Starring William Petersen, Tom Noonan, Brian Cox, Joan Allen
Directed by Michael Mann
Distributed by Scream Factory
The first time I watched Manhunter (1986) was late one night, years ago, when my teenage mind wasn’t ready for Michael Mann’s procedural crime thriller. There is a measured pace to Mann’s films that some people aren’t prepared for. I clearly wasn’t, and for the next decade I recalled it to be a bore fest. It took a reevaluation some time later to realize that statement could not be more wrong. This is even more evident if you’re familiar with Red Dragon (2002), director Brett Ratner’s paint-by-numbers version of the same film, featuring a scene-chewing Edward Norton and audience favorite Anthony Hopkins as Lecter. It’s hard to even compare the two films since they’re totally – and tonally – different beasts. Mann’s film is a strongly crafted, meticulous study of the procedural work that encompasses a crime investigation, whereas Ratner’s film is a love letter to Hopkins, lacking in nuance and strong direction. Both films are enjoyable for different reasons, but they don’t exist in the same universe in regard to quality.
Will Graham (William Petersen) is a former FBI agent who is retired, living in Florida following a mental breakdown after his capture of the notorious serial killer, Hannibal Lecktor (intentionally misspelled in the movie, played by Brian Cox). A new killer is on the horizon, dubbed the “Tooth Fairy” (Tom Noonan), and Graham’s old boss, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), wants Will on the case because he’s the best. Despite his hesitation, Will agrees. Still, he eventually lets the details of the case completely consume his life. In order to capture this killer, he has to get inside a killer’s mind – and that means paying a visit to his old nemesis, Lecktor, in an effort to see this thing from all sides. Graham’s mind begins to slowly unravel due to the stress of trying to predict the Tooth Fairy’s next move, dealing with an unscrupulous reporter, Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang), and keeping his family safe from Lecktor’s reach.
Manhunter was created during a period of time after director Michael Mann had left his successful production post on “Miami Vice” (1984-1990). He put three years of research into writing the film, which is a big part of why it is considered such a seminal crime thriller. That also might have been why it wasn’t well received upon release. Anyone familiar with Mann’s films knows that he loves to take his time manipulating the audience, drawing out events until the tension reaches a fever pitch. This isn’t a typical cop/killer film full of expected twists and turns; this is an atypical police drama that examines the depths someone is willing to go to catch a killer. The script is chock full of heavy police jargon, detective work, criminal profiling and forensic analysis – all the stuff that seems so commonplace, now that television is brimming with police procedurals. But to make a film like this back in the ‘80s? There just weren’t many guys, if any, willing to do it. It only took critics over a decade to realize how ahead of his time Mann was when he wrote the film.
Anchoring the impressive roster of actors is William Petersen, who delivers a stunning portrayal as FBI agent Will Graham. When the film begins, he’s enjoying a quiet life that he has no intentions of giving up. Jack Crawford is desperate to have Will’s expertise on the case, ignoring that his participation comes at a cost. The irony is that in order to catch a killer, Will has to practically “become” him, delving deep into the Tooth Fairy’s warped psyche, along with assistance from Lecktor, to think like he does, desperately trying to find a link – any connection – that could lead to where he’s going to strike next. The toll this kind of sleuthing takes on Will is most clearly defined during the scene where he and Jack argue as the lunar deadline to catch the Tooth Fairy approaches. Jack is willing to concede they’re going to have to accept that another family is about to get murdered, but Will snaps back “…don’t talk to me about late, pal! I’ll tell you when it’s too fucking late! Until then, we go as late as I wanna take it!” Petersen completely loses himself in the role of an agent who is the best at what he does, even though it throws his world into chaos. Petersen has even been quoted as saying that Graham’s personality traits crept into him after production had ceased, causing him to shave his head and trim his facial hair so he looked like a new person to himself.
Anyone who thinks that Anthony Hopkins is the only guy who can play Hannibal Lecter is sorely mistaken. It may be Hopkins’ signature role (and I do agree he’s the best actor to play the part) but Brian Cox delivers a different, chilling performance as the mad cannibal. Cox, a Scotsman, modeled his performance after Peter Manuel, a serial killer active in Scotland during the mid ‘50s. A rumor has stated Cox gave his audition with his back to the producers, as they felt the vocal tone of Lecktor was more important than his appearance. Cox plays him with all the cool sophistication of an aristocrat, a thinly veiled shroud of madness lurking just behind that soothing tone. Unlike Red Dragon, where the Hannibal role was significantly beefed up to give Hopkins more screen time, we spend even less time with him here than in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Lecktor isn’t meant to be the audience’s focus; he’s merely a sideshow act that manages to attract eyeballs through the stories of his grim misdeeds. He is only seen twice in the film – once when Graham goes to visit him, and a second time when the two share a phone call. Otherwise, he remains off-screen, yet his presence is felt throughout. That truly is a testament not only to the work of Cox, but also to the legacy of the character itself.
Although it was initially criticized, Mann’s overt use of color to convey emotion and mood is seen as a major part of why the film is now so highly regarded. Mann, with director of photography Dante Spinotti, infused scenes with a specific color palette to bring the audience closer to the characters. Scenes that feature Will and/or his wife make use of cool blue filters, while those with the Tooth Fairy are painted in shades of sickly green. Color has always been of importance to Mann. He practically ushered in a new wave of style thanks to the flashy pastels of “Miami Vice”, and many could arguably say the show wouldn’t have been as popular without those vibrant hues. With Manhunter, the distinct colors allow viewers to associate Will with comfort and warmth, while the Tooth Fairy brings forth feelings of sickness and unease. While these techniques might seem too “on the nose” for some, they do give the film a unique aesthetic that sets it apart from other crime dramas of the period. The manipulation of the audience through editing and color is a technique Mann has consistently used throughout his career, arguably never more so effectively than here.
