Michael Mann’s 1986 thriller ‘Manhunter’ misses the mark in several ways

February 19, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 19, 2018

In 1986, Michael Mann was arguably at the height of his influence. He was creator and executive producer of the hit TV crime series Miami Vice, then in its second season. He also found time that year to direct Manhunter, a suspense movie based on Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon.

That 1981 volume featured the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter, infamous cannibalistic serial killer who would mesmerize readers in Harris’s follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs. Jonathan Demme directed a film version of the best-seller in 1991, three years after the novel’s publication; in so doing, he brought forth an indelible performance from Anthony Hopkins as the sly, seductive but deeply corrupt Lecter.

The unforgettable character became so popular that Harris went on to write two novels centered on the serial killer, both of which were brought to the screen. Further, the murderous shrink inspired Hannibal, a TV series that ran for three seasons and fleshes out the doctor’s murderous exploits before his capture.

I read Red Dragon, Harris’s second novel, many years ago. (Harris’s first book, the 1972 thriller Black Sunday, concerned a terrorist plot to attack the Super Bowl.) Like the better-known 1988 sequel, Red Dragon involves a law-enforcement agent turning to the imprisoned Lecter for insights that will help track down an active serial killer. The protagonist in the earlier book is Will Graham, a former FBI agent who was physically and mentally wounded by his successful effort to capture Lecter; the hero of The Silence of the Lambs is Clarice Starling, a soft-spoken FBI trainee.

Red Dragon’s villain, the weirdly named Francis Dolarhyde — and unfortunately nicknamed Tooth Fairy — is a harelipped admirer of Lecter who’s begun slaughtering families on full moons. (The two killers secretly correspond even as Graham asks Lecter’s help in stopping Dolarhyde.) The character is arguably given a more sympathetic treatment than Silence’s murderer-at-large, “Buffalo Bill,” who starts skinning women after being denied sexual reassignment surgery on account of his propensity for violence. Interestingly, Red Dragon shows Dolarhyde starting a potentially redemptive romance with a blind coworker.

The 1986 screen adaptation, which Mann scripted as well as directed, is largely faithful to what I remember of the source material. However, it gives short shrift to Dolarhyde’s obsession with 19th-century Englishman William Blake, whose paintings of demons inspired Harris the writer and Dolarhyde the character.

Visually, the 1986 film reads like a kissing cousin of Miami Vice. It’s filled with gaudy eighties clothing. (There are also disposable rock songs that could only have come from that decade; these tunes, and their very on-point lyrics, didn’t do much for me.) Moreover, many shots are dominated by a single color, whether it’s the white of the high-security asylum where Lector is housed or the blue of the Graham household.

Manhunter reminded me somewhat of one of Mann’s best films, the 1995 crime drama Heat. Both films explore the personalities of its main characters, and both feature solitary antagonists — Tom Noonan’s Dolarhyde and Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley — who launch passionate romances as the story unfolds. Manhunter delves into the family dynamics of its protagonist, Graham (William Petersen), while Heat offers at least a cursory look into the home and inner lives of McCauley’s crew of bank robbers. (One reason Heat is nearly three hours long is that each McCauley associate — his three main partners, his sleazy part-time teammate Waingro and Breedan, the getaway driver — gets at least one character beat.)

But this is no Heat, which benefited from uniformly excellent performances. The gaunt, freakishly tall Noonan gives Manhunter an oddly sympathetic antagonist, and he’s well paired with Joan Allen as Reba McClane, the blind co-worker he begins courting midway through the picture. Brian Cox is also unsettling as Hannibal Lecktor (as the character’s name is spelled here), despite having the physical presence of an overweight community-college basketball coach.

Alas, Petersen makes for a bland lead, and it’s hard to care much about what happens to his sanity or his relationship with his wife and son. Graham holds belligerent spoken conversations with the mental version of the Tooth Fairy that he painstakingly constructs, but these struck me as more silly than scary.

It doesn’t help that Molly Graham is played by a surprisingly inert Kim Greist, wearing a fixed expression and conveying none of the energy she exuded just a year earlier as the plucky trucker in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Nor does it help that Dennis Farina’s turn as FBI supervisor Jack Crawford compares unfavorably to Scott Glenn’s performance as Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs.

With the Grahams coming off as such non-presences, all of Manhunter’s efforts to engage the audience’s sympathies for them just come off as annoying. The portions of the story showing Dolarhyde, Lecktor or Graham and his team’s efforts to find the killer are generally riveting, but the rest is forgettable. The movie is also hindered by the repeated use of freeze frames (including the final shot) and some jumpy animation; these gimmicks were so clumsy that I had trouble deciding if they were the result of deliberate choices or botched cinematography.

Red Dragon was filmed again in 2002 under Harris’s original title by director Brett Ratner, with Hopkins reprising his role as Lecter. I’m curious now to revisit Harris’s book, and to see Ratner’s movie version of it, to see if the novel holds up to my memories of it, and if it can make for a better motion picture than Mann managed to conjure back in the ’80s.


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