ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: Manhunter
WEEK 12: "M" PART 1
Nominees: Manhunter, M*A*S*H, Mean Streets, The Mission, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Background: Five years before The Silence of the Lambs swept through the Oscars and our collective psyche, there was Michael Mann's Manhunter. This film is the often-forgotten first appearance of the "Hannibal the Cannibal" character, made famous by Anthony Hopkins. Like Jonathan Demme's Best Picture winner, Hannibal is a side character to the real story in Manhunter. If this is news to you and you've never seen (or heard of) Manhunter before, make it a point to seek it out. Because of Mann's presence as the director, don't buy the Miami Vice knockoff 80's talk that other folks try shoehorn. Michael Mann's film has far more balls than anything from his TV series and is better than Brett Ratner's Red Dragon remake of the same Thomas Harris novel from 2002.
William Peterson, before he was C.S.I.'s silver fox, plays Will Graham, an extremely skilled FBI profiler who quit the game after apprehending notorious serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (don't mind the special change for this movie), played with charm by Brian Cox, and suffering grievous injuries in the process. Graham's specialty was his remarkable ability to see and think as the killer did. While happily retired on the beaches of Florida with his wife and son, his former D.C. boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) convinces him to help with one more case, that of a serial killer being dubbed The Tooth Fairy who's been killing entire families in the South with each lunar cycle.
Seeking to regain the necessary mindset to think like a serial killer, Graham visits the incarcerated Dr. Lecktor to get his advice on the "Tooth Fairy" case and to put his own psyche to the test. Taking on this new case also brings out the slimy tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds (Stephen Lang), with whom Graham his history with from the headline-making Lecktor case. With Graham's forensic expertise on board, he and Crawford feel they are getting closer to seeing the Tooth Fairy's pattern and motive.
In the film's second act, we begin to meet and learn about the Tooth Fairy himself, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), a tall and intimidating loner who works a video processing lab in St. Louis. Director Michael Mann shifts our point-of-view to his and we get a look into his life and methods. A lover of artist William Blake's The Great Red Dragon paintings, he sees himself as an extension of that power. At work, he is smitten with a blind co-worker Reba McClane (Joan Allen) who takes a liking to him. As a killer, he follows the the tabloid press surrounding his killings and becomes very involved and aware of Graham's presence. When those two tracks and points of view intersect, with a little help from Dr. Lecktor, the tension increases and the stakes escalate in Manhunter.
Reaction: FIVE STARS-- Call it the 80's if you want, but they don't make movies with this kind of style anymore. Don't buy the retro hype that surrounded Drive from last year. That was a puff piece in my opinion. Manhunter is the real deal and far superior. With its intentional palette of glowing colors, pulsing electronic score, and dynamic camera shifts from angles, cuts, and differing points of view, Manhunter was ahead of its time and under-appreciated. Director Michael Mann and Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti (who also got to shoot this story again in 2002) crafted beautiful and striking visuals. My Alphabet Movie Club colleague Tim Day couldn't be more right in his review of Manhunter stating that this film has arguably more depth to explore, both aesthetically and in narrative, than any we have watched so far in the alphabet. Read his review for more specifics on that.
The Silence of the Lambs and Anthony Hopkins may have stolen this movie's thunder, but Manhunter holds up well as a time capsule to pre-computer forensic work and serial killer investigation. Put this serial killer story right there with David Fincher's Se7en for atmosphere. William Peterson and Tom Noonan give extremely deep and well-defined performances as two sides of the same coin. Their morose demeanors provide the right serious tone on which to build excellent tension and suspense. Michael Mann, who has gone on to direct The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Collateral, and Public Enemies among others, nailed his chances to do just that. Like I said before, the popular Hannibal Leckter character is side story, but watching Brian Cox here (and also how he's matured as a go-to supporting actor in so many films since) makes me wonder what he would have done opposite Jodie Foster five years later. He's a different actor than Hopkins, but no less talented. Chalk that up to "woulda-coulda-shoulda."
LESSON #1: THE MINDSET REQUIRED TO DO CERTAIN JOBS-- In order to do what he does best, Will Graham has psyche himself up to think on the level of the killers he tracks. The mental toll is tremendous and damaging. FBI profiler is not the only job that requires a disposition that unpleasant or arduous. Put yourself in the shoes of firefighters, coroners, soldiers, or any of the difficult jobs Mike Rowe tries out on Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs. This goes a little towards the adage of "don't judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes."
LESSON #2: TAPPING INTO THE VISIONS OF OTHERS-- Along the same lines as mindset, the visual connection to relate to others is also in play from both Graham and Dollarhyde, and even our blind Reba. Our imaginations are strong enough, when pushed, to visualize what others see and put ourselves into their point of view. To what detail you develop and go depends on how deep you want to tap into that vision. The cinematography and visual style of Manhunter gives you the details and cues to grab your own vision.
LESSON #3: THE POWER OF VISUAL STIMULATION-- Speaking of push, with our predominant human sense being sight, the spurring required at times to tap into someone else's vision or mindset is visual stimulation. Mental suggestion sometimes isn't enough. We need to "see" and witness what we don't understand or don't believe. Graham pours over crime scene photos and Dollarhyde questions his observers to see the beauty or flaws he does. Manhunter, released during the full force of the MTV revolution, plays with visual stimulation brilliantly.