Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Manhunter

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

MANHUNTER

8/10

USA 1986 : Michael Mann : 120mins

Back in 1985, [Dino de Laurentiis and his wife] bought the rights to Thomas Harris best-selling thriller Red Dragon, from which they produced the 1986 movie Manhunter The film, which features the first, brief appearance of the serial killer Hannibal Lecter (played by Brian Cox), was inventive, frightening, and well-reviewed, but it grossed a paltry $8.6 million, less than the cost of its print ads. The De Laurentiises were disappointed. Manhunter was not Red Dragon, Dino says. Manhunter was no good.
Premiere
magazine, February 2001.

The subsequent box office successes of both Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs) and Mann (Last of the Mohicans and Heat) make, in retrospect, the failure of the their joint project one of the mysteries of mid-80s American cinema. At the time, it must have been a conspicuous disaster, given Manns phenomenal small-screen success with Miami Vice. After The Keep, this was his second commercial bomb in a row, and he didn’t try again until Mohicans five years later. But while The Keep remains barely known, and usually disappoints those who do bother to seek it out, Manhunters reputation has soared over the years its now almost a clich to say its a better movie than Lambs, and to prefer Coxs Lecter (or rather, Lecktor, as he’s spelled here) over Hopkins Oscar-winning turn. Clichs, perhaps, but in this instance, deadly accurate ones.

For all its rough edges, Manhunter was the first sign that Mann might be something out of the ordinary, a film-maker of rare confidence and technical skills. Ironically, what were once derided as his main weaknesses his flashy visuals and soundtrack indicating an apparent preference for style over substance are now part of his distinction. Mann slyly uses the mid 80s prevailing gaudy aesthetic, putting it at the service of narrative and character. His film has a seductive visual sheen, with particular attention paid to colour, but its part of his powerful synthesis of subject and style. In his hands, Manhunter aims beyond just being another fast-paced police-procedural thriller, towards psychological analysis of its central characters states of mind.

One reason why Lecktors screen debut caused less of a splash than his subsequent Lecter appearances is that he’s comparatively underexposed here. But, as incarnated by Scottish stage star Brian Cox a bold choice, as at this point virtually unknown in Hollywood he dominates the movie in much the same way, delivering his terrific lines with a convincing combination of impish zest and a chilly Edinburgh hauteur, but none of Hopkins glassy-eyed ham. Lecktors role in the two movies is very similar we have an FBI agent (William Petersen as Will Graham, the manhunter of the title) tracking down a serial killer (Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde), and turning to the incarcerated Lecktor (he doesn’t get out in this one) for advice. As in Lambs, Lecktor and the agent have a special psychological bond here, Grahams technique involves attempting to put himself into the mind of his target, and Lecktor believes the agents success indicates psychopathic tendencies, kept in check by the routines of work and everyday family life.

Apparently agreeing with Lecktor, Mann creates a vivid sense of ambiguity around Graham he visits Lecktor in his all-white, hyper-modern cell (just one of the numerous areas where Manhunters clinical realism scores over the camp gothic of Lambs), and in most shots its hard to tell which of the two men is behind bars and which is free – if either. Not for nothing does Will live in a coastal town called Captiva, and the movie starts and ends with references to the cages he’s built with his son on the sand to protect incoming sea-turtles. Leaving Lecktors cell, he suffers a panic attack and hurtles down endless flights of gleaming-white stairs, only recovering his composure outside in the open air. But this promising psychological aspect its in many ways the gimmick on which the film turns isn’t especially well developed by Manns script, an adaptation of Thomas Harriss Red Dragon. Were told that Graham spent time in a psychiatric institution after being attacked by Lecktor, but there’s no real sense of his see-sawing between normality and any kind of psychopathic state, though this is perhaps a fault of Petersens hyper-restrained blank of a performance.

As it is, Wills empathic skills aren’t especially different from countless other screen detectives his methods of deduction seem to owe as much to Sherlock Holmes as to Freud or Jung. And its as an intriguingly original thriller that Manhunter works best. While The Keeps sloppily erratic plotting made for a stilted viewing experience, here Manns control is assured. The killer doesn’t appear until almost an hour in – we stay with the Will Graham side of the investigation. The second half of the movie alternates between the two sides, allowing Tom Noonan to create a rounded perhaps almost sympathetic serial killer character. Were not sure how to react when he gets to know Reba, a blind co-worker, and, in a surprising display of kindness, enables her to have an unusual sensory experience which this review won’t reveal, but which is connected with Dollarhydes otherwise-underdeveloped William Blake fixation.

And while in most directors hands the introduction of Reba might have signalled a sentimental or schmaltzy detour, Mann integrates her within Manhunters network of sight references. Will has to put himself where the killer stood just as the audience is forced to do with the opening subjective-camera shots to get into his mind. When he makes the vital leap of imagination that enables him to track down the killer, he says, Everything with you is seeing, isn’t it? Your primary sensory intake that makes your dreams live. Manhunters heightened visuals represent just this kind of living dream and Manns attention to colour makes Steven Soderberghs experiments in The Limey, Out of Sight, The Underneath and Traffic seem blunderingly amateurish. Theres a seemingly throwaway moment when Wills plane is about to land, and we see, in the distance, the sky shading through infinite gradations of colour, from deep night black to bright gold of the dawn suggesting the difference between Will and Lecktor, or between any of us, is a matter of degree, not of type.

The climactic imperilment of a blind character isn’t the only apparently cheap trick Mann gets away with. In most movies, relentless pounding music on the soundtrack detracts here, it blends brilliantly with Dante Spinottis glowing cinematography. Mann even pulls off the apparently impossible task of putting a song over a sex scene, though the closing anthem Heartbeat pushes things a little too far. Then again, this is the world Graham has chosen the banality of bad shirts, faceless supermarkets, MOR ballads on the radio. Hes turned away from Lecktors blinding-white extremity, the timelessness of insanity, and located himself within his own place and time. An era of nasty suits, pounding synths, bad hair and a surfeit of Florida style. The era, in fact, of Miami Vice – the world Mann made.

5th February, 2001

by Neil Young
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