“It’s Just You And Me Now, Sport”: Manhunter at 35

Manhunter (1986)

We look back at Michael Mann’s moody, underappreciated take on the Hannibal Lector (sorry Lecktor) mythos, thirty-five years later.

In the mid-1980s, notorious Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis made what was arguably the biggest gamble in a career filled with them when he formed the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, a film studio based in Wilmington, North Carolina where he would produce and release his own films at a time when the home video boom was peaking. Alas, although most of the films that he made during this period were relatively low-budget, none of them were successful at the box office. After less than two years and fewer than 20 movies, the entire enterprise folded.

The irony of it all is that, while most of the films that were produced were pretty much junk (even Stephen King himself is not going to establish much of a defense for Maximum Overdrive (1986)), there was one brief period in the late summer/early fall of 1986 when DEG delivered a titanic one-two punch. This pair of films were not only among the very best of the year—hell, the entire decade—but proved to be important turning points in the careers of two of America’s most celebrated filmmakers. 

The more famous of the two was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), a film about which I presume no additional explanation is required. However, about four weeks beforehand, Michael Mann’s Manhunter appeared. While it went largely unnoticed at the time for a number of reasons, it would eventually be rediscovered and earn a place as one of the most intense examples of that most dubious of cinematic sub-genres, the serial killer thriller.

Manhunter (1986)
Manhunter (1986)

The film was an adaptation of Red Dragon, the second novel by author Thomas Harris (whose first book, Black Sunday, was adapted into a 1977 film) that was published to great acclaim in 1981. After securing the rights, De Laurentiis offered the job of bringing it to the screen to Lynch, who he still had under contract after their collaboration on Dune (1984). But Lynch turned it down, both to focus on Blue Velvet and, reportedly, because he found the story to be too brutal and twisted. 

Eventually, the project landed with Mann, whose big-screen career to date was uneven. Thief (1981) was critically hailed but not particularly successful financially. The Keep (1983), his strange WWII-era horror film, was a critical and commercial disaster (though one not without its interesting aspects). Still, he had just helped to change the face of television as the executive producer of Miami Vice, which became one of the hottest shows around after premiering in 1984.

The story that evidently so unnerved Lynch revolved around Will Graham (William Petersen), a former FBI criminal profiler whose intense method of pursuing his psychopathic quarry involves enter their twisted mindsets—an approach that, while successful, was detrimental to his own mental health and which led to a breakdown after being brutally attacked by one of his targets. Now retired and living in Florida with his wife (Kim Griest) and their young son, Graham is visited by his former superior, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), who wants him to examine the evidence of two seemingly unrelated murders of entire families by a killer known as the Tooth Fairy (because of the bite marks he leaves on some of his victims). Of course, both Graham and Crawford know that once he sees that evidence, he is going to be spurred to do much more than merely offer suggestions.

[O]ne of the most intense examples of that most dubious of cinematic sub-genres, the serial killer thriller.

Eventually, we discover the Tooth Fairy to be Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), who manages to keep his psychotic side under wraps to his coworkers at a St. Louis film processing lab, especially towards coworker Reba (Joan Allen, in only her second film role) who takes a fancy to him as well. Unfortunately for her, their budding romance has not in any way put a halt to his homicidal tendencies, and when he mistakenly suspects her of seeing someone else, she finds herself in danger as well. 

Meanwhile, Graham relentlessly tries to use his gifts to piece together the few clues he and Cawford have to work with in order to stop the next killing. In order to help him better access the darker aspects of his mind, Graham pays a visit to the person who almost killed him in the hopes of getting back into the groove—an erudite but quietly deranged cannibalistic serial killer by the name of Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). Yes, that Hannibal Lecktor, and yes, the spelling is correct.

Nowadays, watching investigators poring over forensic evidence in minute detail in the hopes of cracking a case involving a degenerate serial killer is as familiar a genre conceit as you can find. But back in the time when Manhunter was made, they were still relative rarities, presumably because many felt that audiences would not sit still for long scenes of people examining things in the lab and whatnot. For Mann, a filmmaker whose fascination with procedural details in the professions of his characters borders on the obsessive, it proved to be no problem at all. 

