Manhunter (1986)


*. Michael Mann. Now here’s a filmmaker I really don’t get. Or rather, I’m just not sure why so many people take him seriously. He’s made some good movies, but to rank him up with the best filmmakers of his generation is ridiculous.
*. He came to fame as the creative force behind Miami Voice, a television cop show that was kind of big in the day, but which nobody watches or even references any more. After that he went on to do a bunch of what I think are overrated movies, including Thief (a slightly above average heist film) and Heat (a slightly above average cops-and-robbers movie). Colour me unimpressed.
*. It’s not that Mann doesn’t have a sense of style, it’s that his sense of style is so limited, and so unsuited to this material. Really, if he wanted to change the story and characters as much as he does here, why did he even bother with Thomas Harris’s book?
*. What is Mann’s style? In a nutshell: ’80s MTV. It’s the Miami Vice house style. Contemporary music (read: synth pop), all of which has dated badly, will play throughout entire sequences, turning them into music videos. Colour schemes will be overstated and improbable. Characters will look good and act cool. And the homes! The homes will be art deco palaces, temples of neo-modernism.


*. I mean, get a load of that suburban bedroom that’s turned into a blood bath. Have you ever been in a real bedroom that white? Or what about a psychiatric prison that’s really an art museum (the High Museum, in Atlanta), where even the bars in the cells — nay, even the staplers on the director’s desk! — are white.
*. The all-white prison isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s interesting how both this film and The Silence of the Lambs opt for entirely unrealistic prison settings to keep Lecter/Lecktor in: this one all gleaming antiseptic white, in Silence of the Lambs a dripping Victorian dungeon.
*. What is a problem are the other sets, like the aforementioned bedroom. Or Francis Dollarhyde’s house. In the novel his house is an old heap that used to be owned by his grandmother (which, given that he’s a Norman Bates type, means something). Here it’s like something out of Architectural Digest. And it just doesn’t suit his introverted character. Would a serial killer who likes getting off to home movies want to live in a glass house?
*. I’m not a fan of Harris’s novel, but it did try and make some sense out of Dollarhyde. Mann doesn’t even try.


*. The backstory of Dollarhyde’s upbringing (his name is spelled with one “l” in the novel; Kim Newman thinks the switch was a nod to the money-mad spirit of the ’80s) is taken out in the film, and that’s fair enough. But for some reason he’s also prettied up. His facial disfigurement is reduced to a repaired hair lip and there is no explanation of his use of the exaggerated false teeth. His huge dragon tattoo was apparently included in some scenes but then Mann took that out as well because it seemed out of place and over-the-top. So there’s really no explanation of what the Red Dragon moniker means to him, or what he feels he is on the way to “becoming.”
*. It’s interesting that Mann tries to give us a sympathetic serial killer, but there’s just not enough here for us to get a feel for who Dollarhyde is or what’s driving him.
*. That said, Tom Noonan is excellent. He’s a dangerous misfit, but not a grotesque caricature.
*. Mann wanted to call the movie Red Dragon, after the novel, but De Laurentiis overruled him, thinking that title might confuse audiences into thinking it was a kung-fu movie (or in some way connected to his previous year’s bomb, The Last Dragon). I’m not sure that thinking was wrong. Brian Cox, nevertheless, thought the title Manhunter “cheesy.” I wonder if Cox saw the way it’s splashed on the screen in a neon green glow like they’re announcing the Bride of Re-Animator. Now that’s cheesy.
*. A low budget film, but that’s no excuse. It had a budget of $15 million and only did box office of $8 million. Five years later, Silence of the Lambs had a comparable budget of $19 million and did $272 million box office.


*. I mentioned the “cool” acting already. William Petersen is hamstrung by this. I think he’s too busy trying to look cool to do much in the way of acting. In the event, he would go on to do more work in this vein on TV.
*. I also mentioned the dated soundtrack. But it’s not just that the ’80s sound is no longer popular. The music here was criticized by many contemporary reviewers. I find it wretched, distracting, and inappropriate. And how does the music reflect any of the action, or the characters? We know Dollarhyde doesn’t listen to such shit. He’s into Iron Butterfly.
*. The conclusion is very different from the book, and is even more stupid. Instead of simply shooting Dollarhyde through the window, Graham crashes through it. In real life he would have bounced off the glass and hurt himself.
*. Closing on a freeze frame of man, woman and child on the beach, looking out to sea? Really? How uninspired.
*. They probably should have left Joan Allen’s blind Reba out of the film. They didn’t have enough time to develop her relationship with Dollarhyde. Here everything seems rushed (she’s a blind woman who accepts a ride home from a man she’s never met, who says only that he wants to take her someplace special?).
*. Hannibal Lecktor (as he is here known). In jail for killing . . . college girls? How disappointing.
*. Brian Cox is actually very good (the accent works almost as nicely as Hopkins’s Katharine Hepburn imitation), but there’s a massive problem with the part. It’s completely unnecessary.
*. In the book there’s something made of the fact that Lecter gets Graham’s home address to Francis. Here that information is pointless. And aside from that there’s no reason for Graham to visit him at all. In Silence of the Lambs he helps Starling (albeit sometimes indirectly), providing her with insights she can use. Cox has nothing at all to do. He’s irrelevant. You just can’t leave an actor all alone like that.
*. I don’t think Lecktor has much that’s interesting to say either. He’s not operating on another intellectual plane. He’s just a brainy psycho who likes needling the good guys. His remarks on God as enjoying his destructive work seem banal to me.
*. It’s more a police procedural than a thriller, and I don’t find any of it scary or thrilling. In fact, there’s very little real violence. We see the aftermath of Dollarhyde’s work, but we never see him in action (aside from that marvellously effective pre-credit sequence). Instead the focus is on the crime solving. Dollarhyde isn’t even introduced until halfway through the picture and Lecktor only has three scenes in total.
*. This is a decent flick, and it it’s one of those movies that probably deserved more attention and respect than it got when it was released. However, it has since benefited from a spring of critical overcompensation, with many commentators making it out to be much better than it is. One mainly sees in it today cues for what came after: the rise of CSI-style crimefighting and, of course, the franchising of Hannibal Lecter.


5 thoughts on “Manhunter (1986)

  1. Over-The-Shoulder

    “In jail for killing . . . college girls?” This was something I was going to mention, but decided against – it is very disappointing, as that is definitely not who Dr Lecter is. He’s seems far too intellectual for that sort of thing.


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