Close-Up on Michael Mann's "Manhunter"

A commercial flop at the time, the first Hannibal Lecter film has undergone a "radiant becoming" to achieve the reputation of a masterpiece.
Ben Simington

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986) is showing October 1 – 30, 2018 in the United States as part of the series Horrific October.


Manhunter is Michael Mann’s first true masterpiece, the film where he successfully balances a hugely emotional story with bold use of his trademark style. Thief (1981) and The Keep (1983) each exhibit plenty of remarkable filmmaking to recommend them, but none of it coalesces to reach the same heights as the director’s 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel, Red Dragon. Mann wrote the screenplay in addition to directing, and though he remained relatively faithful to many of the source material’s best twists and revelations, the final product visually and sonically has his personal mark all over it. Well beyond idiosyncratically changing the spelling of the novel’s now-famous Hannibal Lecter to “Lecktor,” Mann assuredly shaped the book into something with totally unique cinematic pacing, structure, and feel.

This is high praise to lavish upon a film that was a commercial flop when it first came out. Manhunter gained in popularity during the VHS age while Mann’s auteur star rose, then earned revitalized interest across numerous DVD remasters and director’s cut permutations. It now wears the mantle of “rediscovered critical darling” gracefully enough to have garnered 25th and 30th anniversary reappraisals and appreciations. The most complete edition of its soundtrack was released only a couple months ago. Deservedly so, Manhunter has finally undergone a “radiant becoming,” as the film’s transmogrification-obsessed villain might say. 

Nevertheless, a quick scan of mass review websites still turns up some petty gripes that it is too dated for modern audiences. Don’t believe them. True, Manhunter is not as polished as Heat (1995), the acknowledged apex of Mann’s commercial filmmaking, nor does it aim to be as stunning in narrative scope, but it is just as good, and that’s an amazing feat considering it was created with almost ten years less directorial experience. Also true, just because Manhunter’s look commits to a vivid, expressionistic neon color palette and its musical tracks are identifiably of a moment (Heat’s costumes, lighting and soundscape are markedly more timeless), that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed as some victim of the decade.  

If anything, Manhunter isn’t too 80s. It may be too...“Emo” for some people’s taste. Most serial killer procedurals don’t carve out a lot of space for a single unapologetically gorgeous sunset shot, much less several, nor earnest heart-to-heart father/son conversations about criminal psychology. On its surface, the movie promises a serial killer procedural, and while it delivers on that better than any competition I can think of, its core drama reveals itself to be more about the emotional crisis of its hero, FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen). “The Tooth Fairy” (Tom Noonan) is a headline-making home-intruder who is thoughtful enough to commit murder only once a month on a predictable lunar schedule, but wily enough to choose his victims—innocent families—seemingly at random. If someone could just deduce what motivates him, the Feds would be in a perfect position to put a stop to it, but the only man good enough to do it is Graham, and he left the game years before when job-related traumas proved too damaging to continue.  

Oh, there might be just one other man good enough to profile the Fairy, but he has the slight disadvantage of being insane, not to mention locked in solitary confinement in one of the country’s maximum security institution for psychopaths. He’s Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), and he still resents that Will is the one who trapped him behind bars. Once Graham concedes that the very antagonist whose past atrocities forced him into retirement is the only person with a key to the case, Lecter appears in less than 10 minutes of total scene-time in the movie, but he’s firmly stuck inside Graham’s craw for the other 110, adding an additional layer to Graham’s discontents about the right course of action for his well-being. Graham is torn between the isolationist option of retreating into a “safer” private life with his family versus the irrepressible civic duty of emerging from retirement to catch a predator. He knows he can’t actually enter the Eden he seeks until first confronting and dispatching the very threat he so fears, and every audacious choice made by Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti renders this melodramatic internal conflict tangible. In the movie’s late-game sub-plot, even the antagonist’s identity struggles are afforded some significance by the filmmakers through equally highlighted moments.   

Maybe the original audiences that doomed the movie to box office failure just couldn’t take their expressionism in quite the way Manhunter dishes it out. Silence of the Lambs, based on Thomas Harris’s second Lecter novel and released only five years later, is no more objectively realistic than Manhunter, but in presentation of its grim worldview, it is more digestibly homogeneous. It unspools from beginning to end under a grimy patina of pervasive cosmic corruption, whereas Mann asks his viewers to balance relatively mundane passages with emotional aesthetic outbursts. Lambs’ distinctly different style, its wall-to-wall archly gothic grunge-chic, struck an epochal chord with viewers that resulted in major box office returns, unprecedented awards-recognition for a horror thriller, a clear future direction for a Lecter-verse franchise built on increasing gore and diminishing returns, and a spate of 90s thrillers “in which it always rains and nobody seems to have bothered to pay their electricity bill” (Mark Salisbury re: Se7en). It also threatened to nudge Manhunter’s less fashionable take on similar material further towards pop-cultural irrelevance.

