Our reviews of The Hannibal Lecter Collection (Blu-ray) (published September 21st, 2009), Manhunter (published October 12th, 2007), Manhunter (Blu-ray) (published October 12th, 2011), and Manhunter: Limited Edition (published August 21st, 2001) are also available.
Manhunter wasn't born a monster. It was made one through years and years of abuse in editing rooms, and on home video release calendars.
Brett Ratner's prequel to The Silence of the Lambs wasn't the first film adaptation of Thomas Harris' novel, Red Dragon. Writer-director Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) covered that ground 16 years earlier in Manhunter.
Facts of the Case
FBI Section Chief Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina, Get Shorty) convinces retired profiler Will Graham (William L. Petersen, C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation) to come out of retirement long enough to assist in the capture of a serial killer. Dubbed the Tooth Fairy by local police because of the bite marks he leaves on his victims, the killer is savaging entire families and the FBI hasn't been able to determine how he's choosing his targets.
Having left the cop business after a mental breakdown following his capture of the brilliant, enigmatic killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox, Adaptation), Graham is fearful of a relapse and reluctant to force his wife (Kim Greist, Brazil) and young son to relive their previous trauma. Graham's unable to ignore the inevitability of another murdered family, though, and agrees to look over the evidence. When his research yields little, he decides to approach Dr. Lecktor for help. Lecktor, in turn, draws Graham more intimately into the hunt for the Tooth Fairy than Graham ever intended.
Manhunter is a taut thriller, a little-known cult classic transformed into a well-known cult classic when Sir Anthony Hopkins made an icon of one of its minor characters in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs. The idea that Manhunter is superior to Lambs has become a cause célèbre among some cineastes. I have difficulty comparing them—both are narratively lean and intense, and Manhunter's as intelligent as Lambs is visceral.
I've no beef with Ratner's Red Dragon, either—as a matter of fact, I like it—but Manhunter is better. Sure, Ratner's film is more faithful to the book, but that's because he's a journeyman, able to subordinate himself to Harris' vision because he lacks one of his own. Mann is much more. He brought his own ideas, his own sensibilities to the project. He wasn't making a vehicle in the big-budget Hannibal Lector franchise, rather he recognized that Harris' novel shared his own fascination with crime, the mind and soul of the criminal, and the horrible implications of homicide. Manhunter is as much a Michael Mann movie as it is a Thomas Harris story, which is to say it's stylish, smart, and constructed with focused deliberation.
A fan of the lone wolf anti-hero, Mann deliberately obscures much of character background Harris provides in the novel. He dribbles out information about Will Graham and the trauma he suffered in the process of capturing Lecktor in tiny isolated doses throughout the length of the movie, and the effect is to make the film's central character more haunted and fully immersed in psychological angst. In Edward Norton's portrayal of the same character in Red Dragon, we have a man who, in retiring from the FBI, seems to have succeeded in overcoming his past, at least until Jack Crawford comes calling. William L. Petersen's version of Graham is permanently damaged. He skirts anti-hero cliché, but is made three dimensional by the presence of two foils, Lecktor and Jack Crawford. During Graham's chilling meeting with Lecktor, the killer claims they are "just alike" and that's why Graham was able to capture him, but in fact Lecktor's amoral view of human life is the opposite of Graham's and is, ironically, far more simplistic—Graham is unable to objectify murder victims, to separate the bodies from their former humanity, and the fragility of life haunts him. Conversely, he is unable to reduce the serial killer Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) to a simple predator like Crawford can. As it is for all effective cops, understanding motive is a means to end for Crawford, the key to capturing a rogue killer. But Graham's incapable of such reductive, focused thinking. Ironically, it's Graham's inability to ignore Dollarhyde's complex humanity that makes him so effective at unraveling motive, at understanding what drives the killer. His empathy for Dollarhyde, however, makes him no less intent on his capture.
One advantage Red Dragon presumably had over its 1986 predecessor was a top-notch cast, one of the best in recent memory: Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Emily Watson. Somehow, though, Manhunter's cast—made up mostly of now well-established character actors—is at least as satisfying. Anthony Hopkins owns the role of Hannibal Lector, but damned if I don't love Brian Cox's interpretation, too. While Hopkins is creepy and sinister, yet oddly charming, Cox is bluntly, aggressively intelligent. In each film, Graham tells Lector/Lecktor, "I know I'm not smarter than you." In Manhunter, that fact is obvious long before Graham admits it. The amazing thing about Cox's performance is that, even though we only see him confined, one believes his Lecktor capable of masking his psychosis in the world outside prison—it makes him that much more frightening. In Red Dragon, we actually witness Hopkins' Lector before his capture and he feels like an anachronism, fit only for a small cell in an institution for the criminally insane—how could Graham fail to recognize the guy's a nut case?
Dennis Farina's Jack Crawford is strangely blue-collar—especially when compared with Scott Glenn's version in The Silence of the Lambs—but he's a cop through-and-through and it makes him the perfect foil for Graham. Joan Allen (Nixon) gives an amazingly subtle performance as Reba McClane, a blind woman unwittingly dating a serial killer. Most actors playing blind (including Watson in Red Dragon) sort of stare into the middle distance the whole time, but not Allen. The way she uses her eyes is far more subtle and believable.
Stephen Lang's (Tombstone) turn as seedy tabloid journalist, Freddy Lounds, is far more straight-forward than Hoffman's in Red Dragon (while Hoffman is sullen and nerdy and socially inept like some modern-day Ignatius Reilly, Lang plows through the performance with all the low-class glee of an Andrew Dice Clay). But all Lang's Chicago-twanged bluster and crassness, the seeming lack of depth, pays off when the character meets his fate and we're forced to re-evaluate our opinion of him.
