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Michael Mann's Manhunter film analysis
Image: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group


Manhunter a Terrifying and Disturbing Examination of Voyeurism

Will Graham Has The Mind Of A Psychopath – Thank God He’s On The Right Side Of The Law

Hannibal Lecter’s legacy of evil begins with Manhunter.

Manhunter is adapted from the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, the book which introduced the world to the serial killer known as Hannibal Lecter. It came five years before Harris’s other novel was adapted to the screen (The Silence of the Lambs), and 27 years before the NBC hit crime drama, Hannibal. In between, the role of Dr. Hannibal has been reprised several more times, including Hannibal in 2001 and in the second adaptation of Red Dragon made in 2002 (under the original title). And in late 2006, the novel Hannibal Rising was adapted into the film of the same name, which explained Lecter’s development into a serial killer. Of all these adaptations, Manhunter has become the cult favorite.

This intelligent psychological portrayal of a serial killer and the FBI investigator is both complex and ingenious. The main focus here is entirely on FBI forensics expert Will Graham (William Petersen), and his ability to think like the killers he tracks down. Graham, who is blessed and cursed by an ability to apprehend the workings of the criminal mastermind through psychic empathy, is pulled out of retirement to track down a serial killer, dubbed the ‘Tooth Fairy’. Fascinated by William Blake’s painting Red Dragon, the killer works on a lunar cycle, committing his crimes under the full moon. What makes Michael Mann’s vision of Harris’ novel so incredibly good is that the plot is told from opposite views, based on Graham’s principal role. Although the killer does not appear until midway through the movie, his slant is experienced through Graham’s peerless investigation, leaving us with a disturbing voyeuristic look into the mind of both the criminal and the hunter chasing his prey. Graham is damaged goods thanks to a past encounter with sociopath Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), whose ingenuity and provocative manner have left him psychologically scarred. Unfortunately for Graham, the clock is ticking and the next full moon is closing in. In order to dive deeper into the Tooth Fairy’s mentality, his boss Jack (Dennis Farina) sends Graham to visit Lecktor for some double-edged advice. To their surprise, Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy have formed a deadly alliance.

Manhunter movie
Image: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

Writer/director Michael Mann’s measured approach pays off in spades. Manhunter is a clever race-against-time flick, in which the ticking of the clock is measured in Will’s attempt to retain his own sanity as he forces himself to think more and more like his quarry. Mann lays on the style thick with contrasting color schemes to the seemingly contrary actions of his central characters, and cinematographer Dante Spinotti employs specific colors to emphasize emotional and jointed parallels. Mann and Spinotti deftly employ color to heighten mood resulting in creating tension and uncertainty in the unlikeliest of settings. Graham is mostly shot in minimalist hues of blues and blacks contrasting sharply with the Lector’s clinical white prison surrounding – which itself parallels his outwardly false charm but also contradicts his inward desires. The use of blue on Graham has ironic overtones, as the lunar patterns influence Dollarhyde’s activities. Notice how his wife Molly appears lit in the moonlight, foreshadowing what is to later come. Mann explores all angles here, both visually and emotionally. Using light and shadow to enhance an atmosphere of horror and working with a couple of highly stylized set pieces, the director’s taste for structural beauty is on full display. Shades of green, purple, violet, and mauve appear throughout the film and these colors trigger Graham’s brief mental breakdowns; meanwhile, Graham also appears intimidated by the mental hospital’s white walls and those surrounding Hannibal’s jail. The Tooth Fairy’s home is decorated with brights reds and neon greens and the deliberately disorientating climax features mirrors, reflections, painting, and lunar landscapes, all aligned with the killer’s master plan and psychological trauma.

