DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Manhunter

Saturday 26 September 2009


Manhunter (1986) dir. Michael Mann
Starring: William Petersen, Dennis Farina, Joan Allen, Tom Noonan


By Alan Bacchus

In many ways “Manhunter” is the ultimate modern police procedural. Historically there had been a few antecedents, specifically Fritz Lang’s “M”, and Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low”, but Manhunter seems to serve as a modern template for the rash of 2000’s procedural TV shows - namely CSI, which of course stars Manhunter’s own William Petersen.

Based on Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon we get to see Hannibal Lector for the first time helping his captor Will Graham (Petersen) track down a killer known as the tooth fairy for his penchant for biting his victims. The story begins with a grizzly crime scene of a murdered family in their home. Graham is a working class ‘method’ cop, with an ability to get inside the killer’s head, and psychologically predict his moves. When he hits a wall in the investigation he’s is forced to take drastic steps and enlist his former nemesis, the recently imprisoned Hannibal Lector for help. It’s a cat & mouse game between Graham, Lector and the killer. With Graham is on the verge of having a mental breakdown, but not before he figures out the crucial piece of the puzzle which enables him to track the killer.

‘Manhunter’ is icy cool as they come, a continuation of the style Mann had been developing since ‘Thief’, ‘The Keep’ (Paramount: please Blu-Ray-ify this one please!) and ‘Miami Vice’. Precise control of his colour scheme and compositions compliment the formalism of the professional of police investigation. We also get to see Mann at his best showing the workmanlike aspects of the job.

Emotions are kept in check as the men go about their business. Back in the day, the details of fingerprint analysis, and other forensic aspects were the stuff of laboratories and scientific details which only served the story. Mann creates lengthy sequences out of these moments. Part of the thrill is watching Graham and his team confidently goes through each step of the investigation. The three way telephone conversation between Graham, Dr. Chilton, and Jack Crawford (also characters in “Silence of the Lambs) jumpstarts the second act when the Tooth Fairy’s message is found on a piece of toilet paper in Lector’s cell. Crawford’ quick but authoritative instinctual instructions to his secretary is quintessential Michael Mann.

His auteur desires are embellished with a number of dream sequences, and tonal detours which explore Will’s mind and the duality of his idyllic Floridian domestic life. And watch for Mann’s cinematic fetish for the telephones. Screenwriting courses will tell you telephone conversations don’t make for good drama, but much of ‘Manhunter’s dialogue occurs over the phone between Graham and Crawford. Perhaps it serves the needs of the story, keeping Graham isolated and alone in his investigation, but watch “The Insider” and you’ll see most of that film’s best scenes are played over telephone conversations.

Hannibal Lector doesn’t get the dramatic build up or even an elaborate and grandiose production set as in ‘Silence of the Lambs’, but his effect on the story is important and influential. Brian Cox chews the scenery less than Hopkins, and of course, it’s not Hannibel’s picture, but Cox gets one magnificent sequence creatively using (of course) a telephone to get Graham’s address.

The final sequence doesn’t do the film justice. Although the use of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita creates an intense rhythm, Mann’s experimental freeze frames and camera speeds changes are sloppy and distracting. As well Mann’s depiction of the photographer subplot is the weakest element, hammed up as more a clichéd slime ball paparazzi than real world character like Graham or Crawford. Of course Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs’ would get everything right the second go around with essentially the same material.

“Manhunter” is available on Blu-Ray in MGM Home Entertainment’s ‘Hannibal Lector Collection” also containing “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal”

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