Sunday, March 18, 2012

Flick of The Day: Manhunter

Red Dragon, the Thomas Harris novel released in 1981 was the first to include his brilliantly disturbing creation Dr Hannibal Lecter. After Anthony Hopkins made the role his own with Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, there have been various attempts to milk more money from the franchise with more adaptations including  a glossy 2002 adaptation of Red Dragon directed by Brett Ratner. However, a far more nuanced and thrilling approach was taken way back in 1986 when Michael Mann introduced the world to Dr Lecter with today's flick of the day Manhunter.
The film opens with  a chilling scene, we are introduced to the Tooth Fairy killer Francis Dollarhyde played by the great character actor Tom Noonan as he stalks another family, moving quietly through a house flash light in hand as the camera pans. Soon thereafter we meet Will Graham, played by William Petersen, a brilliant criminal profiler who has recently retired to a life on the beach with his young family after cracking on the job after catching Dr Lecter. Into this idyll steps Will's old FBI colleague Jack Crawford, played by a gruff Dennis Farina, who  pleads with Will to come back and help catch the Tooth Fairy. Before long Will is hot on the trail, using his ability to get inside the mind to track the killer including consulting with imprisoned Hannibal, played with an eerie calm by Brian Cox in a much different characterisation to that of Hopkins 5 years later. Adding to Will's difficulties are a tabloid reporter out for self-aggrandizement and Hannibal's attempts to seek revenge from behind bars.
Manhunter was a critical success but a commercial failure upon its release but its difficult to see why having as it does all the elements of great suspense film-making. Perhaps inevitably compared to Ratner's later Hopkins based adaptation, it is a far superior film. Michael Mann has always been a director with an eye for style and this film exudes it. Each scene makes use of a glorious pallet of colours and together with Mann's editing and framing creates a tension that allows the actors to concentrate on performance. Cox's Lecter revels in his dislike for Will Graham a man he despises simply for having caught him, he doesn't play with Graham in the same manner as Hopkins in Red Dragon. Tom Noonan's Francis Dollarhyde is a chillingly plausible individual, the kind of quiet individual who lives on the margins of society.
The stylization marks this as an 80's film from the beginning and this has served to date the film somewhat but yet gives it a visual cache in much the same manner as other films of the period such as Brian De Palma's Scarface

Will Graham: I know that I'm not smarter than you. 
Doctor Hannibal Lecktor: Then how did you catch me? 
Will Graham: You had disadvantages. 
Doctor Hannibal Lecktor: What disadvantages? 
Will Graham: You're insane.

Colour is a very important part of the film with scenes involving Will and his wife making use of a "romantic blue"  while a green hue with elements of purple is used for the more menacing scenes usually involving Dollarhyde while Lecter's scenes are dominated by the white background. Mann also makes use of different frame rates to engage the audience and create tension. The climax of the film alternately flicks between 24, 36, 72 and 90 frames per second.
Given its failure upon release, Manhunter has come to be seen as somewhat of a cult movie which is to do it a disservice. It is the equal of The Silence of the Lambs in terms of style and performance and deserves to be seen as such. While comparisons are invidious and so open to opinion, it is far superior to Brett Ratner's later adaptation and very worthy of a second viewing.

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