Sunday, April 23, 2017

Before I Die #599: Manhunter (1986)

This is the 599th movie that I've now seen out of the 1,187 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm working my way through.


Director: Michael Mann

A really interesting and compelling, if noticeably flawed, movie that was ahead of its time in several ways.

Nearly everyone over the age of 25, and an awful lot of people younger than that, are aware that Silence of the Lambs was the brilliant, ground-breaking psychological thriller film that brought the character Hannibal Lecter to a massively wide audience back in 1991. It also spawned a number of sequels, and even the modern, critically-acclaimed TV series Hannibal. Far less known is that Silence of the Lambs was not the first Hannibal Lecter film. Five years prior to Jonathon Demme's amazing take on Thomas Harris's novel, director Michael Mann headed up a film adaptation of the first "Lecter" novel, Red Dragon, but changed the name to Manhunter. This was all news to me until several years ago, when I was perusing movie lists. When I considered how wildly successful the Lecter character would become, and how skilled a director Michael Mann is, I wondered just how this movie isn't better known.

The movie is not dissimilar in general structure to Silence of the Lambs. F.B.I. investigator Will Graham (William Peterson) is called back from convalescence to help the Bureau track down a serial killer known as "The Tooth Fairy." Graham reluctantly accepts and begins the process of profiling the killer. Graham's method involves trying to think like the killers he tracks, which at times leaves him in disturbed mental states. While on the trail of the Tooth Fairy, he hits a roadblock and is forced to consult with the last serial killer whom he had captured, Doctor Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecktor (the spelling was changed for this movie), played by Bryan Cox. As Graham immerses himself deeper and deeper into the case, he grows more disturbed and erratic. As the clock ticks on the Tooth Fairy's next kill, Graham walks an ever-shakier tightrope of sanity.

In terms of its blend of ultra-dark subject matter with a sleek aesthetic, this movie was ahead of the curve. Sure, the twisted minds and worlds or serial killers and psychopaths had been done well a few times before, with movies like Blow Up, Taxi Driver, and even others like Peeping Tom or the seminal Psycho from all the way back in 1960. What Michael Mann did, though, was to apply his particular cinematic vision to such a tale - a look that he had introduced and honed on the hit TV show Miami Vice, which was at its absolute peak when Manhunter came out in 1986. To this day, many of the shots and sequences are stunning, even if there is a glossy, artificial appearance to more than a few of them. It was a combination of elements unlike anything else I can recall from the period.

One of the many stunning, carefully framed shots in the movie.
Such visual care shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with
Mann's other films like
Heat or The Insider.
The visionary elements are quite clear in the movie, as are the flaws. There is the aforementioned artificiality to certain scenes. There are also more than a few slow-motion action sequences, a technique which I grew tired of long ago. The other awkward element is the the way that the Will Graham character "narrates" his projections into the mind of the Tooth Fairy. As much as I feel that voice-over narration is a cinematic crutch, it probably would have been less clumsy than what Mann decided to do, which seems overly stagey.

Manhunter is a great example of a greatly flawed but ultimately visionary film. It can still be appreciated for the bold subject matter and the psychological complexity of its main characters, to be sure. However, it's impossible to ignore how certain visual and narrative elements have aged very poorly. I am actually curious to now watch the more recent version of this story - the 2002 movie Red Dragon. I've never seen it, but it has a great cast and some solid reviews. I suspect that the face lift that the more recent creators gave the story could be of great benefit. I'm sure I'll have that review up before too long.

That's 599 movies down. Only 588 to go before I can die.