Manhunter (1986)

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Michael Mann’s thriller based on Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon novel was met with mixed reviews upon release and has since been eclipsed almost entirely by the phenomenal success of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. The two films both draw on Harris’s novels as inspiration and contain the psychotic murder Hannibal Lecktor in memorable roles for both Sir Anthony Hopkins in Silence, and Brian Cox here in Manhunter. Visually and thematically though, the films are markedly different. Demme’s film is at times horrific and utilises slow building tension with Hopkins’ Hannibal the chilling scene stealer. Mann’s film is much more fast and frenetic, happily utilising highly stylised visuals and placing the focus squarely on its FBI detective.

The characters of the two films’ central characters are also poles apart. Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling was a relative rookie whose determination and resourcefulness rendered her a memorable screen heroine. Here in Manhunter, William Petersen’s (he of CSI fame) Will Graham is a troubled former FBI criminal profiler who was almost driven over the edge by a previous case and who becomes dangerously obsessed with getting his man. Both are brilliantly portrayed, but there’s a far darker heart driving the hero on in Mann’s film.

Graham is approached by his former boss with an intriguing case involving a serial killer called ‘the tooth fairy’, so named for the bite marks he leaves on his victims. At first Graham is reticent, but he soon can’t resist the lure of another chase. He decides to get the insights of another serial killer and visits Hannibal Lecktor in jail, a man with whom we learn Graham has an important history. The disconcertingly calm Lecktor was a former Psycharitist who brutally murdered several College girls before Graham sussed him out. Lectkor savagely attacked Graham during the case and while the detective’s physical scars may have healed, the mental ones he suffered in catching Lecktor are still evident. Nevertheless, Hannibal agrees to look at the case file of the tooth fairy. The FBI soon learn however that Lecktor is secretly communicating with the killer who has professed to be an avid fan of his own work. Hannibal also deceitfully obtains Graham’s home address and leaks it to the tooth fairy. Graham’s family is thus forced to go into hiding, putting a strain on his home life, a strain not helped by his pathological obsession with finding the killer. It then becomes a race against time as the FBI frantically try to track the tooth fairy down before he is able to strike again.

Petersen puts in a strong performance as the troubled Graham and the moments where he tries to get in the mindset of a killer give him an unpredictable and slightly crazed edge. The unflinching determination he possesses has already nearly consumed him once and you’re never too sure whether it might yet happen again. He goes as far as allowing himself to be used as bait to lure the killer out in a stand-out scene dripping in tension. Equally as impressive is Tom Noonan who plays the deranged serial killer the tooth fair, aka Francis Dollarhyde. Dollarhyde is a terrifyingly creepy character who doesn’t arrive on the screen until relatively late in the film but lingers as a horrifying presence throughout. A scene towards the film’s end where he stalks his intended prey to the oddly disturbing sounds of Iron Butterfly’s ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ is particularly haunting. Noonan does inject Francis with a trace of humanity however as this deeply warped creature is granted a brief moment of happiness during a doomed romance.

Mann is a director known for his stylistic tendencies and as in most of his work including his crime epic Heat and his slightly less epic Miami Vice reboot, he opts to bathe certain scenes in a deep blue, giving the scenes between Graham and his wife a unique look. Specific colour pallets are used throughout the film, not just the deep blue but also dark greens in many scenes with Dollarhyde and pristine white for scenes in Hannibal Lecktor’s cell. This directorial nuance gives the film a distinctive visual tone and whilst considered overly-stylized by some, for me it merely adds to the films appeal. The unavoidably 80’s synth heavy soundtrack is a little dated but this is just a minor gripe that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film overall.

This 25th anniversary edition release looks superb on blu-ray and comes with a handful of interesting extras. One of which is the option of viewing either the theatrical or directors cut although to be honest, the differences between the two are negligible. There are a couple of featurette’s, “the Manhunter look” and “inside Manhunter” and a commentary from the director. All in all it’s a tidy little package and a great addition to any blu-ray collection.

Ultimately, Manhunter is a film not about grisly murders but about the chase. It’s about Will Graham, fighting his own demons and giving everything he has to stop a serial killer striking again. It’s engrossing, intense and clever and after 25 years perhaps deserves to emerge from the shadow of it critically acclaimed successor.

Manhunter is out on blu-ray 26th September 2011.

Director: Michael Mann
Stars: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen
Runtime: 119 min
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

2 Comments
  1. Kevin Matthews says

    I have been planning a Hannibal marathon for some time now, need to get on it. Manhunter is a great film IMO. 🙂

  2. Rob Keeling says

    Agreed, was a most enjoyable way to spend a Sunday morning.

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