Once waist-deep in the world of Miami Vice, executive producer Michael Mann became obsessed with the dichotomy between both the law and lawlessness and good and evil. In that series, these themes were explored through the lens of the undercover cop who has to blend both the personal and professional into one, often creating moral quandaries and existential crises of the soul. In Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon, Mann found perhaps the starkest example of these themes as it blended the law enforcement official with a serial killer. Moving beyond dope peddlers and cat burglars, this was a story that would really put the protagonist through the paces.
Due to the financial drubbing felt by producer Dino De Laurentiis’s Year of the Dragon, released in 1985, Red Dragon was retitled Manhunter to avoid the same fate. It didn’t much work as Manhunter, a title that almost nobody on the planet liked, barely made a blip at the box office, grossing less than nine million dollars and having to settle on slowly finding a cult audience on HBO and home video. By the time Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs was released to almost universal acclaim in 1991, Manhunter and its pioneering cinematic representation of serial killer Hannibal Lecter (spelled Lecktor in Mann’s film) had been mostly forgotten, leaving cinephiles who dared to articulate a preference for Mann’s highly stylized thriller over Demme’s film castigated and hectored as snobbish contrarians. But legion was and is the gang of folks who find Manhunter’s moody, yet cool and uncluttered visual palate and detail-oriented procedural a more sensory intoxicating cocktail than Demme’s admittedly brilliant hair-raiser.
In terms of a broad plot outline, the differences between Manhunter and Lambs are negligible; FBI Agent Jack Crawford recruits a brilliant investigator to track down a serial killer which causes the investigator to enlist the help of incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter to assist in stopping him before he kills again! The major difference between Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs is in its protagonist. I can’t imagine greenhorn cadet Clarice Starling being as compelling a figure in the world of Michael Mann as haunted FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen), the man who earned a Pyrrhic victory by capturing brilliant serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) but only after absorbing a punishing amount of psychological damage in the process. With this character, Mann gets to have it both ways as Graham continually walks a fine line not just between cop and criminal but literally between saint and monster. As is the case with Clarice Starling’s monologue about the doomed livestock in Lambs, Manhunter underlines Graham’s humanity with a turtle hatchery he’s constructing at the beginning of the film with his son, Kevin (David Seaman). Will Graham is doing his best to save what he can from the awful, predatory forces of nature. Meanwhile, Jack Crawford (a terrific Dennis Farina) and Molly Graham (an even more terrific Kim Greist) sit on the balcony of the Graham’s beachfront home where she grouses to him about the dangers of bringing the retired and broken Graham into the investigation, all the while being framed against one of Mann’s painterly vistas that drive home the perpetual theme of emotional distance that affects almost all of his characters like a virus. Unlike Lambs, however, the investigative prowess of the protagonist is, in fact, part of his actual deviancy as telegraphed early in the film as Graham’s investigation of a crime scene utilizes the same point of view footage from the pre-credit sequence which chronicles the home invasion by the horrifying Francis Dollarhyde (dubbed “The Tooth Fairy”; Tom Noonan, giving the performance of his career) as he prepares to slaughter the family inside.
As the embodiment of the mythic Mann hero who is conflicted the second he breathes air outside the womb, William Petersen gives a performance that has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first of its kind. Coming off of a highly energetic turn in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. the previous year, Petersen commits to a performance where he makes a series of choices that have been criticized over the years as being flat or unconvincing. It’s a performance that is not exactly either one of those things but it is unconventional and has to be viewed from a very specific angle to be fully admired. Sometimes his emotive bursts are a few degrees too hot for the scenes in which they occur but there are a number of very tricky and difficult things Petersen successfully pulls off that are more important to the character as a whole than a couple of awkward line readings. There is a severe fragility eating at the center of Petersen’s Graham that occurs in scenes with his family where he chillingly employs a mid-distance stare and a lukewarm delivery that never seems like it’s coming from a real person. But, holy god, watch him in an early scene in the hotel room where he dutifully checks in with his sleeping wife on the phone only to have his eyes light up like a Christmas tree when he hangs up and moves over to the portable TV and VCR unit where he can indulge himself in watching the victims’ home movies in order to recapture the mindset of a murderer. Looking like a seventeen year old who is now watching his parents’ porn after assessing that the coast is clear, Will Graham fits in with the many Mann protagonists who treat their lovers and significant others as mothers from whom they need permission to go outside and play and only come alive when totally plugged into their work.
