An FBI specialist tracks a serial killer who appears to select his victims at random.
"He has no sides, no boundaries, no past, no conscience. Just pure, unadulterated, evil, evil genius," said Brian Cox of his most fearful incarnation to date — one Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lektor. And although both the spelling of his name, and the man adopting the mantle were to be altered for Jonathan Demme's The Silence Of The Lambs five years later this is arguably the finer hour for cinema's most alluring psychopath (incidentally two of the original cast, support players Frankie Faison and Dan Butler, actually made the transition). In fact, despite appearing in a mere three scenes in Michael Mann's superlative chiller, he with the penchant for Italian plonk, dominates the running time, largely unseen but omnipresent, casting an incarcerated eye over external events very much under his control.
Unlike Lambs, Manhunter — initially titled Red Dragon after Thomas Harris' novel, but re-named when Year Of The Dragon (1985) flopped and Dino De Laurentiis decided to avoid a similar moniker — is an exercise in subtlety and nuance. Cox predates Anthony Hopkins' flamboyance with a cold, quietly sinister confidence. However, the serial killer he's enlisted to help track down The Tooth Fairy (Noonan), represents the psychological opposite of Lambs' Buffalo Bill — calm, ordered, a follower of the "savage mind" school of magic and mortality, and (chillingly) a more fully functioning member of society.
Likewise, the third spoke in the film's central troika of intelligent-but-flawed characters is FBI profiler Will Graham. Realised by Peterson, this character has an intensity bordering on the psychotic (as Lektor so aptly taunts: "The reason you caught me, Will, is we're just alike") and represents the theme of a hunter needing to achieve empathy for his quarry which Mann would re-explore in Heat (1995).
Here, in only his third feature, he is at his very best. An avid Zen enthusiast, Mann blends languid shots of stark horizons (again a nod to the relationship between mortal man and infinite nature) with his trademark aesthetics of "neon angst", minimalist hues of colour, and modernist architecture. Those who at the time had hoped to draw parallels between this and his Miami Vice TV series were — aside, admittedly, from a couple of grey-flecked suits which would have done Crockett and Tubbs proud — missing the mark by a mile.
From the opening frame Mann grounds his audience squarely in the mindset of a psychopath (cue the tagline: "Enter the mind of a serial killer... you may never come back"), playing out a haunting pre-credit sequence from the PO V of The Tooth Fairy's own Super 8 camcorder as he breaks into the house of his next victims. Combined with the stylised, bleak cinematography of twice Oscar-nominated — for L.A. Confidential (1997) and The Insider (1999) — Dante Spinotti, and a thrashing score that evokes a genuine sense of suppressed rage, it's the perfect introduction to a film embued throughout with a sense of ominous inevitability.
For while Manhunter's primary attack on the senses is a visual one, it's an underlying tone of foreboding and mental fragility that establishes its timeless quality. Indeed, Mann made a number of cuts to maintain the mood. Most notably in his portrayal of Francis Dollarhyde (The Tooth Fairy's real name) — a man obsessed by the surreal artwork of William Blake, just as Ted Bundy was with poetry — and his quest to transform himself into Blake's legendary depiction of the Red Dragon. Where early takes saw Dollarhyde's chest and back covered in a crimson dragon tattoo, Mann later felt this too obvious an indicator of his psychological disintegration, claiming it "diminished the character", and re-shot the scenes sans body art. Similarly, he felt that early scenes of Lektor's childhood, "Slowed the action down too much," a subplot examining the true depth of Graham's troubled psychosis "confused things" and a sequence in which Molly pays her husband a conjugal visit detracted from his sense of isolation.
Comparatively, scenes between Dollarhyde and his blind muse Reba (Allen) were expanded to fully convey their significance — she is his last (and rejected) chance at redemption before his personality becomes completely usurped by that of the dragon. The deliberate arrangement of his body, when he is finally put to rest by Graham, took on a new poignance, laid out in identikit fashion to the woman — not dragon — in Blake's painting. His merging with the mystical beast has failed. He is still a man.
And it is this final reel that perhaps best sums up Manhunter's ultimate brilliance. In a decade where serial killer plotlines were ten-a-penny, their psychos simply masked degenerates and "heroes" two-dimensional caricatures, here was a movie that dared to allow insight) into a damaged psyche. Although it never entirely inspired sympathy it dared to help its audience try to I partly understand, partly pity and partly even empathise with the plight of its reprehensible owner.
Probing psychological study of madness and damn scary to boot.