Video Essay. Fearful Symmetry: Michael Mann’s "Manhunter"

Michael Mann's 1986 Thomas Harris adaptation revels in symmetry of framing, balancing and unbalancing a story based on sight and touch.
Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin

The 29th entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986) is showing October 1 – 31, 2018 in the United States as part of the series Horrific October.

Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon—the initial basis for an extensive string of films (the most celebrated being Jonathan Demme’s 1991 rendition of its sequel, The Silence of the Lambs) and the TV series Hannibal—embeds, in its structure, crucial references to the written and pictorial work of William Blake (1757–1827). Two particular creations by Blake appear to have especially fired the imagination of Michael Mann, director of the very first screen adaptation of Harris, Manhunter, in 1986: the illustration, one in Blake’s series devoted to the Biblical Book of Revelation, titled The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun (1805), which offers key plot material; and the famous poem “The Tyger”—which does not figure at all in the novel. 

“What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” Symmetry is everywhere in Manhunter: in its visual framing, its production design, and above all its narrative and thematic architecture. The film is a finely wrought hall of mirrors, an echo chamber of coalescing motifs. Criminal profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) and serial killer Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) are both connected, by different threads, to the imprisoned Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). To get inside the head of Dollarhyde, Graham must place himself in situ to literally see whatever the killer saw: to walk the same path, climb the same tree, gaze fixatedly at the same location.

Dollarhyde, as Graham intuits, feeds his intense fantasy through the sense of sight: images, mirrors, photographs, films, screens. This regime of vision implies distance and separation between people—and therefore the potential to objectify and manipulate them. Yet there arrives another character who breaks up this symbiotic, reversible, sight-bound symmetry between hunter and hunted: the blind Reba (Joan Allen). Hers is a world of touch, tactile sensation. Dollarhyde’s drive is to dissolve the boundaries of his self, to “become” Blake’s mythic Red Dragon. Getting involved with Reba is dangerous for Dollarhyde, because her merest touch returns him to the trembling limits of his own, mortal flesh.

And what of Manhunter’s own, unforgettable “tyger,” laid out on a table, in a central scene, for Reba to caress? The enormous tooth of this creature, as touched by Reba, chimes with Dollarhyde’s gruesome nickname: the Tooth Fairy. Yet the animal is also the locus of warmth, literally of “heart.” To appropriate and completely rewrite Marshall McLuhan’s distinction, where vision is the cool, deadly medium, touch is the vital, hot medium in Manhunter.

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