Unlike any other of Mann’s works, sex is treated less as a pleasurable action between two adults but as a brief respite from ongoing pain in the lives of its principal characters. Graham’s character spends his last night with wife at their home making love with her but he’s already on another track that will lead to rack and ruin; something she knows, recognizes, but is also cognizant to the fact that she is powerless to stop it. Dollarhyde, by comparison, eventually makes a genuine physical connection with a blind co-worker (a fabulous Joan Allen) but instead of bringing him any peace, their night together only brings more pathology. And in further tying the two together, the film’s structure is very purposeful as, right around the film’s halfway mark, Manhunter becomes less about Graham and more about Dollarhyde. This specific kind of duality is further driven home by visually framing Lecktor and Graham in such a way that both characters are functionally looking at themselves in a mirror, predating Detective Vincent Hannah’s coffee date with Neil McCauley in Heat by a number of years.
Manhunter was also Mann’s one theatrical film that looks MOST like a traditional Mann production of the time. Thief might be the masterpiece that subtly influenced short-subject filmmaking but Manhunter was the most modernist Mann film. Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is bold and the compositions strong with the exact same kind of anti-earth tone mission that was employed in the first couple seasons of Miami Vice. Additionally, thanks to the production design by Mel Bourne and art direction by Jack Blackman, almost nobody lives in a house that looks like it was built by a sane architect nor decorated by a legitimately bonded interior designer. Mixing the post-modern structures of Miami Vice and the geometrical furnishings and tchotchke from Crime Story, Mann creates a world that is both of its time and retrograde; where glass block is as prevalent as brick and almost every FBI office is spotless and looks like its been cleaned by someone on a coke binge.
Though current home video releases of Thief have been graced with an additional scene not seen in its theatrical release, Manhunter was Mann’s first film to go back to the editing room on multiple occasions and there are no less than three different cuts of it floating around out there and one might say that Mann has used home video as an excuse to tinker with 90% of his work. While Mann gets it right the first time on the majority of his films, a case could be made for the director’s cut of Manhunter (available on Scream Factory’s Blu ray which also includes the theatrical cut). While we lose the elevator shot in Graham’s hotel which feels like taking a knife to my mother’s throat, and the running of the opening credits over the initial Crawford/Graham conversation makes it feel like you’re about to watch a television movie, the director’s cut leans more heavily on the concern for Graham’s mental well-being and also makes the focus on the family much starker. If one thinks of the film’s happy ending as a detriment (as I do), it’s a crying shame that Mann didn’t shoot something a little more dour and closer to his heart as an alternate, even if the odds of getting it past the producers was likely going to be a no-go. For the penultimate scene in the director’s cut would work even more beautifully if, instead of an awkward reunification of the Graham family as is the case no matter what cut you go with, Will was left with nothing but his memories and an empty beach. Graham’s unnecessary and creepy presence at the home of what would have been Dollarhyde’s next victims would hint at a happy ending but, really, Graham could have only really gotten to know their identities if he were as disturbed and calculating as Francis Dollarhyde, casting the film’s finale as something that more closely resembled William Friedkin’s Cruising.
But even if it wasn’t a capitulation to the studio, Mann’s disallowance of Graham to be alone on the beach at the end, especially with the terrible Red 7 “Heartbeat” song draped over it, feels like a false note. In the true universe of Michael Mann, Graham would wander in the white sands amid a bunch of turtles he’d saved but only at the expense of losing everything and everyone else in his life, including himself. And, like Graham, Mann had found a way to get the darkest examination of his obsessions onto the big screen but with no small amount of budgetary difficulty and with little to show for it in return.
With Manhunter behind him, Mann would slink back into the world of television where he would hone and woodshop new visual and thematic ideas in episodes of Crime Story and, portentously, 1989’s made-for-TV L.A. Takedown. Despite his enormous contribution to popular culture, the first phase of Mann’s career was ending on an inauspicious note; a big filmmaker retreating back into a small medium where he was likely to get trapped for the remainder of his career. But the 1990’s were on the horizon and a sea change was forming. Michael Mann was about to get his day.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain