Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)

by Douglas Buck January 8, 2022 7 minutes (1689 words) DVD

Following the interesting, if less daring than it wants to be, 1984 Tightrope, with Clint Eastwood as a quasi-Dirty Harry New Orleans cop with a taste for kink and paid-for-sex (why, just like the killer he’s tracking), came Michael Mann’s far more stylish (think lots of bright whites, pastels, slow motion, and Tangerine Dream-like scoring – I know, I know, it’s weird, especially as most of the film takes place in the American Midwest… but it’s Michael Mann and back then he was just taking Florida with him wherever he went) version of the 80’s narrative serial killer staple – that being, the determined and brooding investigator sliding dangerously close into the frighteningly dark and alluring world of the maniac he’s tracking.

While Manhunter is way more compelling in execution (as well as more important regarding its influence on the zeitgeist… while Manhunter didn’t do well at the box office, it would lead to Mann’s slick aesthetic seducing the public with his ultimate 80’s cop show Miami Vice), it’s interesting to note that the dour cop in this one, that being FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen), might be more convincing as someone carrying a heavy internal burden (an unfortunate side effect of burrowing into the minds of serial killers), still, other than lip service, we never actually feel at any time during the film he’s in danger of slipping into full-on madness with this latest case he’s been drawn out of retirement (for having gone a big mental, along with having physically been attacked by that brilliant madman we all love to love, Hannibal Lecter that he caught) to track.

Now for all you rabid Manhunter fans, the ones who feverishly argue the film as being vastly superior to that other more-celebrated Hannibal Lecter offering (the only other one I recognize anyway, as I have barely paid attention to where it’s gone after these two opening salvos, in either film or television – oh, other than remembering sitting in the theater and intensely disliking the Ridley Scott follow-up Hannibal upon its release, and feeling so contemptuous towards the one that followed after that for it having been directed by the deplorable Brett Ratner – and I’m not talking because of all of his identity politic outrage faux pas, which I barely care about, but the fact that he’s an opportunistic hack – that I didn’t bother to see it), namely, the late (sometimes great) Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs… I mean… come on.

I’m not saying there isn’t a ton to like in Manhunter. There is. It’s just that some of it comes with less desirable undertones, including a distasteful jingoism (in direct opposition, I guess, to the much more gloomy critical perspective towards authority that was the 70’s) that not only informs much of Mann’s work, but the entirety of the 80’s landscape, right up until today (where, let’s be honest, amongst the kiddos, their slogan might as well be CONFORMITY IS COOL).

There’s a surprising amount of agency given to the FBI side characters (with a number of them getting an individual scene with which to make a meal out of – from a well-intentioned psychologist worrying about Graham to a crafty technician cleverly working his impressive lab tricks), something which would later be understood as a Mann trope (whether thief or cop, he loves showing us those confident professionals plying their exciting trades). While, yes, this creates some decidedly riveting viewing, unfortunately, with all this love bestowed upon the FBI, creating an image of the agency as filled with top-of-the-line professionals, working together like a well-oiled machine, each at the top of their game, determined to help rid society of its criminally diseased ills, it’s hard not to recognize the jingoistic right-wing delusional perspective Mann gleefully heaps upon a domestic intelligence unit that in fact operates almost exclusively outside the law and has been embroiled in more outright criminal acts, everything from illegally spying on tons of US citizens (invariably left wing groups and outspoken celebrities) to being directly involved with the assassinations of American citizens (Malcom X, anyone?), to helping sow violent American aggression abroad, it rivals perhaps even the equally despicable CIA. And Mann’s delusion expands to include a seemingly unlimited lavish budgets for the FBI to work with (one they never abuse in the film, cuz the FBI never abuses anything… right). I mean, it seems every time Graham even hints that they might wanna get to some state somewhere, his supervisor, Agent Crawford (Mann’s Chicago regular Dennis Farina, he of the ‘dems/dese/dose’ street accent, as usual, chewing it up with his usual no-nonsense vigor) seems to have a jet waiting somewhere at their disposal.