In many ways, the powerhouse of the film is Tom Noonan (Heat) in the role of the killer, Francis Dollarhyde. He's both frightening and vulnerable, hulking and childish. Stripped by Mann of all the character's backstory from the novel, all the concrete events that explain his shattered psyche and need to become something other than himself, Noonan still turns in a remarkably sympathetic performance. And this is, in many ways, the key to the entire film: like Graham, we come to understand Dollarhyde as a complex human being, damaged beyond repair. That we pity him doesn't erase the horror of his crimes or weaken our desire to see him stopped before he destroys more human life. But it does make for a delightfully rich thriller whose payoffs spring from Mann's keen observation, and whose rewards to the viewer multiply with each additional viewing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The restoration of this Director's Cut was overseen by Michael Mann to bring you the definitive version of this chilling classic.
Maybe the quote above, from the DVD's rear cover art, is true of the film—maybe this is Mann's preferred cut, once and for all—but it hardly applies to the DVD. Anyone who likes a clearly-defined, definitive DVD version of a film should turn away now. The ground we must cover here will be ugly to you.
Anchor Bay has released Manhunter on DVD three times. The first two came in August of 2002: a single-disc theatrical cut, and a two-disc Limited Edition with the theatrical cut on the first disc and a director's cut—originally assembled by Mann for exhibition on The Movie Channel in 1987—on the second. To complicate things, the theatrical cut on both the 2002 DVDs is not the true theatrical cut. It runs about a minute longer and incorporates some brief shots from the 1987 director's cut (which runs four minutes longer than the true theatrical cut), while dropping a few shots from the true theatrical cut. The authentic theatrical version of the film has only been released on laserdisc (in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1) and on VHS (pan-and-scan). Further complicating matters, the director's cut on the Limited Edition DVD sports a horrific transfer, soft and grainy and lacking in detail.
Got all that?
When this third DVD, Manhunter: Restored Director's Cut, was announced, many fans of the film were hoping for the definitive release of the movie on DVD. Keep hoping. This third incarnation is really nothing more than Anchor Bay's do-over—in the parlance of playgrounds—of the piss-poor Director's Cut on disc two of the Limited Edition. The transfer is of the same quality as the theatrical cut on the single-disc DVD, perhaps a skosh better. Grain is minimal, color detail is excellent, and black levels are solid. The image is sharper than the theatrical cut, but suffers from over-abundant haloing as a result. In addition, because 35mm sources no longer exist for the three minutes of material added for the Director's Cut, it had to be taken from the 1-inch masters owned by The Movie Channel. The difference in quality between the material sourced from the theatrical cut and that sourced from the longer television cut is stark. The inserted scenes are soft and grainy; they're pretty much the same quality as the crappy transfer of the entire Director's Cut on the Limited Edition set. Hey, better that three minutes look like crud, than over two hours, right? And, much as it's a disappointment, at least there's a legitimate reason for the lower quality: if a good source doesn't exist, there's not much Mann or Anchor Bay can do about it (except, perhaps, not bother with this release at all). Bottom line: this director's cut is watchable, which is more than can be said for the previous release.
Likely to frustrate even more is the audio situation. The previously released theatrical cut was presented with a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, limited only by the less-than-thundering dynamics of the film's roots as a low-budget flick from 1986. This new disc offers only Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. I suspect the downgrade is also tied to the material sourced from The Movie Channel's 1-inch masters. For the most part, variations in audio quality are minimal as one moves from the theatrical material to the Director's Cut material and back again, but there are instances where the dynamic range in scenes from the lower quality source is noticeably limited, resulting in flat and muffled dialogue. I suspect a 5.1 mix would have accentuated the differing quality of the source materials, while the Dolby Surround track helped mask it (a flat stereo mix may have hidden it entirely, but Dolby Surround seems to have produced a reasonable compromise). Bottom line: the audio isn't as good as that found on the previous single-disc release, but it's probably the best option for this cut of the film.
When we look at the supplemental material provided on this disc, it becomes clear that, whatever claims they make on the packaging, Anchor Bay's intent was not that this disc be the definitive DVD version of the film, replacing all previous versions, but that it be a companion piece to last year's single-disc release. The centerpiece of the set is Michael Mann's feature commentary. He's casual and informative, providing much detail about the film's genesis and production, as well as its actors (he even explains why he chose Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida as the music for the film's climax, a choice I've always scratched my head over). There is also a theatrical trailer, and three photo galleries devoted to the film's production, deleted and alternate scenes, and advertising. All of it dovetails nicely with the extras provided on the 2002 single-disc release: more trailers, a making-of featurette, and a featurette on Dante Spinotti's cinematography. Alone, the discs are fairly light on supplements; together they're far more impressive.
So, what does it all mean? Should you buy this new version of Manhunter or what?
It depends on what you want. If you want the best possible single version of the film on DVD, buy (or keep) the 2002 theatrical version, or continue to hold out for a DVD release of the true theatrical cut (you may be waiting forever). If you're a big fan of the film, or of Michael Mann, combining the Restored Director's Cut with the 2002 theatrical version will create a two-disc set far more impressive in terms of audio and video quality, as well as extras, than the 2002 Limited Edition.
If you already own the Limited Edition and were hoping to upgrade to a single-disc definitive version, I don't know what to tell you. Restored Director's Cut ain't definitive. It's worse overall than disc one of your current set, but a huge improvement over disc two. I guess you need to ask yourself this question: are three minutes of footage and a Michael Mann commentary worth 15 bucks?
A fine film, Manhunter is acquitted. It's suffered enough.
Anchor Bay is another story. First the Army of Darkness horror and now this. Anchor Bay's reign of terror must be stopped before they select their next victim. Time is running out…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary by Director Michael Mann
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