Directed by: Michael Mann.
Written by: Michael Mann based on the novel by Thomas Harris.
Starring: William Petersen (Will Graham), Kim Greist (Molly Graham), Joan Allen (Reba McClane), Brian Cox (Dr. Hannibal Lecktor), Dennis Farina (Jack Crawford), Tom Noonan (Francis Dollarhyde), Stephen Lang (Freddy Lounds), David Seaman (Kevin Graham), Benjamin Hendrickson (Dr. Frederick Chilton), Michael Talbott (Geehan), Dan Butler (Jimmy Price), Michele Shay (Beverly Katz), Robin Moseley (Sarah), Paul Perri (Dr. Sidney Bloom).
Manhunter wasn’t a hit back in 1986 – but its shadow looms large over the genre that it helped to create. Directors on TV shows like CSI, Criminal Minds and all their copycats are basically copying what Mann did in this film – and what, while they all have heroes like Manhunter’s Will Graham – Thomas Harris’ scarred detective from the first “Hannibal Lecter” book, and the Cannibal’s true nemesis. That it wasn’t much of a hit doesn’t surprise me – this is a morose film from the start, where all of the characters are damaged, bitter, angry, mentally disturbed loners. They share a connection – although they all wish they didn’t. Manhunter isn’t fun like its quasi-sequel The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was – but darker and more disturbing. You don’t walk away from it unscarred – which is probably why audiences stayed away in 1986, and yet why it has been in a classic in the decades since.
The movie opens with a shot, not unlike the opening of John Carpenter’s Halloween – as a camera from the POV of a killer enters a dark, suburban house, and goes up the stairs to find a couple sleeping in their bed. Mann cuts the tracking shot – he doesn’t show us the carnage that follows (something we will get flashes of through various crime scene visits and photos). The first shot puts us into the POV of Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) – a serial killer who slaughters whole families, and a character we won’t properly meet until hour two. It also thrusts us into the POV of Graham (William Peterson) – who was once an FBI Agent, whose gift/curse was to be able to get into the mind of the killer to see and feel what he sees and feels (that has become a tired cliché in 2015 – it wasn’t 29 years ago). Graham’s old boss, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) coaxes Graham out of retirement. This killer – who they have nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy” works on a lunar cycle. They have a few weeks before he kills family #3 – and no way to track him. Graham doesn’t want to come out of retirement – but, of course, he does.
The other major character is Hannibal Lector himself – here played by Brian Cox. Lector only has a few scenes in the movie – but his presence hangs over every frame (much more than it did in Brent Ratner’s remake, Red Dragon, which was made to cash in on Lector’s popularity – especially as played by Anthony Hopkins). Any actor playing Lector now has to contend with Hopkins’ brilliant, creepy, iconic performance in The Silence of the Lambs (less so in Hannibal or Red Dragon), but Cox did his five years before Hopkins, so he was free to have his own interpretation. Much like the movie itself, Cox’s Lector is colder, harsher, crueler more morose than Hopkins. He clearly hates Graham – who comes to see him in an early scene. Lector doesn’t toy with Graham they way Hopkins’ Lector did with Clarice Starling. He tries to unnerve him – scare him – by pointing out how similar the two of them are. But Graham already knows this. Graham was scarred by Lecter when he arrested him – when Lecter tried to gut him to get away – but his psychological scars go deeper. Although he’s married, and trying to be a father, he has become a shell of a man. Gene Siskel described Peterson’s brilliant work here as a “non-performance” – and that just about gets it right. Graham is no longer a real person – just a shell of one. The same can be said of Brian Cox’s Hannibal and Tom Noonan’s utterly creepy Dollarhyde. They are all too similar to each other.
When he made Manhunter, Mann had one of the biggest hits on TV – with Miami Vice. Audiences expected the glossly entertainment of that show were surely disappointed. The movie certainly does have some of the trappings of Miami Vice – the expensive, but (now) horribly dated 1980s suit and haircuts, the techno pop score by The Reds. But it’s stripped down to its core essentials – to find the disturbing core of the genre. That is why Manhunter has become a classic.