Serial killers and the damaged cops who hunt them down on our cinema screens and on TV have come a very long way in their screen representation since the innocent days of 1986. Twenty-five years ago, the term ‘serial killer’ was not widely known and was obscure enough for the title of John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (which came out the same year as “Manhunter”) to sound like the anatomy of a fresh new concept rather than the standard if not lazy subject matter of countless forensics based thrillers that it is today. The term is not mentioned once during the two hour running time of Michael Mann’s retrospective classic (“Manhunter” was a box office failure at the time) despite it featuring two of them. Nevertheless, Mann provides us with the first pen-portrait of a character – Dr Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lector, here played by British theatre actor Brian Cox with an extra ‘K’ in the name -- who was to become pivotal in catapulting the idea of the serial killer into the popular spotlight at the same time as furnishing the narrative template for the countless film & TV police ‘profilers’ who have since proliferated on our screens to risk their sanity and their lives in order to understand (and thereby catch) their repeat offender quarries. The duel relationship between the killers and the forensics and psychiatric profilers who work to predict their next move and so track them down by teasing out patterns of behaviour, has now become such a staple of the police thriller form that we take it completely for granted. But although “Manhunter” was one of the first instances of the type, it had very little influence on the development, style and conventions of such works. That distinction has to belong to Lec(K)tor’s 1991 Version 2 assault on cinema screens, which, unlike “Manhunter”, was a box office smash that swept up Oscars before it and became a popular phenomenon, while at the same time changing the popular face of police crime procedurals forever.
Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” was, like Michael Mann’s film before it, based on a novel by Thomas Harris. Both books (and therefore their film adaptations) feature the character Hannibal Lector, but while Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the genius serial killer is a million miles away from the understated menace Brian Cox brought to the role, it fits in perfectly with the heightened Gothic tone that swathes Demme’s adaptation of Harris’s source novel. In fact, “Manhunter” and “The Silence of the Lambs” both have very similar plots but they look so completely different and take such diametrically opposite approaches to the subject matter that Demme’s film feels more like what would now be called a ‘re-imagining’ than a sequel. This is not just because of the differing temperaments and styles of their directors and production crews: Hannibal Lector is a much more flamboyantly grotesque character in Harris’s follow-up novel, gaining an extra finger that was never mentioned in the first book, “Red Dragon”, and being furnished with a much more imaginatively fleshed out back-story than the psychiatrist who murders pretty college girls we meet in “Manhunter”; even Lector’s now character-defining cannibalism is not mentioned in the first film.
The character comes in two distinct flavours then: the hissing, muzzled, Bela Lugosi-style theatricality of Hopkins’ hypnotically transfixing but barely-recognisable-as-human creation and Cox’s cold, controlled, penetratingly malevolent sketch of intelligence and insanity. Hopkins’ Lector dwells in a Gothic vaulted underground high-tech security wing at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane – a place which looks like it has been modelled by the production design team to look like a cavernous stone chamber hewn from the mountainside that harbours Castle Frankenstein. The influence of this look on subsequent serial killer films cannot be underestimated; bolstered by David Fincher’s “Se7en” (another defining moment in the serial killer sub-genre), serial killers in most modern films and television have come to inhabit a dark, cynical, noir world and the men and women who hunt them are almost always fatally compromised. Lector’s post-Silence incarnations in both novel and screen form, would see the character become more and more like a warped anti-hero than the expression of human psychopathy he was originally intended as; increasingly his victims are seen as those who deserve to suffer and die for their own devilish transgressions. “Manhunter” would later be re-made by Brett Ratner with Hopkins in the lead role again and Thomas’ original title restored, but this time in the dark Gothic noir style that “The Silence of the Lambs” had by that time made de rigueur. Interestingly, the cinematographer on both films was the same man: Dante Spinotti.
