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William Petersen
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Better than 'Lambs'?

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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.

Reviewed by Mark Dinning

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Your Reviews

Average user rating for EMPIRE ESSAY: Manhunter
Empire Star Rating

Cult Classic Manhunter

An excellent film. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by lynnshep at 23:20, 23 February 2012 | Report This Post

Cult Classic Manhunter

An excellent film. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by lynnshep at 23:20, 23 February 2012 | Report This Post

well directed, stylish, interesting but it is a bit empty and fails to develop characters which are obivously deeper than Michael Mann's script paper suggests. However it is enjoyable I like Brian Cox and all the other actors ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by willchadwick at 23:37, 26 April 2008 | Report This Post


Oustanding film, definatley my favourite Michael Mann film.   It has been a while since i've seen it but it made such and impcat on me when i 1st did! Noonan and Petersen are perfect casting in my opinion although Cox isn't quite as good a Lecter as Hopkins, but he still does a good job.   You've also got to love the quality 80's stylie soundtrack!   Cracking film! ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by shifty_powers at 10:47, 10 January 2006 | Report This Post


Forget Lector (although Hopkins looked like he so enjoyed doing Red Dragon, more so because he was now to own Lecter forever) but don't you feel that William Peterson's Will Graham was more true to the book than Ed Norton?  Red Dragon is odd with Ed (no he is too soft!) and Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde.  I kept seeing him as Ralph Fiennes and not for a second did he convince me he was the cleft killer!  He made a more convincing and sadistic killer in Schindlers List!  So in m... More

Posted by Spiderwoman at 17:46, 09 January 2006 | Report This Post


I think that the film is pretty good, but no masterpiece. Mostly because of the ending that doesn't sit right with the rest of the movie. The book is fantastic, as is the ending in it, and while I can see why they would change it, it still feels like it was thrown in as a sort of crowd pleaser. Red Dragon (the movie) also dropped the ball when it came to the ending - and it's even worse than Manhunter's. It's also interesting to see two such different takes on the novel, and I think that they'r... More

Posted by Jexxon at 08:24, 09 January 2006 | Report This Post


It's more of a Micheal Mann film than a Lecter film. I enjoyed the film because of Mann's directing skills but I disliked Lector (or Lektor). Sir Anthony Hopkins rules! ... More

Posted by BobaJango at 23:30, 07 January 2006 | Report This Post


Michael Mann's best film. One of the only films i've seen that really digs deep into the mind of a killer. The whole film has a cold emotionless look to it, from Dr Lekter's pure while cell to Will's beach house, yet you connect with these characters. After Francis has slept with Reba he puts her hand over his difigured mouth and starts to cry in that single moment you understand why he is what he is. The most beautiful film i have ever seen. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by bub at 23:14, 06 January 2006 | Report This Post

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