Directed By Michael Mann
Starring William Petersen, Dennis Farina, Tom Noonan, Joan Allen and Brian Cox
Half a decade before Anthony Hopkins brought Dr. Hannibal Lecter to the big screen, Heat/Miami Vice director Michael Mann had already introduced the eloquent, liver-chomping psycho to audiences in 1986′s Manhunter. And though The Silence of the Lambs was the one that reaped all the accolades and box office rewards, it’s the criminally overlooked and underrated Manhunter that stands the test of time as not just a more tightly-wound, chilling serial killer thriller, but the best Lecter movie by a wide margin.
Based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, Manhunter centres around FBI Agent Will Graham (William Petersen), one of the country’s most gifted criminal profilers who possesses the unique talent of being able to burrow into the mindset of the psychopaths he hunts. After the chase for a serial killer leads him to capture twisted murderer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), Graham is left physically scarred and psychologically haunted, unable to shake the unimaginably dark thoughts he had to embrace in order to track down the killer. Now living a peaceful life of retirement with his wife and son having left the FBI behind, he’s coaxed into returning to the job by friend and former boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) as the FBI are stumped in their hunt for a sadistic murderer dubbed The Tooth Fairy, whose lunar cycle of crimes leaves them with precious little time to stop him before he vanishes.
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Michael Mann, former showrunner for Miami Vice decades before he adapted the show to the big screen, brings the same visual style he pioneered there to Manhunter, with most of the film taking place in the perpetual orange-hued magic hour of sunrise/sunset, while night scenes are filmed with prominent blue filters. Mann also uses some unusual camera trickery in the last act – a final showdown between the police and Dollarhyde is peppered with distinct, jittery edits as In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita blasts on the soundtrack, lending the scenes a strange, nightmarish quality and making the serial killer feel even more monstrous. It’s an undeniably stylish film, but Manhunter is never style over substance; paced perfectly and with well-developed, three-dimensional characters, it’s an intensely gripping serial killer thriller as riveting as any detective movie.
CSI star William Petersen hasn’t always made the best career moves, having turned down major roles in Goodfellas, Heat and Platoon to take lesser roles in TV movies, and between Manhunter and the previous year’s other stylised, overlooked ’80s classic To Live & Die In L.A., we’re reminded exactly why that’s such a bad thing. With salt and pepper hair, five ‘o-clock shadow and brooding machismo, he’s the essence of ’80s cool (presumably Mann missed the look, since Tom Cruise was modelled into a dead ringer for Petersen in his later film Collateral), but couples it with an intense, psychologically haunted vulnerability that makes Will Graham as fascinating a character as the complex psychopaths he’s hunting. Where Anthony Hopkins channelled the serial killer into an entertainingly memorable but scenery-chewing, overly broad cartoonish villain, Brian Cox’s take on Lecktor (as the name’s spelt in Manhunter) is an infinitely more subdued and nuanced, and all the more frightening and effective for his human subtleties. Though he’s only in the film for three short scenes, it speaks volumes about Cox’s performance and crackling chemistry with Petersen that those scenes are so memorable, making Lecktor feel like a much larger presence in the film.
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But, much as in Silence of the Lambs, Lecktor is merely a secondary evil, playing caged consultant to the FBI as they hunt down an at-large murderer. In this case it’s Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), a twisted killer who’s murdering loving families around the time of the full moon, and whom the Feds have dubbed The Tooth Fairy due to his sick habit of biting his victims. As played by Noonan (Last Action Hero, Robocop 2) he’s an incredibly creepy presence – at 6’6, with a hare lip and ghostly white hair, he’s as psychically imposing as he is psychologically unhinged. But as with Cox, he’s played with a degree of layered subtlety, and the humanity we see in his awkwardly tender romance with blind photographer Reba McClane (Joan Allen) makes his acts of twisted evil all the more effective and unsettling.
A perfectly paced, incredibly taut, thoroughly gripping and immensely chilling journey into the mind of serial killers and the haunted psyche of the profiler who hunts them, Manhunter is a quintessential police procedural thriller. As visually stylish as it is psychologically unsettling, this woefully overlooked classic isn’t just the best Hannibal Lector movie, but one of the greatest serial killer thrillers ever made, and one that holds up perfectly decades later.
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Showcasing beautiful colour reproduction and gorgeous detail, StudioCanal’s UK Blu-ray sees Michael Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s trademark visuals preserved wonderfully. The film’s HD transfer and DTS-HD Master Audio track sees it looking as beautiful as it ever has and is a massive upgrade from DVD (a Linear PCM 2.0 audio track and English subtitles are also included).
Included as a bonus feature in standard definition is the 119 minute ‘Director’s Cut’ of the film. The differences are comprised mostly of minor alternate dialogue and edits, with a few major scenes removed and others added, primarily a new ending scene in which Graham visits the family who were to be Dollarhyde’s next victims. The theatrical cut is a stronger version overall, but the alternate cut is a great bonus, even if it’s only a not-quite-amazing-looking standard definition version.
Mann’s commentary track is a little too dry and descriptive at times, with more than a few spots of silence, but he shares a great deal of interesting anecdotes about the film’s casting process, production and a few of his guerilla filmmaking moments.
A 17 minute chat with the cast about how they snagged the roles, the film and their heavy research processes. Though short, it’s an incredibly entertaining and informative feature.
A ten minute interview with the cinematographer, who talks about the shooting of the movie and the distinct visual style and colour palette.
The film’s original trailer.
Manhunter is out on Blu-ray in the UK now.
Click here to order the Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk.