Manhunter. 1986. Directed & Written by Michael Mann; based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.
Starring William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Stephen Lang, Tom Noonan, David Seaman, Benjamin Hendrickson, Dan Butler, Michele Shay, Paul Perri, and Patricia Charbonneau. De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.
Rated R. 119 minutes.
So while I’m going back and reviewing all the Hannibal episodes in the latest incarnation of Thomas Harris’ famous characters, I decided to also go back and re-watch/review one of my favourite films: Michael Mann’s 1986 crime-thriller masterpiece, Manhunter.
Long before I came to love the Bryan Fuller series adaptation, I found Manhunter. As a high school student when I first found myself getting serious about film, I started to gravitate towards Mann. There’s something I got into once seeing his feature film debut Thief, something that I find is consistent in so much of his work. I’m not saying everything he makes is perfect, but as a filmmaker he’s got incredible sensibilities which absolutely carry through many of his movies.
What’s even better is that I’ve always been a reader. My mother got me into stuff like Stephen King when I was young, then I grew up reading all the grim, macabre, and fascinating stuff I could get my hands on. Eventually, I made my way to Harris and the excellent novel Red Dragon, plus the equally well-written sequels The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. So when I finally saw this, I’d just anticipated so much that everything felt incredible under the touch of Mann. The remake from Brett Ratner came a few years after I’d seen this the first time, and honestly, though there are several incredible performances in that movie I otherwise don’t find it much of anything special. Manhunter is the way to go. And while I do love the new Fuller-helmed series, there’s a special place in my heart for this movie due to the performances of William Petersen and Tom Noonan, as well the slick and vibrant style of Michael Mann’s filmmaking.
The thing I love, especially now looking back in juxtaposition with Hugh Dancy’s version of Will Graham, is how William Petersen plays the character as both volatile and still superbly thoughtful. There’s that part of Graham we do see with Dancy, however, Petersen has that spark of physicality here in his prime that makes Will feel more brawler-crazy, if you get my drift. We see that right off the bat, as he suplexes Freddie Lounds (Lang) onto the hood of a car, beating out a window.
Later there is plenty to enjoy aside from this about Petersen’s Graham. He is a sensitive soul, whether dealing with his son or his wife, but there’s also the resistance in him when talking to Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina). Amazing scenes between Crawford and Graham. Lots of tension between the two, obvious from their work beforehand. This is something which works well; we get the depth and trouble of their relationship, even in the relatively little time Crawford is in the script overall.
All the while, he has that empathy which is a big staple of the character, and he expresses it constantly; at the crime scenes he curses the murderer through whose eyes he is looking, with his wife he can’t help shouting that the murders “have to stop“. That’s my favourite part about this version of Graham is that Petersen shows how deeply and at times aggressively passionate about solving murders he is in his heart.
So I love how there’s a lot of angles which come forward out of Graham here. Petersen is a quality actor. Always has been.
One of the greatest parts of the adaptations coming from Thomas Harris and his novels is the various versions of the characters we’re seeing. Here, it’s Brian Cox who takes on the role of Hannibal Lecter; spelled Lecktor. He was the first, before Anthony Hopkins put his iconic touch on the character. However, even as Mads Mikkelsen is my personal favourite Hannibal thus far – who knows what may happen by the time I’m 50 or 60 years old – there is good stuff in Cox’s performance. I mean, to start, he is fabulous actor as it stands. Some say he plays a lot of the same roles, and yeah, maybe he does. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good actor. I think he’s fascinating when the right role comes around. As Lecter, he channels real life serial killer Peter Manuel slightly, which is pretty chilling in its own right if you know much about serial killers. Either way, I enjoy it in contrast to both Hopkins and Mikkelsen. Each performance has its own merits, wherever they stand in my raking.
I love how Mann incorporates the horrible elements here, as well as the effects they have on Will Graham. Can’t remember if this is a scene from the book or not, it’s been a good five years since last I read Red Dragon, so it’s either a case of Harris’ good work or a well adapted bit out of Mann’s playbook.
At one point, Graham falls asleep on a plane and leaves a folder full of pictures – the victims of the Tooth Fairy bloodied and cut up – lying open, as a little girl next to him sees it and starts to cry. Real chilling and perfect scene! Will is so desensitized to all of the awful crime scenes he has to go to, trying to reconstruct the thinking of serial killers, that he just fell asleep right there while looking at the horrific images in front of him. Stellar writing.
Otherwise, I just think the script is great and it follows a lot of elements I love from Red Dragon. Particularly watching Graham try and reconstruct the killer’s thinking, getting into the head of the Tooth Fairy, is horrific. Yet it’s horror in the way of Michael Mann, which is at once scary and at the same time has this slick look. Watching Will at the crime scenes is pretty striking and effective stuff.
There’s enough in Michael Mann’s filmography as a director for me to say that I personally think he’s a modern day auteur. While a lot of people might see him as a bit of a flashy, more Hollywood-styled director, I believe Mann has a real vision in his films, to the point where I’m comfortable calling him an auteur. I absolutely love every single second of Thief; parts of The Keep I’ll never get enough of; The Last of the Mohicans is a fucking work of modern art; Heat is one of the top five greatest crime films ever made, to me; The Insider is such a great and well-written film based on a real story that has great performances; Collateral is a slick bit of action with a ton of thriller style; and I’ve honestly even got a little love for Miami Vice because it takes what I think is a corny show and at least tries to give it some balls, as well as Public Enemies because it shows Dillinger in the way he was meant to be shown, with a bright and tight style.
In Manhunter, which is probably my 2nd favourite of his work behind Thief, we do get to see a lot of the visual aesthetic Mann tends to go for in his other films. For instance, he adores the sort of neon-tinted shots which come out in everything from Thief to Miami Vice. Here, there are some great pieces of neon colour. Awesomeness straight from the depths of 80s! Plus, I enjoy how Mann uses colour in general. It isn’t all neon. The way he chooses sets and locations always plays well into each of his films. Manhunter takes a lot of general type settings, from the FBI office to a clean and sterile-looking grocery store, and makes them look so effectively vibrant. Typical Mann and totally excellent.
Tom Noonan knocks it out of the park here, as he so often does. There’s something definitively creepy about Noonan when he plays a role which calls for such a demeanour. I’ve seen him in other things where he plays non-creeper roles, and he is a talented actor, but I think there’s a part of his presence in roles such as those similar to Francis Dolarhyde which ultimately has to do with his towering presence. Noonan, I believe, is somewhere around six-foot-seven. So I mean, that’s a tall guy. I’m about six-foot-one, and he’d still overshadow me. Aside from that, though, he isn’t exactly menacing to look at; his frame is slender, a bit skinny, and he doesn’t look dangerous to me. I guess you never know who is really dangerous.
But that’s part of the Dolarhyde character. He’s in the midst of people, live and normal people, yet he is becoming the Great Red Dragon. He contains it within himself, not letting the Dragon escape. Noonan pulls it all off elegantly. There’s a creepiness about his Dolarhyde which really strikes me as coming from loneliness. As of my writing this review, we’re into the Hannibal series near the end of its final third season and discovering Richard Armitage’s vision of Francis Dolarhyde. By far, Armitage is my favourite. Ralph Fiennes does a splendid job with the character in a remake of this movie, and another adaptation of Harris, Red Dragon. Yet Noonan has a perpetual loneliness in him, in his eyes. Even his voice.
The disfigurement and all that side of Dolarhyde isn’t a particular focus in this film – maybe Mann felt it wasn’t absolutely necessary for what he was doing – either way, that lonely Dolaryhde from the Harris novel does come out here, just in a different sense. He still has the hairlip happening slightly, just not a focus in the character in terms of how much it affected him/his personality. One perfect moment concerning this, though, is when a female co-worker of Dolarhyde’s comes to get him; he stands up quickly, then as he talks to her briefly covers his lip with his hand. Slight touches like that make a character well-developed.
All in those eyes, man. Noonan does solid work with this performance.
Speaking of eyes, I cannot leave out the ever lovely Joan Allen who plays the blind woman Reba McClane whose attention Dolarhyde seeks. She does an excellent job playing blind, I think. Even the way her eyes move slightly at times, it strikes me so genuine. The moments between her and Francis, especially later on, are incredibly intense, as well as full of tension at times. She is a good actor and brings a strong presence to the Reba role. I do prefer Emily Watson’s performance, however, I much prefer this film to Brett Ratner’s version. That’s not to say Allen isn’t good, she certainly is and works well opposite Noonan.
The scene with Dolarhyde and Lounds will forever be etched in my memory. I remember the first time I saw this, it was supremely horrifying. That calm way in which Noonan’s Dolarhyde talks with Freddie, slowly getting a little more angry, a bit more savage from time to time – eerie scene. Not only that, Stephen Lang is a great, greasy version of Lounds, and to see him in that chair, snivelling, pretty much crying, it’s another solid performance. Then, as Dolarhyde leans in we’re almost expecting him to kiss Freddie, but of course – if you’ve read the novel, you know what’s next. That following scene, the flaming wheelchair rushing down into the parking garage: KNOCKOUT! Well edited, as well. Perfectly brief and nailed things home.
A lot of people seem to have a problem with Mann’s adaptation, because it isn’t fully faithful to the source, however, to hell with that. I’m never in for a movie that’s an outright, complete carbon copy of the novel. Why would you want that? I can visualize well enough with my brain while reading. Might as well give me something new.
So for me, that’s why I consider Mann’s version of Red Dragon, this fantastic dream of a movie Manhunter, to be a 5 star film. There doesn’t need to be everything word for word from the book. The character of Will Graham is what I find truly important about this film, which is why I’m so into the new series because he is one of the major focuses including Lecter. William Petersen’s portrayal of Graham is a top notch performance on his part. Added to that, you’ve got a ton of neon dream Michael Mann coming out, along with that vibrant and lively style he always displays in such everyday settings bringing out their colour and their depth; don’t forget that nice touch of the 80s music, which I think works to add something neat and different. Plus, Tom Noonan puts the creepiness into a character brought to life first by Thomas Harris.
CAN NEVER FORGET – the finale is out of this world! With Iron Butterfly playing in the background, seeping into our brain as the mayhem and madness breaks out, I can’t help but just rock to it all the while. At the same time, it’s terribly creepy. Dolaryhde stalking around at first leads to more and more intensity, it rises and rises until a swell completely takes us away. Incredible work on Mann’s behalf.
I’ll always put this movie up there as a favourite of mine. I’d definitely say this is in my personal top 30 films; I’ve seen 4,100 so far including short films, documentaries, features, and made-for-television movies. Just for perspective. This is up there, for me, and I watch this at least a half dozen times a year, or more. Fired it up while writing this and I could maybe write more.
If you’ve not yet seen it, and you’re a fan of the Hannibal series – do yourself a favour! See where Will Graham started as a character on film. Enjoy.
Also, here is a page full of my Hannibal tv reviews – each episode will be reviewed quite soon, most are already finished. Cheers!