Compare this modern ‘Gothic’ serial killer flick style with how Mann chooses to represent Lecktor’s prison space in “Manhunter” (the difference in spelling conveniently helps distinguish the differing versions of the character): it tells you everything you need to know about just how different his approach to the same subject actually is. Instead of darkness we are frequently dazzled by blinding light. Indeed the cell is totally white: the visitors chair is a pure white chair; the brick walls of the cell are all whitewashed and the prison bars are painted white; Lecktor himself is entirely dressed in pristine prison whites. When visiting forensics expert Will Graham (William Petersen) (the same man who originally put Lecktor behind these stark white prison bars to begin with by learning to inhabit the same mental space as the killer, with all the twisted, troubling avenues of thought that entailed) rushes out of Lecktor’s cell, overcome by the remembrance of the horror of the original experience and the mental breakdown it provoked, he runs along stark, modernist descending balconies, down glazed white corridors, and ends up outside in the sunlight reeling against white-painted railings in front of an angular, modernist, stark-white building. Lecktor’s cell was a sound stage construction; but everything else we see here belongs to the architecture of Richard Meier’s High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. It entirely befits the heavily stylized approach of conscious artifice taken by Mann throughout “Manhunter” that this first incarnation of Dr. Lecktor should turn out to be imprisoned inside the harshly mannered, antiseptic environment of a modernist art gallery! In fact, every major set of the film apart from one (the Tooth Fairy killer’s home) displays exactly the same taste for stark, minimalist decor with predominantly white furnishings and uncluttered lines of sight: the killer’s victims’ homes; Will Graham’s beachfront house surrounded by its calming white sands; Jack Crawford’s (Dennis Farina) office; the bland police headquarters; the high-tech police laboratory facilities – all are painstakingly contrived by Mann and production designer Mel Bourne to leave the viewer with the same sense of controlled, clinical, clean coolness as is implied by Brian Cox’s performance as Lecktor, a performance which is as striking for its implied sense of danger and latent threat as Hopkins’ overplaying was for making it openly explicit, despite Cox having only a handful of scenes in which Lecktor never leaves his prison cell.
Lecktor is the dark, twisted side of the protagonist Will Graham, kept under control behind bars, displaying a silent unbroken surface calm, but liable to metaphorically break free again as Graham attempts to re-enter the same dark territory when he is tempted back into the fray by former boss Crawford to catch a new killer, who has been slaughtering entire families according to a schedule dictated by a lunar cycle. Graham consults Lecktor in order to ‘recover the mind-set’ he’s just spent months trying to forget with the help of his wife (Kim Greist) and small son. Lecktor taunts Graham with the knowledge that the only reason he was caught at all by the profiler is because they are so alike – a fact Mann emphasises by shooting the prison scene in such a way that it is almost easy to forget who is behind the bars and who is outside them.
The story set-up is similar to a million other profiler-hunts-serial-killer narratives we’ve seen since “Manhunter”, from “The X Files” to “Cracker”; but “Manhunter” feels fresher now than ever simply because the approach of this early incarnation of the form is so utterly opposite to all we’ve become accustomed to since. The photography, lighting, Hugo Boss costuming and the art direction have all been thought about with regard to making explicit the dominant themes of Mann’s screenplay, and the various motivations and mirrorings of the characters all emerge in the form of thematic colours (cool blue for Graham and his family, sickly neon green for Francis Dollarhyde [Tom Noonan], the twisted Tooth Fairy killer). The first half of the film tracks soft-spoken and emotionally controlled profiler Will Graham’s attempt to mimic the mind-set of the Tooth Fairy while becoming more and more unstable and prone to violent outbursts as a result. The investigation is complicated by the fact that after Graham consults Dr Lecktor, the still formidable imprisoned murderer takes an interest in the case and manages to make contact with the killer, sending him coded messages that potentially put the life of Graham’s own family in grave danger by furnishing the Tooth Fairy with Graham’s home address.
