1986's MANHUNTER is a curiously obscure movie, despite it being an adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel The Red Dragon and being directed by Michael Mann. If you are familiar with either talent's work you might find this collaboration a bit unlikely, and indeed Mann's Miami Vice like handling of the story that would launch more films (including SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) and a television series often comes off as a hyper stylized relic of the 1980s, but nonetheless an involving and fascinating few hours.
William Petersen, currently well known to audiences of CSI, plays Will Graham, a Federal agent forced into retirement after a mental breakdown. Graham was brutally attacked by one Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) before apprehending him. When his old FBI boss Jack (Dennis Farina) shows up seeking his help to catch another serial murderer - a sickie known as "The Tooth Fairy" as he leaves bite marks on his victims - he's far from interested or tempted. But a man who delves into the minds of his adversaries isn't so easily out of the game. Once a profiler....
MANHUNTER follows Graham at bloody crime scenes, talking aloud, bit by bit trying to recreate the steps of the crime. No detail is too small. There are visits to Lecktor's cell, the expected clever wordplay of the insane criminal who is of course smarter than everyone else. Cox is arguably the best actor to have played this character, with apologies to Sir Anthony Hopkins. Cox's entirely natural, confident, and non-hammy performance is all the more menacing because he is so laid back, so cunning without being theatrical. He seems to be unconcerned with notions of good and evil. When Graham seeks his assistance in tracking the Tooth Fairy, he quickly recalls why he retired. Having Lecktor in one's head is the blackest of nights, indeed. A condition that alienated Graham from his young son and wife for a lengthy stretch.
Mann frames the story moodily, often bathing entire rooms (and characters) in in a single color or composing long shots that resemble paintings. Lots of experimentation with focus and editing. He is especially fond of two shots from a distance. It may apt, as we are usually kept at more than arm's length from the characters, even though Mann attempts to make them human and emotional. Lecktor is given some interesting bits of business, such as his posture during a phone call with Graham; he lies on his back with his feet up on the wall as if he were a teenage girl chatting with a friend about cute guys. I would've liked more scenes with him.
MANHUNTER has become something of a cult favorite, with its gritty yet meticulously composed style in a very distinctive '80s sort of way. Another such film would be TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., also starring Petersen. MANHUNTER is a mostly impressive motion picture, with good performances, especially by Tom Noonan as the killer and an early role for Joan Allen as a blind photography lab worker with whom he falls in love. Their scene with a tranquilized tiger is quite interesting and revealing as it invokes William Blake poetry. Kim Greist, as Graham's wife Molly does not fare nearly as well, given little to do and appearing as if reading her lines off cue cards.
The use of music in MANHUNTER is another debit, not at all a "suture into the diagetic world" as it's been described. The Reds' songs are prototypical '80s cheese, undermining the film's mood at every turn. One tune is also awkwardly timed and unintentionally funny during the final minutes. As for Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" use during the climax - it's a suitably disturbing tune but also just doesn't quite work. I would also have not had someone jump through a window during that scene, but that's just me.