A commercial flop at the time of release, the film that introduced moviegoers to Hannibal Lecter has since earned deserved plaudits. George Nash takes a look at its impact three decades on…
Manhunter, director Michael Mann’s 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris’s bestselling novel Red Dragon, is a film about transformations. Like The Silence of the Lambs – Jonathan Demme’s take on Harris’s subsequent text – would achieve with Oscar-winning success half a decade later, Mann’s third feature, which features Brian Cox on menacing form in Hannibal Lecter’s fleeting first screen appearance, explores a dark and sinister path towards metamorphosis.
It is rather fitting then that in the 35 years since Mann’s movie was widely dismissed by audiences and critics alike, it has become one of the most intriguing and influential crime films of the last half a century.
However, to compare Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs quickly becomes as trivial as it might initially seem fascinating. Despite their innate literary connection, these are two largely dissimilar films. One is a moody police procedural. The other is a horror-tinged thriller – or, if you’ve a taste for such things, a rather unconventional love story. Where Demme opts for shadows, dingy cellars and gothic-inspired dungeons, Mann shoots with oppressive lighting, in plush, pristine suburban housing and piercing-white prison cells. And while The Silence of the Lambs cleaned up during awards season – becoming one of only three films to claim the so-called ‘Big Five’ at the Academy Awards – Manhunter made little over half of its $15m budget at the global box office.
But where the films differ most is actually where they are most closely aligned. In their mutual examinations of transition, Demme’s movie deals largely in overt binary: from lambs to death’s-head hawkmoths, to pitting Clarice Starling, a driven, resourceful figure of righteousness, against Buffalo Bill, the monstrous other. In particular, the gender identity of the latter – Demme repeatedly claimed the character wasn’t intended to be trans – has been the subject of much debate three decades on, rendering The Silence of the Lambs a widely-lauded but equally problematic work. Mann’s film, meanwhile, is arguably a more enduring beast: a dark tale of transformation and voyeurism that offers a slippery, unsettling gaze into the mind of a monster.
In fact, many of the big players in the recent crime drama boom that has come to define the binge watching era – shows like True Detective and David Fincher’s moreish series Mindhunter – carry much of what Mann was tapping into in 1986. A film with flawed men at every turn – and when it comes to Mann, it’s almost always men – the central plot concerns Will Graham (William Petersen), a retired FBI profiler who, still scarred from his showdown with Lecktor years earlier, is coaxed out of his quiet family life by the sea to help catch a criminal eerily dubbed ‘The Tooth Fairy’ (Tom Noonan), an enigmatic serial killer who butchers entire families in accordance with the lunar cycle. But while Mann, who also penned the screenplay, remains largely faithful to Harris’s text (the inexplicable misspelling of the iconic cannibal’s surname notwithstanding), contemporaneous criticism of Manhunter stemmed largely from the view that it was all style and no substance.
In the 1980s, a decade teeming with masked, otherworldly bogeymen, gruesome practical effects and erotically charged thrillers, perhaps it was the film’s firm commitment to muddying the moral divide, the increasingly blurred line between criminal and pursuer, and the damaged, uncharismatic detective at the centre of it all – tropes that in 2021 might seem generic but in 1986 constituted something notably different – that condemned Mann’s film to its lukewarm reception upon release.
But the film’s subsequent re-evaluation has generated newfound appreciation for what was initially dismissed as little more than glossy pulp. In what begins as a glacial police procedural, sharing much of the same stoic machismo of 80s cop shows like Miami Vice (where Mann served as a showrunner and Executive Producer), slowly unfurls as a brooding, complex thriller. Heat, Mann’s 1995 sprawling crime odyssey – widely regarded as his magnum opus – might have found widespread success with the cat and mouse formula, but Manhunter is less cat and mouse and more cat becomes mouse.
In perhaps the film’s finest scene, Graham visits an incarcerated Lecktor in the hope of “getting the scent back”. Their short exchange, as they sit separated only by set of prison bars, is particularly telling. As Lecktor delivers snide, even witty remarks (“I don’t tear out the articles,” he says about the Tooth Fairy’s media coverage. “I wouldn’t want them to think I was dwelling on anything morbid”), Mann shrewdly deploys reverse camera shots to suggest that both men are, essentially, two sides of the same coin, trapped by their own obsessive impulses. At one point Lecktor even surmises that “the reason you caught me, Will, is we’re just alike”.
Later, as we witness Graham combing through hours of victims’ grainy home video from dingy motel rooms before retracing the steps of the killer with unnerving detail, there’s a growing feeling that he is never far from becoming as predatory as the men he hunts. In its probing examination of twisted empathy, reinforced by the recurring motif of mirrors, Manhunter presents a protagonist who, in a sense, must become what he aims to destroy.
But not before first destroying what he has already become. During one key moment, Graham sits alone in a diner late at night, his weary face reflected in the window as he stares intensely out into the darkness surrounding him. “It’s just me and you now, sport,” he proclaims, as if, on some telekinetic plane, speaking directly to the Tooth Fairy. He could, however, just as easily be talking to his own reflection: the unstable, fanatical side of his psyche from his days chasing Lecter that re-emerges as every other part if his existence – the stoic façade; the pleasant domestic life his has built for himself – has started to fall away.
It’s an unnerving development, one served in arresting, unsubtle ways by the film’s jarring blend of abrupt editing, an overbearing rock-synth score, and sudden eruption of tracks like Iron Butterfly’s ‘In A Gadda Da Vida’ – all things that, at the time, The New York Times declared as “overkill”. On the contrary, Manhunter’s unsettling, unpolished look and feel speaks rather effectively to the gradual, unhinged transformation of its protagonist. Equally notable is cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s striking use of unnatural, Dario Argento-style greens, presenting the isolation, the disconcerting impulses and the all-consuming metamorphosis of Noonan’s killer as an encroaching, infectious disease.
More than three decades on, as the demand for gripping police drama, the thirst for dark exposés of terrifying true-life murderers, increases with seemingly unquenchable fervour, Manhunter’s style and substance appear similarly contagious. Just consult the crime thriller section of any contemporary streaming service, and you’ll find the prints of Graham, Mann and co. smeared all over it.
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_GeorgeNash for more movie musings.