midnight, Body Double, Drive, Kiss The Girls, Red Dragon, Seven, The Silence of the Lambs, and To Live and Die In L.A.. And in the realm of television: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Miami Vice, and Millennium.