manhunter bluray
Image: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

The score, with music by The Reds and Michael Rubini along with the pulsating soundtrack of pre-existing music from bands such as Red 7, Shriekback, and Iron Butterfly, might seem dated, but in a strange way the music helps elevate the mood. Meanwhile, throughout the film, Mann also makes a deliberate choice to snip out a couple of frames, so that the shots flicker. While these choices won’t please most viewers, they do give the film its own unique sensibility. The movie’s emotional high point features Joan Allen as a physically vulnerable but emotionally strong blind woman named Reba, visiting an anesthetized tiger (perhaps symbolically used as a substitute for a dragon). As Reba strokes the animal and puts her head up against his body to hear his heartbeat, Dollarhyde (Tooth Fairy) watches from a distance imagining her touching him. Noonan’s Tooth Fairy is insane of course, but he wasn’t born a monster but made into one as told to us by Graham at one point. Allen is fantastic in the role, playing an assertive female character in a time when they were rarely seen on the big screen. Reba is the only person who can get close to Dollarhyde, and for a brief time, she actually humanizes the man. Dollarhyde finds brief comfort with Reba, associating her with the female clothed by the sun in William Blake’s painting. When Dollarhyde later becomes the victim of his insecurities and imagination, he attempts to sacrifice Reba while positioned over her body in the same way that Blake’s dragon dominates the woman in his painting. Another memorable scene features a brief shot of the sleazy reporter Lounds thundering down a narrow hallway while strapped to a wheelchair lit on fire – as if he spat out of a dragon’s mouth. In addition – the breathtaking chill of Lecktor’s few scenes is enough to qualify Manhunter as a superior film to Silence of the Lambs. Cox’s Hannibal is a masterclass in restraint. His sociopathic killer is much less operatic than Jonathan Demme’s take and Brian Cox’s brilliant portrayal is not only diametrically opposed to Hopkins’s performance, but superior in every way. His Hannibal is far more cunning and terrifying than the campy portrayal in Lambs. And what about the hidden plot…

Image: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

In Manhunter, everyone inhabits some kind of prison: Graham’s visit with Lecktor is brilliantly framed, showing in detail the similarity and depth between the two men. There is never any indication that Lecktor will escape here, but regardless of the fact that he is behind bars, Lecktor is just as dangerous if not more, only because he is seen as less of a threat to commit a crime. But Lecktor’s mind games are more central to the plot than one would assume. In the scenes where Will Graham is interviewing Lecktor in his cell, the director took great care to set up the shots so that the position of the bars remains in the same place when the point of view switches. Graham himself is left to communicate with Hannibal in his own cell. The two men are more alike than Graham would like to admit. Cox, who has far less screen time than Anthony Hopkins had in Silence of the Lambs, is just as riveting. Lecktor, of course, has no interest in assisting the F.B.I. in tracking down the Red Dragon. He, in fact, has conceived his own little master plan.

If only in a few scenes, the suspense is nevertheless excruciating whenever Hannibal appears, making us want to see more of him. Hannibal remains a brooding presence throughout the course of the film, even when offscreen, leaving the minds of viewers scrambling to try to figure out his grand scheme. The scenes in the F.B.I. department with the law enforcers analyzing the documents and clues help elevate the race-against-time suspense while also showing the limitations – and for the time – state of the art technology – that the FBI had at its disposal. Even the simple scenes of Graham moving through the crime scene and talking into his tape recorder are fascinating.

manhunter fire-scene
Image: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

William Petersen’s performance as the troubled agent is central to the film, and while his character may be less memorable than Hannibal and the Tooth Fairy, he is no less complex. Graham is an archetypal Mann protagonist, and the actor offers a commanding performance crafting a multi-faceted character. The Tooth Fairy is also given much more depth than that typically afforded to serial killers. Tom Noonan makes him unhinged, but at the same time, he can come across as retaining flashes of humanity. But he’s altogether discomfiting to watch, especially in his gentle scenes when his character shows a great deal of pain. The cast overall is stunning – even supporting roles, such as Dennis Farina’s Jack and Stephen Lang’s revolting tabloid journalist Lounds carry weight.

Like The Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter isn’t really about the notorious cannibal – it’s about the unscrupulous psychological effects he has on those who surround him, and how his prowess continues to haunt Graham. Silence Of The Lambs might have gone on to be the film that put Lecktor on the map, but this slick and glossy thriller is every bit as compelling. Manhunter’s last image shows Graham looking at the ocean. It parallels the opening scene where Crawford takes him away from his safe haven. The end can leave us believing that Graham has finally broken free from his traumatic past and achieved a victory allowing him to leave a line of work that nearly destroyed him. Graham removes Dollarhyde from his psyche, but he hasn’t overcome all his dragons. The ocean in front of him confines him just as much as those bars imprison Hannibal. There is much left to do before Graham is free…

– Ricky D

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Written By

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and Tilt Magazine. Host of the Sordid Cinema Podcast and NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as Sound On Sight. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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