(USA - 1986)

by Matt White

Cast: William Petersen, Kim Griest, Dennis Farina, Tom Noonan, Joan Allen, Brian Cox
Genre: Suspense/Thriller
Director: Michael Mann
Screenplay: Michael Mann based on Tom Harris' novel Red Dragon
Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
Composer: Michel Rubini & Klaus Schulze
Runtime: 124 minutes

In terms of pure film, Michael Mann`s Manhunter is probably the best of the Hannibal Lecter trilogy. It is a shame that is not as well known as its successors, Jonathan Demme`s overrated Silence of The Lambs and Ridley Scott`s over-hyped Hannibal. Even worse, there is an imposter film out there entitled Red Dragon (some call it a remake, others say it is "closer" to the original material), with an all star cast but helmed by the most pedestrian of directors. The fact that Red Dragon has more visibility than Manhunter is staggering and just shows how easy it is to erase things from cinema history. Since Red Dragon sports Anthony Hopkins, it now makes Manhunter look like the imposter and that is a shame because Manhunter is probably one of the best and maybe one of the most overlooked films of the 80`s.

I am not saying that Manhunter is the better than Silence of the Lambs because Manhunter has been neglected and Silence has been championed. I have read both "Red Dragon" and "Silence of the Lambs" and found the former to be more intriguing and entertaining than the latter. In my opinion, Will Graham is a more interesting character than Clarice Starling and the subject of psychological profiling (which both books and films are really about) is covered more in-depth in "Red Dragon". Just as a sidenote: The reason why the 1986 cinema version of Thomas Harris` book is entitled "Manhunter" is, director Michael Mann did not want his movie confused with being a martial arts film. It is fitting because in Mann`s version the whole subplot about the Red Dragon is rather minimal.

Since comparisons between this film and Red Dragon are imminent, I will just go ahead and get them out of the way so I can spend the rest of the review on this exceptional thriller. Manhunter does not sport the cast that Red Dragon does. However, that works to its advantage because it is easier to believe in the characters without having the respective actor filmographies as baggage. This is most important when considering the protagonist and antagonist. You do not see William Petersen as FBI agent Will Graham and say "that isn't Will Graham, it's Willy Petersen," but you might say that with Ed Norton. When reading the book "Red Dragon" by Thomas Harris, you picture a person similar to Tom Noonan in the role of the "Tooth Fairy", NOT Ralph Fiennes. Sure, Anthony Hopkins owns the role of Hannibal Lecter but his role in this story is not as significant as the following sequels and Brian Cox does a good and more terrifying job with the role (the character of Lecter is not in this movie near as much as Red Dragon, it seems like about 5 minutes, partly because they had to write extra scenes for Hopkins to justify his paycheck). He is certainly more charismatic and charming (the scene on the phone is a clear indication of this I think).

Where both films tend to differentiate most is with the respective directors. Michael Mann is one of the best visual directors in Hollywood, however he is not consistent. When he hits, it is out of the ballpark, but when he misses, it is not so pleasant. With every hit (Last of the Mohicans, The Insider and Thief) there are an equal amount misses (Heat, Ali, and The Keep). At least he has range and does not classify himself to one genre, and even his stinkers are still a visual treat. Brett Ratner has directed two mega blockbusters (the Rush Hour films) and two easily forgettable films (Money Talks and The Family Man). The success of Rush Hour was due to Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, not Ratner. They carried him, rather than the other way around. All of his movies have been an exercise in by the numbers directing that any TV director can imitate, except Ratner got above the pack because he coincidentally directed a movie that anybody could have directed that was going to be a big hit anyways (all he had to do was not screw it up). The only praise that can put on Ratner is he does not screw things up, but he never takes the ball and runs with it. All of his movies are just mailed in, Red Dragon being the most obvious example.

If there were ever two films to compare directors, I would say Manhunter and Red Dragon are prime candidates. This is evidenced further because both films have the same director of photography (Dante Spinotti). His collaboration with Mann produced a visual tour de force, one of the best of the '80`s, experimenting with blues and whites. With Ratner it was nothing special, just the typical browns and earthtones that have been in thrillers since Silence of the Lambs made it the "cool" thing to do.

Mann uses Manhunter to become a visual experience, rather than literally adapting the book, "Red Dragon" page for page. This is the challenge all directors face when adapting something from print: How to convert from written word to visual medium? Mann accomplishes this with ease in his film, while Ratner took the easy route to just literally adapt the book to screen. While Ratner`s version may be more "faithful" to the source material, it gives you nothing extra and you makes you feel you were better just reading the book rather than watching a "cliffnotes" version of it. That is a job for TV movies, not cinema. Mann uses the book as a jumping point to explore how visual information can alter perception in reality. This is explored through the relationship between the protagonist, Will Graham (William Petersen) and the antagonist, Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan).

After a quick shot of the Dolarhyde`s van, the film switches to a POV shot of Dolarhyde walking up the steps of his victims house. The shot is distorted, possibly shot on video, to illustrate that the villain sees the world in a different way than everyone else. When Will Graham is lobbied by his former supervisor, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) to come back to the case investigating Dolarhyde`s murders, it takes a picture of the slain families to convince Graham to return to the FBI. Already in the first five minutes of the picture visual stimuli is playing an important role.

To contrast with the visual stimuli of Graham and Dolarhyde, Mann and Spinotti give the viewer beautiful images as well. Shortly after Graham`s conversation with Crawford, there is a beautiful shot of the ocean with the yellow sunset reflecting off the blue waves. Mann then cuts to Graham and in his wife in bed. The room has almost become an ocean to itself with the white bed sheets covered in a blue reflection. How are we being affected by such beautiful imagery?

