The first time I saw Manhunter was as part of the old BBC2 Moviedrome season presented by Alex Cox. I remember how freaked out I was. There was something about the beginning. The film opens like a giallo, but stripped of camp: we see the killer’s point of view as he invades a family home at night, passes the children’s bedroom on his way to his real prize, the night-vision video showing a distorted view of the woman waking up in bed and peering into the dark, right at us, the killer, but not seeing us. The opening places us in the position of the killer and this is the job of its hero as well, Will Graham, played by a post-To Live and Die in LA but pre-CSI William Petersen. Graham is the eponymous Manhunter, called in by the gloriously lumpy Dennis Farina to help catch a serial killer who is massacring families every full moon. Graham’s method is to get inside the mind of the killer, tapping into an almost psychic state ladled with the similarly dubious ‘science’ of behavioural psychology and some advice from captured serial killer and psychologist Dr Hannibal Lecktor.
Moviedrome showed Manhunter in 1991, the year that saw the release of Jonathan Demme’s hugely successful and Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs. That film was followed by a Ridley Scott sequel, Hannibal, which was also based on a Thomas Harris novel, but one that had obviously been written with the film in mind. There is a moment in the book when Agent Clarice Starling flashes her breasts for no other reason, I suspect, than the shameless desire on Mr Harris’s part to see Jodie Foster’s boobs. Scott’s film lacked the genuine Gothic creepiness of Demme’s masterful piece and gruesomeness was exchanged for an unlikely Grand Guignol schlock. Then came the Manhunter remake Red Dragon, starring Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes. No fate can be so ignominious in filmmaking as to have your film remade by Brett Ratner of Rush Hour ‘fame’. As the dead horse-flogging machine was jammed in reverse, Hannibal Rising went back to the origins of Dr Lecter (spelt as in the novels).
Considering the awfulness of what was to happen, one could be forgiven for re-watching Manhunter and harking back to happier days when Dr Lecter/Lecktor was a bit part and not some sort of Dexter-like super-hero. Both Demme and Mann kept their culinary psychopath to a minimum and allowed his dissonance to resonate through the rest of their films. However, Mann’s film, it has to be said, is deeply flawed. Brian Cox’s Lecktor seems gripped more by ennui than psychosis and it doesn’t help that his most dangerous act in the film is making an illicit phone call. Petersen plays Graham as a troubled soul, but his muttering to himself -’you opened their eyes didn’t you, you son of a bitch!’ - and head-cocked reveries swiftly become wearisome (although better than Edward Norton’s phoned-in performance of the same role). Dennis Farina is always, always an enjoyable watch - Mann’s underrated TV series Crime Story should be seen by all - but here he is miscast as nothing more than a glorified administrator. Again, Demme’s film has it spot on with the cadaverous and Lecter-like Scott Glenn in the same role, whereas Farina should be punching people, not answering phones. On the plus side, Tom Noonan, as the softly spoken serial killer Francis Dollarhyde, is a terrifically odd physical presence, who can at turns be terrifying and sympathetic.
The film is genuinely good when teams of men have to do things: stake-outs, shoot-outs and what not. And the film has an oddly compelling sense of place. The art museum prison that houses Lecktor was unsurprisingly filmed in an art museum. There’s a conversation between Graham and his son, which is filmed in a supermarket that also could be an art museum, with an in-focus Campbell’s Soup tin on one of the shelves. This is a world where everything is art deco; nothing is messy or dirty, and night time doesn’t mean darkness, it means electric blue light, like the light that comes from a sun bed. Whereas Demme went into the dungeons and cellars of our minds, as well as the literal dungeons and cellars of our world, Mann has white labs, glass elevators, anonymous hotel rooms, and his killer’s lair isn’t so much creepy as it is tacky, with a huge picture of what looks like the surface of Mars furnishing one wall.
The music throughout the film is intrusive, with every character (especially the killer) sharing Mann’s taste in Adult Oriented Rock. If this was Drive, we would be saying how ironic, but it isn’t, and it isn’t. The killer’s playing of Iron Butterfly could be seen as an act of mercy, consoling his victims that at least they’ll soon be shot of a world that could produce such horrors.
On the evidence of the commentary track and the complete absence of humour, Michael Mann is deadly serious with this film and some moments warrant that, but, paradoxically, this po-faced insistence on the importance of his project (and this runs through much of his career) highlights the silliness of what he’s up to and makes it more, not less, difficult to take seriously.