Allen Barra’s 2002 appreciation of Manhunter is the first place I learned that there even was a pre-Lambs Harris adaptation. I was immediately intrigued by the article’s encapsulation of the movies’ opposing approaches as well as the varied viewer responses Barra attributes to such divergent stylistic directions. Demme’s depiction of Lecter’s cell as “a virtual rats nest, a dank, fetid dungeon” stands in stark contrast to the “antiseptic white” Mann uses to paint his recognizably believable mental hospital. The result? Post-screening, Anthony Hopkin’s Lecter can be safely filed away next to the rest of the creature features while Brian Cox’s Lecktor lingers like a “nightmare you can’t wake up from.” He’s threatening specifically because of the film’s selectively employed realism. He doesn’t only get under Graham’s skin, he gets under ours too as a representation of all the irreconcilable aspects of real-world existence that you can’t escape, can’t predict, and can barely hope to police.

It may be hard to believe, then, but Manhunter is a fundamentally optimistic movie, at least relative to Lamb’s self-presentation of pessimism. Both movies still use their respective philosophies toward horrific ends, though in Manhunter’s case, not a horrific ending. Lambs masterfully sustains unflagging dread all the way up through a seemingly impossible breaking point, then concludes swiftly with a pyrrhic victory for Clarice Starling while Lecter reaps the real rewards. He alone “rides into the sunset,” so to speak, though Lambs doesn’t care to include them in its palette. Manhunter, conversely, disarms its viewers repeatedly across its runtime by tethering them to the dynamic emotional journey of a protagonist navigating extraordinary occupational hazards in order that he might become an ordinary family man, but it ultimately rewards its viewers and characters after the draining experience with clear-cut emotional resolutions.

One of the most memorable and affecting scenes in the movie is devoted to pure character development around this tension with almost no dialogue or plot advancement. In the hands of a less gifted director or screenwriter, the scene might have become a throwaway transition. In Mann’s hands, its elevated to one of the film’s emotional heavy-lifters. In the scene, Graham flies between cities from his troubling first meeting with Lecter to the most recent crime scene of “The Tooth Fairy”’s victims. He receives a telefaxed update about the case, he contemplates two harmless domestic snapshot photos of the now-deceased families, he falls asleep, dreams of his wife, Molly (Kim Greist), and awakens with a start to discover that his case-folder has fallen open, exposing the other passengers in his row to a slew of graphic crime scene photos.

Graham’s dream sequence and all the elements of the mise en scène necessary to add up to it are completely singular within the film, concentrating the picturesque charm of Graham's homelife glimpsed in earlier scenes. The dream is dominated by natural colors, open space, extreme shallow focus or entirely blurred subject matter, and a majority of slow-motion moments, all scored by an otherworldly music cue by electronic composer Kitaro: striving, proud, yet melancholic. It also culminates in crosscutting between its two characters as they gaze at each other. It would seem like a hopeful moment of idyllic reprieve from the risks of Will’s real life were it not for the conspicuous way each participant uncannily stares directly down the barrel of the camera lens. Molly is smiling, open, loving while Graham can only counter with dispassionate uncertainty and ambivalence. Is he too emotionally connected to his quarry, he wonders? Does he exhibit too much facility with abnormal psychologies to preserve a healthy one of his own? Can his family rely on him to build a stable long-term home life?

Mann jarringly cuts out of the dream imagery. The ethereal soundtrack stops short. The audience is jerked back into the plane by a rapid succession of grisly still images from the crime scenes followed by the horrified reaction shot of an innocent passenger who can barely process all the inexplicable bloodshed she is seeing within Graham’s case-file. Graham jolts awake as a stewardess covers the images protectively. The audience just got to share Graham’s dream. Now we are squarely trapped back inside the living nightmare of his everyday existence.  

Optimistic? Well, yes. Graham’s central worry is that he will hurt those around him. It’s a legitimate concern, as evidenced through the in-flight incident. The rare moment when Graham feels safe enough to let down his guard ends with disaster. But he still dreams of forging his own honest, ordered life, and he strives for that dream in spite of the lurking mortal dangers he knows to exist. Mann makes room in his films for moments that focus on the dreams, the feelings, and the strivings of his characters. As it turns out, he’ll even arrange for the audience to get uncomfortably close to “The Tooth Fairy’s” dreams before the movie is over. But during such moments, lauding a hero or humanizing an otherwise despicable killer, his idealism comes through, visualized unmistakably in his style.  

I mean, just look at that shot: 

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