Revisiting MANHUNTER - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Revisiting MANHUNTER

Martin Rayburn wants the scent.
Five years before the gargantuan success of The Silence of the Lambs, when the name Hannibal the Cannibal moved into pop culture, and some years before director Michael Mann became a named auteur often referenced with relish by hungry film students rather than just linked to his work on Crime Story and Miami Vice; there was Manhunter, Michael Mann's brilliant 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris' equally brilliant 1981 psychological thriller, Red Dragon. After revisiting Manhunter on Blu-ray, I find myself once again simultaneously invigorated and unnerved by the magnificence of this underrated neo-noir psychological thriller.

Many other far more qualified critics have written about Mann's use of colour and styles to bear out mood and psychological states, his framing devices, and his commitment to his craft. All of this was without question a part of his unique approach to filmmaking much, much earlier than, say, Heat or The Insider or Collateral or Public Enemies. Visually, thematically and narratively it's all there in Manhunter. It's a clinical piece of cinema; a probing study of madness that dares to put a serial killer and the man hunting him in the same psychological body, asking us, as well as William Petersen's FBI agent Will Graham, to empathise with Tom Noonan's troubled Tooth Fairy killer.
Here's a thing, too, Francis Dolarhyde (The Tooth Fairy) is a functioning member of society, he is quite frankly a man who could be working in a shop near you. This is no reclusive psychopath such as, Lambs' Buffalo Bill. No! Dolarhyde is fleshed out as a person, we get to know him and his motivational problems. Yes, he is also absolutely presented to us the audience in such a way as we are given insight into his damaged mind, but he could be anyone of us.

Although Manhunter focuses on some pretty disturbing forensic work carried out by the FBI to track down killers and shows the long-term effects that cases like this have on profilers, there are no over-the-top performances, and gore is kept to a minimum. The real horror of Manhunter is shown in aftermath sequences, conversations and photographs, but still it's a nightmarish world. Suspense is wrung out slowly by way of the characterisations, and Mann utilises colour to convey a sense of duality, making scenes with our supposed protagonist often feel subliminally disturbing. Because Will has to become the killer, and it's dangerous. He knows so because he has done it before, when capturing a certain Dr. Hannibal Lecktor.
Lecktor, soon to be back as the source material Lecter in the film versions that followed and subsequently played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, is brought to the screen by another great actor, Brian Cox. Like Hopkins, Cox's Lecktor is actually not in the film that much. I think Hopkins had less than 20 minutes screentime, Cox half that. But god it's enough! Cox is chilling, calculating, frightening and intelligent as Lecktor, his character's presence is felt throughout the picture in a number of ways, and Mann was right to really limit his use, to leave us all wanting more yet dreading if that wish might be granted.

In a film full of chillingly filmed sequences, Will goes see the Lecktor to help unlock his mindset. These scenes showcase Mann at his deadliest, a bright white cell filmed off kilter, each frame switch showing either Lecktor or Graham behind bars, they are one. When Lecktor taunts Will about them being alike, Mann understands this and visually brings it out.

Contrast comes within Dolarhyde's living abode, where Mann uses murky colour tones. It's furnished garishly, with mirrors, paintings and a lunar landscape. Yet when Dolarhyde is accompanied by Joan Allen's blind Reba, where he feels he is finally finding acceptance, this house is seen at ease because of the characterisations. Switch to the finale and it's a walled monstrosity matching that of a killer tipped back over the edge. Brilliant stuff. Noonan himself is truly scary, he lived away from the rest of the cast during filming, with Mann's joyous encouragement. The end result is one of the best and most complex serial killer characterisations ever.
Among the rest of the cast, Allen is heart achingly effective without feeling patronising to blind people (I would hope?) and long-time Mann collaborator Dennis Farina is a huge presence as Jack Crawford; Will's friend and boss who coaxes him back into the fray knowing full well that his mind might not make it back with him. Stephen Lang, as weasel journalist Freddy Lounds, also puts in a really strong supporting performance. I actually prefer Mann & Lang's take on the character over that of the one by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2002 film Red Dragon. Although the latter is closer to Harris's conception, there's something more believable about Lang when approached within the confines of Manhunters mid-80s setting. Also his character's demise is handled much better here. A subtle mutilation, filmed with restraint, the cut-away shot makes his death all the more chilling than the close-up visual depiction of Red Dragon. Sometimes less really is more.

But despite Cox, Noonan et all, Manhunter is William Petersen's movie all the way. Nowadays, just about everyone will go straight to CSI when you mention Peterson's name, but this and 1985's To Live and Die in L.A. saw him gave two of the best crime film portrayals of the 1980s. He immerses himself in Will Graham, so much so he wasn't able to shake the character off long after filming had wrapped. There's a scene in a supermarket where Will is explaining to his son about his "dark place", where "the ugliest thoughts in the world" live. It's a stunning sequence of acting and a showcase for Petersen's undoubted talents.
If there's one area of Manhunter which I'm not the biggest fan of, it's the music. It's not awful, but it is odd. Very 80s, naturally, given the date of the film, so I have no qualm with that. Rather, it has a diegetic effect within the story, as if the characters react around the ebb and flow of the score (like they can hear the music too). Given Mann's recent background in television work of the time, that stylistic choice is perhaps not overly surprising but I still question its use. The music does largely reflect the tonal shifts and thematics of the story well, but on a couple of occasions it jars and distances you from the onscreen events. It's a minor issue within an otherwise quality production.

Revisiting Manhunter is always a rewarding experience, if not an overly comfortable piece of cinema. If it's a movie you've never seen before and want to discover the first filmed version of Hannibal the Cannibal then I can recommend the Blu-ray. Oddly, and this is very rarely the case and even more unlikely given his pedigree, I find The Director's Cut both unnecessary and a poor-quality transfer. The Theatrical Cut, which is also included, is crisp and clean, and remains the ultimate version of the visual neo-noir masterpiece that is Manhunter.

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