Anchor Bay // 1986 // 121 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // August 21st, 2001
If one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is.
Before Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal there was Director Michael Mann's 1986 film, Manhunter. Based on the novel "Red Dragon" by Thomas Harris, this film marked the cinematic debut of everyone's favorite serial murderer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. For its DVD release, Anchor Bay offered two choices: one version is the movie only disc with a THX-certified transfer and some well constructed if brief supplements, while the other is a Limited Edition two-disc set that contains an extended cut of the film. Which version, if either, is worth your hard-earned cash? Continue on and I will attempt to make everything clear.
Special Agent Will Graham (William C. Peterson -- To Live and Die in L.A., "C.S.I.") has a special gift that many might consider to be a horrible curse. Graham has the ability to get inside the head of some of this countries most notorious and twisted killers. This ability allows him to think as these killers think, helping to predict their next move thus preventing them from killing again and speeding their capture. It is this same gift that nearly got Graham killed when he discovered the killer known as Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecktor (Brian Cox -- Rushmore, Braveheart). Still recovering from the wounds left to his mind from the Lecktor case, Graham is called into action by his old friend at the Bureau, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina -- Midnight Run, Snatch). Seems there is a killer, dubbed "The Tooth Fairy" by the press, randomly murdering entire families. Crawford is convinced Graham is the only person to help find this man before he strikes again with the next full moon.
In order for Graham to get his head truly in the game he decides to visit his old nemesis, Hannibal Lecktor. With Lecktor the operative word is indeed game. Knowing that Graham still carries the psychological scars from their previous encounter ups the ante for Lecktor and puts all that Graham holds dear into play. Now with his life literally on the line, Will Graham has to contend with a foe who is aware of his presence and is very much looking forward to a challenge. Graham is facing a ticking clock. He has one madman looking to kill again and one madman behind bars doing everything he can to help. Will Graham be able to stop this killer who thinks he is becoming something else -- something beautiful -- and will he be able to solve Lecktor's riddles to save his own life and that of his loved ones? Knowing the last time he stopped Lecktor it nearly cost him his life and his sanity, will Graham go that extra step, perhaps losing his very soul?
From the moody and evocative cinematography of Dante Spinotti (Wonder Boys, The Quick and the Dead), to the stark production design of Mel Bourne (The Fisher King, Zelig), everything about Manhunter screams style. Yet upon closer examination, it is obvious there is indeed steel beneath its showy exterior. Manhunter is a tightly constructed, well directed little thriller that manages to entertain even when you know exactly where it is headed. To that end a lot of the credit goes to screenwriter/director Michael Mann of "Miami Vice" and The Insider fame. This was Mann's third feature film after spending many years in television, and he shows a good sense of economy in getting in, making his point, and getting out. Unlike the glory days of "Miami Vice" when the big news was a different haircut for Don Johnson and a shift to an earth tone palette for the trend setting series, Manhunter proves there can be steak in the middle of all that sizzle. Mann has a very good handle on his characters, their motivations, and their situations. He allows the tension to build quietly and simply. Mann also throws in enough curves to make his killer more than just your run-of-the-mill nutcase. By humanizing "The Tooth Fairy" and showing his ability to love, Mann makes his actions all the more terrible. Its impressive filmmaking all around with few of the more serious flourishes that would flaw a great deal of his later work.
Many comparisons have been made over the years to Silence of the Lambs, some of which are fair and many that are not. Silence of the Lambs certainly had the benefit of having big Hollywood stars, but in many ways Manhunter is a more intellectual and indeed a more satisfying film. It moves with a more deliberate pace and features performances that have a little more depth. It also allows its greatest strength to permeate the proceedings rather than dominate them. I am, of course, speaking of Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, for some strange reason here spelled Lecktor. In musical terms, Hopkins' turn as the good doctor in the later two films is operatic in scale, while Brian Cox's performance is more of a haunting sonata that is always nagging at the back of one's consciousness. Certainly, Silence of the Lambs is a very good film, but for me it simply runs out of steam the moment Lecter makes his brutal escape. I find it much more tension filled to have a personality with so much force pulling the strings while caged. To have such a force running amok in the world at large trivializes the very things that make him a fascinating character. For that end, Cox as Lecktor is very much the caged and cunning animal, manipulating at every turn, but not so brilliant that he in turn is not manipulated himself. His Lecktor is cold, charming and calculating...but very much insane. It is in this quiet, arrogant insanity that Cox allows his version to live and breathe. Even though he has precious little screen time, his presence hangs over the entire film like a mist.
To reverse a dramatic truism, for every good villain there needs to be an equally good hero. In this case, William C. Peterson plays the hero with brooding intensity. A scarred man who is tortured by his gift to get into the minds of our most repugnant citizens, Peterson certainly puts forward a brave face. However, truth be told, he is the movie's weak link. Too much the sullen pretty boy, Peterson gives a serviceable performance but lacks the haunted quality to make the character really work. Watching the movie again, I was struck by how much better someone like Lance Henriksen would have been. In Chris Carter's late, lamented Millennium series, Henriksen's Frank Black shares many character traits with Peterson's Will Graham, but with the former portrayal a lived-in, world weary spirit is present. If this attitude had been present in Manhunter, it would have been consistent with the tone of the rest of the film, and would have made it a great film, rather than the good movie that it is.