While the film is low on such genre conventions as chases and gun battles, the investigation scenes are so breathlessly exciting, even if only on a purely intellectual level, that most hardly notice the absence of the other stuff. The scene towards the climax where Graham talks his way through the evidence and slowly makes the key connection tying everything together may well still be the single most exciting sequence that Mann has ever staged. And it consists of nothing but two guys, a VCR hookup, and an anonymous hotel room. (That said, when Mann brings on the more conventional action elements, such as the climactic confrontation between Graham and Dollarhyde—set to the tune of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”—the results are equally spectacular.)

Even though countless TV shows (including the Petersen-starring CSI) and films have gone on to utilize a similar approach, Manhunter still feels fresh and vital after 35 years. Although the heavily stylized visual approach utilized by Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti—one which deployed strong color tints to help underscore the emotional moods of the characters—was criticized at the time by some observers as being too similar to the slick look of Miami Vice, it makes for an uncommonly rich cinematic experience that separates it from other films of its type. With the exception of a couple of wardrobe choices, the film looks like anything but a period piece when viewed today.

That said, Manhunter is much more than just an exercise in style. The screenplay is smart, terse and gripping. While some may gripe about certain changes from the novel that Mann made in his screenplay adaptation, it still holds up as an uncommonly intelligent and well-crafted example of the genre that manages to be grim and gripping without degenerating into exploitation or outright sadism. Mann’s direction is strong and sure—there’s not a wasted moment. Even the scenes featuring Graham’s home life, which might have been deadly dull in other hands, have a real impact here instead of simply serving as filler. 

The performances are tops practically across the board. Petersen is at his most mesmerizing as Graham (making even something as potentially awkward as verbalizing an interior monologue seem convincing and compelling). Noonan brings a certain empathy to Dollarhyde without ever minimizing the horror the character represents. Allen is so good and subtle as Reba that it takes viewers a few moments before it finally sinks in that her character is blind. And while he only turns up for a couple of scenes, Cox’s take on Lecktor is so magnetic that, even though Anthony Hopkins would earn worldwide fame for playing the character, his interpretation is arguably the stronger of the two.

But when Manhunter was released, it pretty much sank without a trace for any number of possible reasons. By the time it came out, the inevitable Miami Vice backlash was at its peak, dismissed by many as just more of the same. By this point, DEG was already beginning to feel the financial pinch, and they simply could not afford to properly market it. Then there was the bizarre decision, dictated by De Laurentiis himself, to change the title from Red Dragon to the more anonymous Manhunter—depending on the story, either he didn’t want people thinking it was a martial arts film or thought that having “dragon” in the title was bad luck after the failure of Year of the Dragon (1985) a year earlier. Either way, it meant that, when the film came out, many of those who made the book a best-seller had no idea that it had been turned into a movie.

Manhunter is one of those films that I could stumble upon on cable at any point and be compelled to watch until the very end.

Time would prove to be very kind to the film in the years since its initial release. When Silence of the Lambs (1991) (which De Laurentiis declined to produce) became an Oscar-winning smash and made Hannibal Lecter into a twisted folk hero, fans eventually discovered the existence of his earlier incarnation. It continued to find new audiences with the interest generated by the subsequent Hannibal (2001) remake Red Dragon (2002), and the woeful Hannibal Rising (2007), all of which De Laurentiis did produce. 

At the same time, Petersen’s television series CSI became one of the biggest hits of its time, and many noticed the considerable stylistic debts that it owed Manhunter. The film also benefited greatly from Mann’s ascendency to the top tier of American filmmakers following the release of the hits The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Heat (1995).

Although I have grown more than a bit weary at serial killer thrillers, Manhunter is one of those films that I could stumble upon on cable at any point and be compelled to watch until the very end. It forever altered how stories of this type could be told, and frankly, it has yet to be topped. Its equal fascination with the psychological and the physical aspects of the typical crime thriller makes it a richer and more rewarding experience. 

Manhunter Trailer:

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CategoriesMovies
Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.