MGM // 1986 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // October 12th, 2007
Enter the mind of a serial killer...you may never come back.
A killer is on the loose, and he's one of the most elusive ever. After a second family is murdered in their sleep, FBI chief Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina, Snatch) sees no other solution. He must call on "retired" profiler and agent Will Graham (William Peterson, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) to return to the job, recover the "mindset," and help track down the fiend. At first, he refuses, but as time works on his resolve, Graham agrees. He goes to see his most famous arrest -- the noted psychiatrist, and human flesh connoisseur Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox, X2).
In the meantime, local law enforcement begins looking for someone they've dubbed The Tooth Fairy. They don't know it, but their man is mild-mannered photo lab employee Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan, The Monster Squad). Obsessed with "becoming" like God, this deranged maniac still manages a bit of normalcy -- even dating blind coworker Reba McClane (Joan Allen, Nixon). But when tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang, Gods and Generals) gets to close to the truth, he sets in motion a series of events that lead Graham right back into harm's way. It's the price one pays when they're a Manhunter.
This review will leave it for others to decide this film's ultimate effectiveness -- both as a thriller and as part of the now-mainstream Hannibal Lecter myth. Retired Judges Harold Gervais and Dan Mancini have done a terrific job of putting the actual movies into context. But history is also important, and it's necessary to note that Manhunter was only Michael Mann's third feature film. It arrived after the critical drubbing over his disastrous war-based genre effort The Keep. That visually impressive but narratively lax work was taken away from the filmmaker by the studio and edited mercilessly. Instead of a meaningful meditation on supernatural evil amid real-world wickedness (the story centered on Nazis discovering a monster in an Eastern European fortress), an F/X heavy sci-fi spectacle was forged. Audiences failed to respond, and all the goodwill Mann built up after his dynamic debut, Thief, seemed completely frittered away. Luckily he had another idea up his sleeve. Returning to TV (where he had initially found success), he merged then-popular MTV stylizing with the cultural fascination of South Florida's sun and "snow" lifestyle (Scarface had just hit the year before) to create 1984's Miami Vice. Employing extreme art design, music-video filming techniques, and an aura of idealized '80s cool, the show was an instant phenomenon. Mann quickly grabbed his newfound commercial cachet to bring his next project to fruition -- a take on Thomas Harris's serial killer novel Red Dragon.
It's hard to remember a time when the author wasn't a literary lynchpin, but the former crime journalist didn't start out as a supporter of FBI profiling. His first book, Black Sunday, was inspired by the 1972 terrorist attack on the Munich Olympics. It told the tale of a Goodyear blimp, loaded with explosives, aimed at a sell-out crowd attending the Super Bowl. It took him six more years to take the police procedural (something he knew quite a bit about) and fuse it with the then-emerging investigative technique of mapping out a murderer's personality. Inspired by such classic bad men as Ed Gein, Richard Speck, and John Wayne Gacy, Harris concocted a tripwire three-way cat-and-mouse between a damaged agent (Will Graham), his former psychotic prey (Dr. Hannibal Lecter), and the new family killer called The Tooth Fairy (Francis Dollarhyde). What was most novel in this kind of whodunit was not the mystery of the criminal's identity. It was usually known by the end of the first few chapters. No, what Harris -- and subsequently Manhunter -- brought to the table was the process, how the police got from the crime scene to those responsible and all the steps in between. It would be something he'd explore even further in his best-selling follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs.
It's clear that Mann felt a kinship with the novel, and when you consider his previous oeuvre (Thief focused on the process of high-tech robbery as well), it appeared like a match made in heaven. It was -- until Jonathan Demme came along and took the material into Oscar territory. What Manhunter has over Silence, however, is novelty. This was the first movie that felt this way, that played this way, that used faxes and airplane uplinks, that used CSI-style lab work and other technological riffs to bring detective work right up and into the 21st century. There was no quid pro quo, very little of the back-and-forth that would underline Clarice Starling's relationship to Lecter. Graham and his quarry do speak, but it's more combative, a game of one-upmanship vs. a ruse to solve a crime. Manhunter also has a more compelling creep. Francis Dollarhyde is almost the star here. He gets as much screen time as Graham, and we see his social life, his work environment, and the underlying lunacy that leads to his lust for murder. Tom Noonan is terrific in the role, otherworldly without being too weird, sinister without sliding into ridiculousness. When he puts in those fake teeth, and dons his half-stocking head gear, he is evil personified. All Buffalo Bill has is a suit of skin.
Obviously, in today's cell-phone and PDA paradigm, where information is instantly accessible and everyone is connected, something like Manhunter seems dated. Interestingly enough, as the Lecter series progressed, filmmakers went backwards (remaking this movie and introducing the leaden prequel Hannibal Rising) instead of pursuing the character into the new millennium. As a matter of fact, when viewed against the other installments in the franchise, Manhunter is the one that remains iconic. It uses its vibrant color palette to undermine the dread, and tries to capture the real workings of a serial killer's mind (especially in scenes where Graham walks the house and "recreates" the crimes). It's not focused on personality, but protocol. More importantly, it made Mann into a filmmaker to be reckoned with. Thanks to the success of Silences of the Lambs, this movie got a second life on home video. It helped push the filmmaker into the forefront of motion-picture artistry, and was instrumental in getting his next project, The Last of the Mohicans, greenlit. While the stars more or less drifted off in various career arcs after Manhunter wrapped, it's clear that this movie was a catalyst. No matter how good it is -- and it's very good -- its impact is more important.
Of course, none of this matters when discussing this DVD release from MGM. In this day and age, the idea that any legitimate company would still release a full-screen pan-and-scan version of a major theatrical motion picture is just astonishing. TV reruns look better than this dark, fuzzy 1.33:1 full-screen fiasco. Though the necessary warning about the presentation "being modified to fit your screen" comes on beforehand, isn't such a statement outmoded in and of itself. How many people have adopted HD technology and its letterboxed image? You can't walk into a Sam's Club or Wal-Mart and not be bombarded by these new boob tubes. So does MGM really think that people are aching for a 4x3 presentation of this title? If they do, they're crazy. Not only does it destroy Mann's compositions, but it indicates a disconnect from the marketplace that's scary at best. The other tech specs barely deserve a mention. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is acceptable. The only piece of added content is a trailer. If this is a mere money grab, it's a poorly conceived and crafted one. Any other explanation ignores the obvious facts (the final score reflects this).
Through sequels and remakes, the unnecessary serializing of an antihero cannibal, as well as Thomas Harris' eventual Kool-Aid sipping complicity, Manhunter stays masterful. Not even a garbage digital offering like the one here can completely destroy its power -- or its prominence. Guilty of mistreating a classic.
Review content copyright © 2007 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Original Theatrical Trailer