I remember even the first time seeing the film, as a wee lad back upon its release (okay, not so wee – around twenty), being a tad uncertain about the sudden monologue delivered by an earnest Graham, emphatically lecturing us that while we should all feel sympathy for an abused kid, when that kid grows up into a serial killer well… he needs to be slaughtered like the rest of the pond scum! Sign o’ the times, for sure, with Graham suddenly channeling that 80’s scum-slaughterer fave Chuck Norris (but a sympathetic Chuck Norris, because if Petersen is one thing, it’s genuinely empathetic and likable, which is one of the strong points of this film for sure… a character trait that that biggest bad-ass of all directors William Friedkin would deliberately – and effectively – subvert for his gritty neo-noir, To Live and Die in LA).

Alas, most of the young people who took the online course with me only looked blankly at me (with perhaps a mild amount of disgust that this old white man had anything to say at all, let alone something negative against their filmmaking hero) as I pointed out Mann’s authority-celebrating vision is one of the leading examples for the place where we’re at now, in cinema and in society, with conformity celebrated and the challenging of authority and the status quo (you know, the very things that define a vibrant Democracy) nowhere to be seen.

On the way plus side, there’s good performances all over the place. The last third of the film, which goes the opposite of _ Tightrope_ and, with narrative daring, switches over to introduce us to the Tooth Fairy killer himself, Francis Dollarhyde, is as gripping (if more surreal) as the procedural work. Tom Noonan’s large, yet oddly gentle physical presence (and cleft lip) visually work wonders for the part (with the incredible effectiveness of the simple stocking mask Dollarhyde uses against the empty giallo-grasping masks used for the killer in Tightrope revealing in comparison how much of a confidant and knowing hold Mann has on his material). Despite the odds, the burgeoning romantic relationship that develops between him and the blind girl (a young Joan Allen) is really well done (even if it operates on the level of almost the symbolic – then again that’s Mann for you), managing some genuine pathos for the perverse killer, even if we know he’s eventually gonna go all wrong with it (and I mean way wrong).

Petersen, a handsome actor yet with still a bit of the everyman flavor to him (and perhaps the most bowed legs I’ve ever seen on camera), certainly managed to make a name for himself with a couple of 80’s starring roles like Manhunter. Physically, he’s a nice counterpoint against the stature of Noonan’s impressively imposing killer. He also somehow manages to deal with all that awkward dialogue delivery he’s forced to say out loud at the crime scenes, so we know what he’s thinking. Even Kim Greist in that familiar usually thankless role as Graham’s sacrificing wife suffering with worry on the sidelines is surprisingly memorable and strong in her small role.

And, yes, yes, I haven’t forgotten. There’s Brian Cox as that brilliant cannibal of a serial killer known as Hannibal Lecter (changed to Lecktor for this film). And while I know so many folks (including the peeps in my class) are prone to ramble on incessantly about just how great he is in the part — so good (they say) he hangs like a presence over the entire film even with only a few minutes of screen time — I mean… I don’t know.

Is Cox good? Yes. Of course. He’s an amazing actor. Is he Anthony Hopkins in “Silence” good, though? They both certainly love chewing up the scenery (though I guess you could argue that Cox, to his credit, adds a touch more grounded reality to his portrayal) from behind the prison bars which is where they’re stuck in both films, but the answer is obvious and clear. No. In fact, what really hangs over Manhunter (and I try to say this with the deepest respect to Cox, an actor I really do adore) is the lack of Hopkins’ presence in the role.

Which leads to my final statement. I’m sorry to all you who feverishly claim Manhunter as superior to Silence of the Lambs. While Manhunter remains a fine and compelling piece of super-slick Michael Mann-style propaganda (one of Mann’s best, in fact), Silence of the Lambs is a compulsively brilliant, absolutely transcendent merging of art house and guignol, a nasty serial killer film that is essential viewing for both gruesome horror fans, film lovers and the academic intelligentsia alike. “Silence” is a masterpiece way beyond anything Michael Mann, as good as he can be (and I’m giving a bit there as I’m not the biggest fan, but I’m not surprised so many 80’s and 90’s kids are, as unwittingly reactionary as so many of them are), has come anywhere near to creating, with the Oscar for Best Picture that “Silence” mustered up being one of the few times that self-celebrating, faux liberal awards show ever got it right.

Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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