The first hour plays like the kind of thing we now see all the time in police forensics dramas, distinguished only by Mann’s weirdly placid, meticulously glacial pacing, the clinical look and style of the production design and photography, and the contemporary (then voguish but now retro) modernity of the synth based score, featuring icy washes of cool synth accompanied by occasional blasts of what then seemed modish soft rock from the likes of Shriekback and The Prime Movers. A defining sequence in this section generates drama from a prison guard discovering a note from the killer in Dr Lecktor’s cell, written on toilet paper. The investigative team get to work, attempting to fly the note out to various forensics specialists in order to decode it and then replace it in Lecktor’s cell within the allotted space of time (a couple of hours) in which he can be safely removed from it while it is cleaned, so as not to arouse any suspicion that the authorities have discovered that he’s made a link with the killer. Emphasis is placed on the cutting edge science of modern forensics techniques and the drama is generated in the team’s abilities to glean important information within a constricted span of time. This is the general kind of business of a great many forensics based thrillers these days, as is the subplot in which Graham and Crawford use an egotistical tabloid reporter called Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang) in an attempt to catch The Tooth Fairy, after they learn that he reads Lounds’ paper (Lecktor leaves his coded messages in the tabloid’s personal adds section). The plan goes wrong however, and Lounds becomes the object of the killer’s attention rather than Graham as was planned.
Our first look at the killer known as The Tooth Fairy during Lounds’ incarceration opens the second half of the movie and leads to a total subversion of the usual format of such thrillers. The viewer is thrown off balance here (and it is still an unsettling change of tack even today) as the film now switches emphasis and spends a great deal of its time consciously working to make this killer – a man who has quite methodically and systematically butchered entire families, including children, in pursuit of a deranged fantasy – appear sympathetic, and even going so far as to develop a love interest for him in the form of a co-worker at the film processing laboratory where he works. This thread gradually emerges as being vitally important to the narrative’s theme of mirroring – the central motif of the movie. As Will Graham gradually realises when he begins mimicking the thought processes of Francis Dollarhyde and re-enacting his movements at the scenes of his crimes, the killer selects his victims after having first viewed the home movies of the kinds of family he would like to be a part of, and his lunar influenced cycle is all part of a fantastical belief that he can transform himself by committing crimes in which he arranges the bodies of his victims to enact the codes of normality he sees in those family depicting movies, murdering and mutilating them with reflective shards of mirror and placing the broken pieces in the eyes of the females he is attracted to in order that he can imagine them seeing his transformed self with the kind of desire he yearns for.
Dollarhyde’s quest to transform himself into something stronger than the broken shell of a fragile ego he in fact feels himself to inhabit in everyday life, has been formed in the years of abuse he has experienced as a child and is influenced by the powerful image of a red dragon from a William Blake painting. Tom Noonan’s extraordinary performance as the towering, white-haired outsider with a cleft lip, was forged in the furnace of method acting, with the actor refusing to interact with the rest of the cast apart from Joan Allen who plays his blind love interest, and spending hours alone in his trailer sitting in the dark! The relationship which develops between Dollarhyde and his co-worker Reba McClane (Allen) is the biggest departure from the usual course of such narratives. Reba is blind and so cannot be affected by what Dollarhyde assumes to be his grotesque appearance; one bizarre sequence sees possibly the weirdest first date depicted in screen history when the killer takes Reba to ‘see’ an anesthetised Indian tiger which she is gratefully able to caress, feeling its power in its warmth and its heartbeat and also its vulnerability. This is the closest Dollarhyde has been able to come in fulfilling his fantasy of transformation by imagining the beast as his powerful, transformed self (the fangs of the tiger mirroring his own strangely pronounced upper-palate, as referenced in a police dental reconstruction obtained from bites he made on one of his previous victims) but the sequence also reveals Reba’s passionate sexuality – something Dollaryhyde is hardly ready to encounter after his previous sterile naked fumblings with the mutilated corpses of his victims. Unfortunately, Dollarhyde later misinterprets Reba’s interactions with another colleague and the stage is set for the final act, as Graham’s obsessive reconstruction of Dollarhyde’s psychology finally leads him to the killer’s front door, or more specifically his back window!
