Michael Mann had already made a classic by the time he directed his third film, but Manhunter arguably marks his true emergence as Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic action director. Thief, from 1981, introduced audiences to the filmmaker’s trademark fastidious attention to detail and emphasis on both characters’ professionalism and dissatisfied ennui, but it nonetheless felt like a belated New Hollywood feature, steeped in the immediate misery of its protagonist. His 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, however, is contemporary to a fault, so reflective of current aesthetic trends that it becomes a quintessential depiction of them.
Boiled down to its essence, Manhunter is a psychological noir, one that takes the recurrent crime-drama notion that a thin line separates hero from villain and pushes it to the extreme in the form of Will Graham (William Petersen). A forensic investigator with a nearly supernatural capacity for empathy, he solves cases by completely sinking into the subjectivity of suspects. Graham can arrive at a crime scene, look at evidence, and build a psychological profile from objective documents, intuiting the passions and illnesses that prompted a crime. That makes him an invaluable asset, but it also places the man at risk of succumbing to the same madness he preternaturally channels.
Compared to the operatic theatricality of future films in the Hannibal Lecter series, Manhunter operates on a drained emotional wavelength more suited to actual psychopaths and the traumatized individuals who cross their paths. Peterson typically keeps Graham on an even keel, giving the character’s interactions with colleagues and family a softness that belies his obsessive focus on his work. When he screams, he’s usually in the headspace of the criminals he’s tracking, deducing their motives, desires, and frustrations until he begins to exhibit some of their inchoate rage.
But even the villains are muted. The Iago-esque glee that Anthony Hopkins brought to Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs nowhere to be found in Brian Cox’s blood-chilling portrayal of the character. This Hannibal is disturbingly mundane, with his shaved prison haircut, unblinking eyes, and laconic delivery. He sits in an ordinary cell, not some Gothic dungeon, and he speaks to Graham with total detachment, which renders his vicious sarcasm barely detectable. Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan) is even more withdrawn, compartmentalizing his shame and longing into an eerily flat voice and sullen face that struggle to tamp down repression and rage.
Mann’s screenplay homes in on the novel’s forensic progression, drawing its suspense not only from the threat of Dolarhyde’s killing spree, but from the ambiguous viability of every shred of evidence: half of a hair found on a note from Dolarhyde to Hannibal, or a cryptic message passed between killers. Yet Mann shoots this objective accumulation of clues with wild flourishes of color and composition. Neon burns bright against dim backdrops including a band of blazing hot pink that runs along the top of the photo lab where Dolarhyde works. Wide-angle lenses project the trauma of Graham’s empathy into negative space, magnifying the smoldering intensity of Petersen’s performance with visual cues to the investigator’s haphazard mental state.
Mann’s focus is so esoteric that he slowly turns the garish thriller into a kind of poetry. Slow motion is frequently employed, though the director uses it less to call attention to any detail than for its musical cadence. A scene of Dolarhyde taking blind co-worker Reba (Joan Allen) on an ad hoc date to the zoo to run her hands over a sedated tiger feels like some ancient courtship ritual for the mad. Meanwhile, Graham’s epiphany as to the identity of the killer is almost spiritual, scored to soaring synths that peak at the moment of realization with the piercing wail of a guitar power chord. Mann finds in such moments a bold form of character expression, prefiguring an entire career of revealing psychological depth in pulp terms.
Manhunter’s blend of naturalism and heightened stylization cannot help but produce an uneven image, but this Blu-ray is the best home-video release of Michal Mann’s classic to date for its balance of sunlit exteriors and deep blacks punctuated by flashes of neon colors. Having said that, the frequent presence of shots that suffer from either too much noise or too much noise removal suggests that the source could still use a true restoration. Most of the nighttime scenes are free of crush, but color stability is inconsistent at times and produces blended palettes. The director’s cut, included on a separate disc, mixes an inferior HD transfer with standard-definition clips of the excised material, naturally producing an inconsistent image.
Audio, however, fares much better, though the 5.1 remix too often separates the original stereo elements too clumsily, especially in the opening scene on a beach as waves crash with split seconds of silence between each crest, or in the nagging echo of Dolarhyde’s scene with Stephen Lang’s tabloid reporter. Despite these drawbacks, the film’s soundtrack of ’80s synth rock and Tangerine Dream-esque electronica has never sounded better, though most should stick to the original 2.0 track, which balances the music with the dialogue and Foley effects to much more natural effect.
Even by the standards of Shout! Factory’s dedication to providing numerous, quality extras on their home-video releases, the features assembled for this Blu-ray edition of Manhunter are exhaustive. Extensive interviews are conducted with all of the principal cast, as well as cinematographer Dante Spinotti and the musicians who worked on the soundtrack. The shortest of these still runs 10 minutes, meaning that everyone gets ample time to describe their experiences on the film. Petersen’s interview, in particular, offers a wealth of information, from the aside that Will Graham’s house was actually the home of avant-garde artist Robert Rauschenberg, to his memories of cognitive dissonance upon arriving on the set of such a meticulously formal filmmaker with a background consisting almost entirely of theater work. The director’s cut of the film comes with a commentary from Michael Mann, and despite the track’s frequent pauses, the director imparts a great deal of insight into his thematic approach, his intensive research, even his minute observations of the actors’ body language and how they’re as much visual cues as lighting and camera placement. Also included are the original theatrical trailer and a still gallery.
Though it could still use a restoration, Michael Mann’s classic thriller Manhunter has never looked better on home video, and Shout! Factory’s extensive extras make this the version of the film to own.