Gotta mention the phenomenal soundtrack, too. Mann makes use of popular hits throughout the film, most notably the track “Heartbeat” (naturally) and Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” during the film’s tense climax. The build-up with the latter track as Graham stalks the home of the Tooth Fairy is a palm-sweating moment. It’s interesting to note that many of the songs are used in a diegetic fashion, rather than existing outside the universe in which the film takes place. The decision to do this gives the impact of the songs extra weight, as some of the action perfectly synchs with the on-screen music. Composer Michael Rubini’s cue, “Graham’s Theme”, stands out as a brooding, synth-heavy track that is a perfect example of the mood Mann was going for.
There isn’t much fault to be found with the film’s 2.35:1 1080p picture. The transfer here is an exact copy of the previous MGM Blu-ray, albeit with a different encode, and the results are nearly identical to that disc. Only eagle-eyed videophile nerds will suggest otherwise, as the encode used here is slightly different. DP Dante Spinotti’s use of color filters imbues the image with a rich palette that is perfectly captured by this high-definition release. The bold hues result in a picture that is extremely striking. Film grain looks particularly good, giving the image depth and texture without ever obscuring the picture or appearing artificial. The image beneath the grain is finely detailed. Hannibal films haven’t been treated too kindly on Blu-ray thus far, so I’m pleased to report this is likely the finest of the bunch in high-def. Black levels have a deeply rich appearance that never wavers. Much of the film takes place in the confines of a starlit sky, so black levels remaining… well, black, is of crucial importance.
The director’s cut looks the same as the theatrical cut, with the exception of the standard definition inserts. Even if you aren’t close to being a video quality expert, you’ll notice the drastic shift in quality. The scenes and shots look like they’ve been spliced in from a VHS.
Another thing that people will notice is there are a couple of jerky edits during the film. The two most obvious examples are when Will is watching video footage at the Leeds’ house and during the climax when the Tooth Fairy has his confrontation with Will. In each scene, there is a noticeably abrupt edit that advances the film a few frames.
It’s not an aggressive mix, but the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack perfectly captures the intended tone of the film. The synth-heavy score is hypnotic in its delivery, particularly those cues composed by Michael Rubini. The soundtrack cuts are what really bring the track to life, none more so than the finale set to Iron Butterfly’s sole hit single. The film relies heavily on the use of sound and song to convey emotions, and the track excels at making sure these cues resonate with the viewer. At times dialogue is a little on the low side. Those levels should have been brought up a few notches so as to be in line with the balance previously established for dialogue in the film. Despite being a surround sound track, there is little activity in the rear speakers. Occasionally, there are some spare, ambient sounds coming from the rears, but more often than not they remain silent. An English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo option is also included. Subtitles are available in English SDH.
“The Making of Manhunter” contains the following interviews:
– “The Mind of Madness” is an interview with actor William Petersen. Mann owed Petersen a favor after he didn’t get the role that went to Belushi in “Thief” (1981), so he cast him here as the lead.
– “Courting a Killer” is an interview with actress Joan Allen. Allen, who still looks great, talks about how this role was a big deal for her at the time.
– “Francis is Gone Forever” is an interview with actor Tom Noonan. The always-creepy actor discusses his career, bulking up for this role, cut scenes and more.
– “The Eye of the Storm” is an interview with director of photography Dante Spinotti. This is a very technical piece, with discussions about lighting, color use, etc.
“The Music of Manhunter” – Some of the musicians involved with contributing to the film’s impressive soundtrack discuss their work and what kind of notes Mann provided so their music met his expectations.
“The First Lecktor” is an interview with actor Brian Cox. Running almost four times longer than his on-screen appearance, the old Scot sits down to cover how he got the role, who else was up for it… all the usual conversation.
The film’s theatrical trailer and over one hundred images found in a still gallery are also included.
Writer/director Michael Mann’s audio commentary is only available on the director’s cut (naturally), and although the comments here come infrequently – there are many gaps of silence – Mann’s words are carefully chosen and packed with relevant details, both technical and personal.
“The Manhunter Look: A Conversation with Cinematographer Dante Spinotti” is a carryover from Anchor Bay’s DVD. While the information is mostly redundant, it is nice to see this package including previously available extras.
“Inside Manhunter with Stars William Petersen, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, and Tom Noonan” – This is another carryover, featuring some legacy interviews from the film’s main cast.
Also included is the director’s cut in standard definition, because… well, I don’t know why. Maybe so the reintegrated footage blends more easily? Not sure but I can’t say I recommend watching it this way.
Disc 1: Theatrical Version (HD)
- Two hours and 50 minutes of new bonus content!
- NEW The Mind of Madness – an interview with William Petersen (18 minutes)
- NEW Courting a Killer – an interview with actress Joan Allen (16 minutes)
- NEW Francis is Gone Forever – an interview with actor Tom Noonan (22 minutes)
- NEW The First Lecktor – an interview with actor Brian Cox (40 minutes)
- NEW The Eye of the Storm – an interview with director of photography Dante Spinotti (36 minutes)
- NEW The Music of MANHUNTER – including interviews with composer Michel Rubini, Barry Andrews (Shriekback), Gary Putman (The Prime Movers), Rick Shaffer (The Reds) and Gene Stashuk (Red 7) (42 minutes)
- Theatrical Trailer
- Still Gallery
Disc 2: Director’s Cut (HD with Standard Definition inserts)
- Audio Commentary by writer/director Michael Mann
- Director’s Cut (Standard Definition)
- The Manhunter Look – A Conversation with cinematographer Dante Spinotti (10 minutes)
- Inside Manhunter with stars William Petersen, Joan Allen, Brian Cox and Tom Noonan (18 minutes)