Before we meet Dolarhyde (which does not happen until about 2/3 into the picture), the only exploration of his mind provided is by the evidence (and analysis of) provided by Graham. The means by which he explores the motivation of the killer is by visual information such as pictures and video. Graham tries to watch the videos while "in the mind" of the killer. When referring to talcum powder stains on the woman's body, Graham realizes that the killer took off his gloves to touch her. "Why did he take his gloves off?" Graham asks himself out loud. "Because Mrs. Leeds is a beautiful woman," he replies. There is a need for the Tooth Fairy to turn visual stimulus in to reality.

It is later discovered that the reason Dolarhyde replaces his victims' eyes with mirrors is he wants to see himself becoming the reality of a god. As Graham says when almost cracking the case, "Your primary sensory intake, that makes your dreams live, is seeing." In an age of increasing visual information it is important to understand why images can be so captivating and in certain ways create perversity. Dolarhyde`s actions are like an extreme masturbatory exercise: After having captivating visions, he wants to act upon them. If visuals did not have such a powerful hold on us, then there would be no need for painting, television, film, advertising, etc.

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It is no coincidence that Dolarhyde himself works at a film-processing center, a place where people get their celluloid memories developed so they can have them forever. It is ironic that his lover is a blind woman, Reba McClane (Joan Allen). Since she cannot see, she judges Dolarhyde by his words and actions rather than his horrific looks. It is an illustration of how visuals can distort our view of certain things. Movie actors are sometimes cast on their looks rather than their talent. The same can be said for any form of American performance media, from dance to pro-wrestling. However, Reba still misjudges the character of Dolarhyde. The best metaphor for this is when Dolarhyde takes her to a vet's office and she strokes the teeth of sedated tiger. Just like the tiger can be a vicious animal when awakened, so is Dolarhyde.

With Reba he finds acceptance as himself but he is trying to create himself as being "accepted". He likes to look at mirrors to see his metamorphosis into the "Red Dragon". Right before the climatic scene, Dolarhyde looks at himself in a mirror and then shatters it: a definitive rejection of who he is. Even though Dolarhyde might be an extreme, with things such as cosmetic surgery running rampant one could find similarities to the antagonists` fascination with changing himself.

Complementing the visual interpretation theme is the concept of media perception. The "Tooth Fairy" receives his namesake from investigators wanting to give the killer an MO. Dolarhyde kills a sleazy reporter when he prints a falsified article about him. The same reporter is an enemy of Graham as well because of the sensational stories he wrote him. The media portrayal comes from how people like to see themselves defined. The media defines people all the time as many things from a "killer", to a "radical". It is rather unnerving that one institution can completely define the perception of certain people or events. Naturally, Dolarhyde does not like being perceived as a psychotic homosexual killer (which the newspaper reports him as being to due Graham`s insistence that it will lure him in for an arrest) and Graham does like being portrayed as mentally unstable (an article printed when he visited Lecter).

The performances of both Noonan and Petersen, in the roles of Francis Dolarhyde and Will Graham, respectively, are key in this film and they are done to perfection. Petersen captures the psychological duality that is going on inside Graham`s mind, of both cop and killer, quite well that his performance is even more admirable than Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Noonan as Francis Dolarhyde strays away from being over the top, a problem with most cinema villains (especially after the praise Hopkins received for Silence). Since his character is lacking in emotion or facial expression, it adds an extra menace to his role that was lacking in Ralph Fiennes portrayal as the same character.

Like every Michael Mann film, the supporting cast is excellent. Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter (for some reason his name is spelled "Lecktor" in this film) is every bit convincing as his famous counterpart. He plays the role with just as much charm, but he is not given the screen time as much as Hopkins so it is hard to make too many comparisons. Dennis Farina does his job as Graham`s supervisor Jack Crawford. Joan Allen has a good chemistry with Noonan and is very convincing in the role of a blind woman looking for love like everyone else.

Another aspect that seems to be a character unto itself is the soundtrack. It is very '80`s in nature, but so what? Blaxploitation films have soundtracks very "'70`s" in nature, as do many other films made in their respective time period. There is nothing wrong with a movie soundtrack representing the time period it was made, but films from the '80`s seem to get a bum wrap for it. The synthesizer score by The Reds and Michael Rubini is eerie and adds to the dark and stylistic mood of the film. Synth scores get a bad reputation, but they are more experimental and interesting in these type of films than the typical John Williams orchestra. Mann is a stylist and he uses the score to add to the style of the film. He also uses the rock songs to synchronize the action of the film, something that is usually poorly done, even in this MTV era. Songs such as "As strong as I am" and "Heartbeat" not only compliment the film, but the lyrics actually reflect the actions of the visuals. Martin Scorsese once said that most directors are lazy in their usage of a soundtrack (usually just using the music to let people know what time period they are in) but few rarely use it to actually reflect to add to the character of the film. Fortunately, Michael Mann is an exception to the rule. All of his films have a distinct musical character from the synthesizer orchestrations of Tangerine Dream in Thief to the orchestra score of Last of the Mohicans.

Red Dragon was an exercise in mediocrity, but Manhunter is anything but that. Michael Mann took an exceptional book and interpreted it for the cinema with a stylistic verve that most novels to not receive for screen adaptation. Instead of just literally adapting the book page for page, Mann used the tools of the cinema such as amazing visuals and a contemporary soundtrack to create a piece of original cinema. Add to that the exceptional cast and you have a well put together film, something that is quite lacking in Hollywood these days.

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