Part 3 of Mann’s films Revisited
If Thief is Michael Mann formulating his voice and style, 1986’s Manhunter is Mann almost cementing it. While he does stray once or twice later, the formula begins to coalesce here.
It’s impossible to review Manhunter without acknowledging it is a story that has been done multiple times. In my opinion, it has been done better. Bryan Fullers Hannibal told the story perfectly – that being said Mann’s version is still amazing.
The cast is fantastic – Dennis Farina and William Peterson give performances that feel more grounded then subsequent versions and far more removed from the audience, which isn’t a bad thing. Farina doesn’t play Crawford as grand or verbose – his Jack is a blue-collar detective doing what he needs to catch the killer. As subtle as Peterson is, his Will Graham is closer to Hugh Dancy’s – controlled and concise, but eventually overtaken by emotion. Playing a tone not present in other adaptions of Harris until TV. Brian Cox’s Hannibal is far more subdued than Hopkins, which is an almost cartoonish performance (although no less chilling) in comparison, making Cox a standout in the role.
He is a well of humor and even dark comedy, but Mann doesn’t want humor. He is telling a real story about real killers. Tom Noonan turns in a performance that is understated and just plain creepy – even the way he moves is almost alien. It is also far less Shakespearean then later versions of Francis Dolarhyde. Which fits well with Farina and Peterson’s performances.
It would seem Mann is actively keeping you at arm’s length. While Fuller went the opposite direction in his series by being operatic and even melodramatic at times – we are kept from fully sympathizing with Will or Francis in this version. While that might just be Mann’s style, I think it is the goal of this film. We are not supposed to relate to Will or his ability to understand killers. In the same way – we might see intro the soul of Francis but we are never left with an understanding how Francis works internally. This sense of distance is created by very cold shots, even the all-encompassing blues, reds, and yellows that conquer the screen feel uniform.
There is an overall sense of removal. We barely see exactly how gruesome of a killer Francis is – Manhunter is more about the consequences of a high-profile case than it is about the intricacies of murder. It is a film about how the media of the time turns murder into entertainment and how schlock reporting can become the official story. Even Freddy Lounds demise is not played as grand – Noonan plays it small and quiet. In Hannibal, it is the moment Francis becomes the Red Dragon on screen – here Francis and the Dragon are barely different characters. Manhunter is a grounded film, It’s not about making the ugly or grotesque beautiful and it’s not about killers with a grand vision.
The real heart comes from Joan Allen – the moment she enters a lightness not present in the rest of the movie permeates the screen. It’s only when Allen arrives the dichotomy of Francis and Dragon is actually noticeable. The problem is we get barely enough understanding of The Dragon to care. Mann is explaining what creates a killer. Where Fuller created a mythic vision of these characters – Mann makes them small yet complex and real. You’d never meet Richard Armitage’s Dolarhyde, but Noonan’s is almost too… real.
Mann’s use of music – as often said about him – is perfect. Most of the soundtrack is very small and understated not unlike the film. It’s songs like “Strong As I Am” and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” which are both used perfectly that add crucial flavoring to the movie. The pulsing nature of “Graham’s theme” and the music in the opening titles create a pulsing disconnect.
Manhunter is Manns third film and it in some ways it remains timeless because of this fact. The attention to detail Mann brings his visual acuity create an unnerving film that feels ahead of itself despite being almost perfect.