At the end of our little love triangle is Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde, AKA Red Dragon, AKA The Tooth Fairy. With Noonan, we get a portrayal that is head and shoulders above the serial-killer-of-the-week that is standard fare in most Hollywood thrillers. There is a fierce intelligence at work in Noonan's performance that stands in direct contrast to Ted Levine's Jame Gumb in Silence of the Lambs. Rather than the whining, brutal fury of Gumb who is trying to cover himself up with the skins of others, Dollarhyde is seeking to change his very being and become something different. Both killers look to Lecktor/Lector as a mentor and for spiritual guidance. Yet, both receive different things from the good doctor. Personally, I find the idea of Lecktor handing Dollarhyde a worthy adversary while also getting his revenge on Graham and his family the creepier plot device of the two films. With all that said, it remains the performers' job to bring these things to life, and Noonan ends up being one of the most memorable of all screen villains. First off, there is the sheer mass of the man. To walk with such height, it is easy to see how Dollarhyde can think he is above all of humanity. Noonan balances that with a childlike nature that makes him very scary. Dollarhyde wants to a glorious, shining being, but he wants to be able to share his beauty with each of his chosen families in his chosen theater. The complexity of his character is helped in no small part when, in an unexpected turn, the film defies convention and switches gears for its final third and shows us the life and workplace romance of our killer. It is here that Noonan is truly able to flesh his performance out and give us an understanding of his character. It is also this final act that allows us to enjoy an early performance by Joan Allen (Nixon, The Ice Storm) as Reba. Reba is everything we don't expect in a movie -- an intelligent, sexually confident woman who just happens to be blind. Allen has rarely been this sensual onscreen, and she moves with a grace that is impossible not to notice. To offer her affections to a man who she simply thinks is "nice" must offer some sort of hope that there is something within Dollarhyde that was once normal and human. Showing Dollarhyde as capable, in whatever limited fashion, of the most basic of human emotions makes the horror of his other life darkly real. Reba's blindness also stands in direct contrast to Dollarhyde's need to be seen by his victims, yet it is a contrast that Mann does not dwell upon or beat his audience over the head with. It is merely another layer in a simple, complex, and highly engrossing film.
As noted, this indeed a two-disc, limited edition set and I'm going to discuss the second disc in the next section. As for the first disc, it is available as the stand-alone single disc edition. It features a gorgeous transfer that maintains the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It is anamorphically enhanced with an image that possesses great detail and clarity. While there is a certain degree of grain inherent to the source material, what you will notice instead are colors that are life like and rich. The transfer also features blacks and shadows that pop off the screen, giving everything a true film look. Shimmer and edge enhancement are held to a bare minimum, and overall this is as good as the film has probably ever looked.
On the aural end of things, Anchor Bay has remixed the theatrical version and given us an effective 5.1 Dolby Surround mix. Far from being a system "showoff" mix, it presents the film in a fashion that allows the sound the live and breathe. Surround channels are somewhat limited but present, and the LFE rarely rumbles, but Manhunter is not that kind of movie. It is a film of moods and atmosphere, and all of that is thankfully present. Dialogue is well mixed and full sounding, while the film's ubiquitous '80s style soundtrack comes through clearly.
There are a couple of worthwhile, if short features present on the disc. First up is a featurette called The Manhunter Look, a conversation with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, and it is pretty much what it sounds like. Second is Inside Manhunter with William Peterson, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, and Tom Noonan. All look back at the movie fondly and all seem to have enjoyed making it. Director Michael Mann is conspicuous in his absence from both shorts and it's a pity. While I believe he turned in a commentary track for his earlier film, Thief, I don't think he has gotten behind the microphone to talk about one of his films since. He may not rank with Woody Allen or David Lynch for his disdain of home video, but he is sure in that second tier. I know everyone cannot approach the level of a Kevin Smith, but wouldn't it be nice if he had even agreed to talk about Manhunter just a little bit? The movie's theatrical trailer and some talent bios close out the first disc.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the insert included with the limited edition set. Done as a case folder, it comes wrapped up in a mini-manila envelope and carries with it all kinds of goodies as well as notes scribbled on the inside by Will Graham. It's a different and pretty cool addition to the set.
First things first, those 1980s fashions and Dennis Farina's hairstyle. Ugh. 'Nuff said.
As for the second cut of the film presented here on this limited edition disc...remember all the nice things I said about the transfer for the theatrical cut of the movie? Forget about it. To say the image is soft is to say Lucille Ball didn't have any gauze over the camera for her close-ups in the film version of Mame. The image is so soft and fuzzy it would have problems passing the letter reading part of a driving exam. On top of that, the excellent 5.1 option on the original cut of the movie is reduced to a serviceable 2.0 Surround mix. All this for a lousy three minutes of character exposition? The least Michael Mann could have done is record a commentary track for the longer edition of the film. Some deleted footage could have been included and sure would have been nice. Maybe today's Super-Duper Ultimate Editions are spoiling us all, but there is really not a lot here to justify the extra expense. On its own, the extended version has about as many features as the average MGM disc. At least Anchor Bay saw fit to include close captioning for a change. That's worth a few extra dollars. Isn't it?
If you are a fan of Thomas Harris' novel or of the later films, Manhunter is a vital piece of the puzzle and a must see. Over the years it has developed a cult following, and I can't imagine any fan of the movie being disappointed with the way the disc turned out. When thinking about a purchase of Manhunter, the single disc may be a little light on the features, but it looks and sounds great. As for the second disc, I'm still trying to find glasses that will make the image look sharper. The only people who I can think would want to own the limited edition set (of which I see dozens at my local Best Buy), are DVD completists. Everyone else, stick with the single disc and you will indeed go home happy.
Manhunter is acquitted to go out into the night and hunt down those that would terrorize our dreams. Anchor Bay is thanked for half a great job and tossed on their ear for the lackluster second half. Court dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2001 Harold Gervais; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* The Manhunter Look -- a conversation with Cinematographer Dante Spinotti
* Inside Manhunter -- with Stars William Peterson, Joan Allen, Brian Cox and Tom Noonan
* Theatrical Trailer
* Talent Bios