The parallels between Lecktor, Dollarhyde and Graham are made symbolically prescient by Mann’s use of reflective imagery and mirroring techniques. Lecktor understands Dollarhyde and provides clues Graham is then able to interpret because of his closeness to Lecktor’s violent psychology; they are connected by a triad of visual devices: the clinical muted palette of barred, sterile environments cements the film’s association between Graham and his nemesis Lecktor, while Graham’s method of attempting to transform himself into Dollaryhyde parallels the killer’s own quest of transformation and is represented by overt reference to reflective surfaces; Graham’s habit of talking out loud to the killer ultimately takes its most pronounced form after he sends his wife and child out of harm’s way and so is finally able to fully immerse himself in Dollarhyde’s damaged psyche – at this point we see him staring through a window at the rain-lashed airport as they leave, murmuring ‘it’s just you and me now,’ as the darkened window reflects only his own image back at him. The interior of Dollarhyde’s house is the closest the film comes to anticipating the modern style of serial killer and profiler movies but even here production designer Mel Bourne comes up with the outlandish flourish of augmenting the darkened, green-lit space with giant wall posters depicting starscapes and the bleak, rocky surface of the moon, reminding us once again of Dollarhyde’s isolation from normal human interaction, but also providing another reference to the importance of the lunar cycle for his warped ideas of the transformative power of his killing spree.
“Manhunter” stands out today for being a high-concept, unashamedly artistic and offbeat manifestation of a sub-genre which has otherwise grown rather weary, floundering in the over-familiar, populist routines which have emerged in the decades since it first appeared. Ironically, William Petersen went on to help make this kind of maverick forensics profiler role the ubiquitous one it is today thanks to his long running part in “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”. Joan Allen still impresses in her role as blind, lonely but sensitive Reba and of course Brian Cox turns barely ten minutes of screen time into the most memorable portions of the film, not discounting Tom Noonan’s electric performance as the tragic yet irredeemable psycho killer Francis Dollarhyde. Michael Mann’s film suffered for a number of years thanks to its highly particular synthesized progressive rock score which quickly dated it in the eyes and ears of many commentators; but the fashion for retro electronic music has helped make it seem vital once again and now is a great time to rediscover a movie that feels fresher and more cutting-edge that at any time since its first release; the icy, calm clinical stylisation of it making it seem the perfect antidote to a whole sweep of movies that are now left looking samey and unimaginative in comparison.
Beautifully and elegantly photographed with utmost care and attention throughout by Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti, the two hour theatrical cut gets a mostly beautiful and pin sharp HD transfer on this new UK DVD released as part of the Studio Canal collection, with a passable but not extravagantly mind-blowing 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio. The Blu-ray also includes the Director’s cut (in standard definition only), which cuts a few scenes but also extends and adds others, including a scene added at the end when a facially scarred Graham goes to visit the family of the Tooth Fairy’s next intended victim. This looks pretty ropy in comparison to the HD transfer on the theatrical cut because this re-edit, which was originally made for a TV showing a year after the film’s theatrical release, only exists in the form of a one-inch master struck for the television channel. Michael Mann provides a commentary for this cut which is pretty informative and includes the information that Brian Dennehy was one of the actors originally desperate to play the role of Hannibal Lecktor, but that it was Dennehy who eventually put Mann on to Brian Cox as being the most suitable actor for the part. The rest of the extras have all been ported over from a previous Anchor Bay release and include a featurette, “Inside Manhunter”, in which the cast members talk about how they got their roles, their respect for Michael Mann as a director with great vision, and their experiences on the set. A ten minute interview with cinematographer Dante Spinotti on the thinking behind the lighting style of the movie is another excellent addition to any viewer’s appreciation of the film. The extras are rounded off by a perfunctory theatrical trailer.