This week’s Monday pick is Manhunter (1986), Michael Mann’s film adaptation of Thomas Harris’s classic novel Red Dragon. The film stars William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Stephen Lang, and Tom Noonan.
Manhunter is one of Mann’s best and it was the first film to introduced the world to psychotic killer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor who would go on to great acclaim five years later in the Academy Award winning Best Picture Silence of the Lambs.
William Petersen stars as FBI profiler Will Graham who is pulled out of semi-retirement by his old boss Jack Crawford (Farina) when a series of grizzly murders occur a month apart from one another. Graham is considered one of the best profilers in the Bureau and Crawford is reluctant to ask him to come back after Graham was viciously attacked and almost killed several years earlier when he apprehended Dr. Lecktor.
Graham is able to place himself inside the killer’s mind and find out why they do the things that they do. After visiting the first slain family’s crime scene, Graham enlists the help of his former adversary Dr. Lecktor played for the first time by veteran Scottish character actor Brian Cox, who I feel was far more superior to Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal.
Graham is curious to see whether or not Lecktor can help better understand the mind of the killer. Lecktor demands that Graham leave the case file and photographs so he can further study them and give Graham his analysis. Lecktor toys with Graham and tells Graham that the only reason he was able to catch him was because they are very much alike. Lecktor asks Graham that if he wants to get the scent of murder, he ought to smell himself.
Hot on Graham’s trail is reporter Freddy Lounds (Lang), an obnoxious tabloid journalist who covered the Lecktor case and took pictures of Graham while he was re-cooperating in the hospital after the attack by Lecktor. The serial killer who is nicknamed “the tooth fairy”, due to several bite marks he has left on his female victim’s remains, intrigues Lounds and the rest of the media.
Mann executes a very taut thriller and the excitement is nothing short of spectacular. In one scene, a piece of toilet tissue is discovered in Lecktor’s cell and is intercepted by his handler, Dr. Frederick Chilton who informs Graham and Crawford that Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy are communicating with one another. Chilton has Lecktor placed in isolation for several hours while Lecktor’s cell is examined for further clues.
The piece of paper is flown to FBI headquarters where they use forensic evidence to find out just how they are communicating with one another. Infrared technology shows that Lecktor ripped out a piece of the message and used a magic marker to erase the evidence. This shows the FBI that the two have been communicating through the personal ads of The National Tattler, the paper that Lounds works for. Once they discover the source, Graham, Crawford, and Lounds set up a phony interview to incite the killer, and to lure him into a sting operation to catch him.
One of my many favorite scenes in the film is when Lounds is kidnapped by the Tooth Fairy and is forced to make an audio recording stating that the information in the interview was derogatory and false. Tom Noonan who portrays Francis Dollarhyde (the killer) is revealed for the first time in the film and his presence on screen is very scary. Lounds is later tortured and set on fire and rolled down the parking garage of the National Tattler as a warning. The shot of the flaming wheel chair has always stood out in my mind as the number one iconic shot of the film.
The first meeting between Graham and Lecktor is unforgettable, but the final twenty or so minutes of the film has always been my favorite. Graham finally discovers how the killer selected his victims and how he knew so much about their lives. As Graham and the authorities discover the killer’s identity and close in on him, the killer’s bloodlust has been stayed by an unintended female coworker who finds Dollarhyde very attractive and has made him feel loved and desired for the first time in his life.
In the final ten minutes of the film, Graham, Crawford and the police surround the killer’s home and Graham attempts to save the life of Reba (Allen) who is about to be killed. Mann’s selection of the Iron Butterfly song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” works terrifically in the scene as Graham smashes through the kitchen window to apprehend Dollarhyde. Mann’s direction and Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is spellbinding.
Mann has always been a favorite director of mine and his mise-en-scene is unmatched by any other modern director. His use of light and dark cues throughout the movie really helps to convey the plot and the execution of every single framed shot. In many scenes with Graham and his wife, blue tones are used, where in many scenes with the killer, greens, magenta and other tones are used.
Manhunter was not very well received when it was released in the late summer of 1986 but has gone on to achieve a huge cult status and has been considered by many critics and fans as a first class psychological thriller. The film is also considered to be one of the first movies to help bring forensic science into the spotlight. The cast is superb and Mann’s direction is unmatched.
In order to be believable, Noonan stayed away from the rest of the cast throughout filming, and always in character. Petersen spent a considerable amount of time with both the FBI and Chicago Police Department’s Violent Crimes Unit in order to immerse himself in the role as a burnt out profiler who was on the edge. Cox based his performance on an actual Scottish serial killer and told Mann that the best killers always have a European accent.
Manhunter is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray thru MGM/UA Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.