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‘…Mann manages to develop the notion of seeing in a persuasive way, helped by an unearthly performance from Tom Noonan…’

Regular readers will know that I’m a major fan of Michael Mann, whose steely, detail-obsessed, immaculately shot and scored crime movies occasionally seem to catch a populist wave after the success of his game-changing Miami Vice tv show. His adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon has a worse title (in a truly awful font), and takes a rather different approach to the later films that featured Hannibal Lector, or Lecktor as he’s called here, as played by Brian Cox. A critical and financial flop at the time, this Dino De Laurentiis production is now seen as a cult classic, but it’s something of a strange match for Mann’s talent. Mann is highly adept at translating a cops and robbers mindset to the big screen, but Harris offers a specific schematic mind-melding link between the two sides that’s rather more on-the nose than Mann’s.

Our hero here is Will Graham, played well by William Petersen, who went on to make the FBI profiler something of a signature role in his CSI tv shows. Graham has just managed to get Hannibal behind bars, but at a huge psychological cost, and he’s reluctant to return to the fray until FBI director Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) shows him two photos of families who have been murdered by the Tooth Fairy, a killer who is responding to the lunar cycle in a truly murderous way. How is the Tooth Fairy selecting his victims? Graham reluctantly goes to his previous quarry for help, knowing that he’s potentially playing the most dangerous of games…

Manhunter is interesting as a period piece; there’s no internet or mobiles, Graham’s staff rigorously take notes on pen and paper, while Lecktor commits all details instantly to memory. There’s also a strange reliance on personal ads and newspaper headlines to tell the story, something Mann seems to mock with some silly minor stories (‘Astronomers Glimpse God’) as counterpoint to the grim headlines. Mann doesn’t have his go-to band Tangerine Dream to provide a full synth score, but has fun with other details; Graham’s panicked sprint out of his intense one-to-one with Lecktor is a bravura sequence, and there’s memorable moments including the Tooth Fairy’s victim’s eyeless appearance and a stunningly arty sequence involving stroking a live tiger, an action that that mirrors Graham’s own dance with death. The last-gasp introduction of a blind character named Reba, played by Joan Allen, to be menaced by the Tooth Fairy, feels contrived as a way up upping the stakes of Graham’s investigation and setting up a Perils of Pauline denoument; it doesn’t feel quite right for Mann’s studied disdain for melodrama.

A few compromised shots aside, Manhunter looks amazing in HD and widescreen, and Mann manages to develop the notion of seeing in a persuasive way, helped by an unearthly performance from Tom Noonan as the killer who dreams of become a Red Dragon. ‘If you act like a God, you become a god’ is the warped sentiment here, and Manhunter makes something epic of the struggle between tortuted cops and zealot killers. Manhunter isn’t Mann’s best, but there’s plenty of evidence of the director’s considerable talent, and while the character of Hannibal is now as familiar to us as Santa Claus, Cox sets a sharp, poisonous tone in the two brief, jolting scenes in which he appears.


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  1. Saw this on initial release before Hopkins put his name on the character and before, too, Cox was such a big name. I had adored the book which was a sensation when it came out though Silence was an even bigger sensation. So I went in knowing we would not see much of Lektor. But I was still pretty surprised how well Cox nailed it. He could as easily have gone overboard. Most killers in movies at that point looked the part, not this guy who lived in the recesses of his mind and could play looney-tunes on any cop foolish enough to get into the ring with him.

  2. OK I’m biased because this is one of my favourite films for many reasons, but for what it’s worth…

    “The last-gasp introduction of a blind character named Reba, played by Joan Allen, to be menaced by the Tooth Fairy, feels contrived…”

    I think this is to do with the serial killer character, he is so focused on the visual (“because everything with you is seeing, isn’t it?”) that it takes a blind character who doesn’t possess his visual bias to begin the process of change. It also feels to me more plausible in that she can’t see his creepiness, or she might be more willing to accept him with his flaws due to her reduced romantic options as a disabled person who experiences prejudice? And that sex scene… awkward, weird, yet oddly fascinating.

    Is neon-gothic a genre?

    It’s a ‘sympathy for the devil’ film, slightly following the course of Fritz Lang’s M and Hitchcock’s Psycho perhaps, in that a serial killer is shown in a light that isn’t just pure evil, there are shades of good, it’s not often you see that in villains.

    Silence of the Lambs I think has good moments but I’d argue is more flawed, because Buffalo Bill is so over-shadowed by Lector, and the story is too split…. a mistake Mann doesn’t make by keeping Lector to a bare minimum.

    The first part plays out like a cinematic episode of Miami Vice but it’s in the second part, when the POV switches Psycho style to the killer, that I was surprised at Michael Manns drama chops.

    Those impressionistic images of neon skies, shadowy waters, smokey swamps, black rain, sun-rise jetties, and other great lighting are what a great cinematographer can do so eat your heart out Roger Deakins! (sorry couldn’t resist a swipe!)

    In the cinema this film really works a treat and I agree Noonan’s performance is elemental, a masterclass.

    • Yup, like a cop and a robber, or a psychologist and a serial killer, we’re not so different in how we think about this one. I expected this to have dated on a rewatch, but I’d neglected how strong and artful Mann is as a film-maker. Some of this just looks sensation in HD, and all Mann films have an authenticity that I love; impressionistic images as you say. I do think that mann pulls off the POV stuff, but as with Silence, the narrative shifts mid-film and becomes something different; maybe the fault is in the original story construction for me. Now we know of Lector can be not scary from numerous other films, we regonsise he should be neither protagonist not atagonist; the more he does, the less threatening he is, and I totally get why Mann fans might feel that his Hannibal is best. Like you, I do love this film, and it’s so far ahead of the game for 86….

    • To Live and Die is the one that focused me on Petersen, that was a scorching watch in the cinema. Mann brings a lot to this material, and this stands up well on a rewatch.

  3. Did I tell you how Mann house-sat my place in Puslinch? He wanted a break from the bright lights and neon colours of L.A. and Miami for a while.

    Cox and Noonan salvage this. Mann not a good fit for the material. As one legendary critic put it:

    “This is a decent flick, and it it’s one of those movies that probably deserved more attention and respect than it got when it was released. However, it has since benefited from a spring of critical overcompensation, with many commentators making it out to be much better than it is.”

    • Wise words, that sounds like Kael or Ebert, one of the real giants of criticism, right?

      But I do think this film has gone from underrated to overrated, it’s just too much not the way that a Mann film plays out, too melodramatic…

  4. One thing that struck me about this film – after having seen The Silence of Lambs – is how directors can make very different choices re the same material. In Manhunter, Lecter’s cell is clinically white and featureless; the lighting is neutral. Starling’s first encounter with Lecter is pure gothic; everything is cowled in gloom (Lecter seems to be incarcerated in some sort of underground crypt) and at one point he hisses like a snake. And while Cox’s performance is all about the banality of evil, Hopkins’ is pure panto – albeit very good panto

    • Hopkins take on it was great in the first film, but the more we saw of his Hannibal, the less effective it was. Cox has the advantage of just playing it for ten memorable minutes. But yes, it’s a very different vision of good vs bad in this, stark in the cell, lots of blue skies and landscapes, very different from Demme’s much more Gothic vision of things…

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