- Monthly Theme: Perverted Killers
- The Film: Manhunter
- Country of origin: U.S.A.
- Date of U.S. Release: August 15, 1986
- Studio: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG), et al.
- Distributer: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG)
- Domestic Gross: $8.5 million
- Budget $15 million
- Director: Michael Mann
- Producers: Dino De Laurentiis, Richard Roth & Bernard Williams
- Screenwriter: Michael Mann
- Adaptation? Yes. Based on Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon.
- Cinematographer: Dante Spinotti
- Make-Up/FX: Joseph Digaetano III, et al.
- Music: The Reds & Michel Rubini
- Part of a series? Sort of. It’s the first screen adaptation of the character Hannibal Lecter, who next appeared in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, played by Anthony Hopkins, which kicked off a franchise of Lecter films (of which Manhunter is not officially a part).
- Remakes? Yes, as 2002’s Red Dragon, which is the third film in the Hopkins-starring Hannibal Lecter franchise.
- Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Character actor Tom Noonan (The House of the Devil, Wolfen, etc.).
- Other notables?: William Petersen of C.S.I. fame. Character actors Dennis Farina, Joan Allen and Brian Cox.
- Awards?: Critics Award at the 1987 Cognac Festival du Film Policier.
- Tagline: “Enter the mind of a serial killer… you may never come back.”
- The Lowdown: Manhunter is the first cinematic adaptation of a Thomas Harris novel featuring the iconic character of Hannibal Lecter. Here, Lecter (played by Brian Cox) is a secondary character and the focus instead is on ex-FBI profiler Will Graham’s (William Peterson) hunt for a serial killer who is stalking and murdering entire families in the Atlanta area. The killer is actually Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), a photo-lab tech who is obsessed with William Blake’s Red Dragon paintings and believes his crimes will aid him in transforming into a mythic, post-human entity. Can Graham stop Dolarhyde before he claims his next victims?
If you haven’t seen Manhunter, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: Remember when we discussed Final Destination and one of the things we decided was that the worldview of the movie was actually incredibly bleak and pessimistic? That in the cosmology of the Final Destination films, the universe is malevolent, “God” is malevolent, and He/It is out to get us? That the universe actually takes pleasure from inflicting these baroque, violent deaths upon people?
Sean: That worldview seemed, to me, to be one of the main things under discussion in Manhunter. Specifically, Hannibal Lecter’s speech to Will Graham about God killing people indiscriminately out of pleasure and a thirst for power. He says, “If one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is.” The idea being that the ‘perverse’ violence embodied by both Lecter and Francis Dolarhyde is inspired by this dark divinity, that they are attempting to embody the nature of the Universe itself.
Kristine: I thought it was more about people “becoming” what they see as their true selves – so, for Hannibal that’s God, for Dolarhyde that’s the Red Dragon, for Graham it’s… Hannibal.
Sean: My take was that Dolarhyde’s Red Dragon is meant to be understood as simply a pagan/mythic representation of Divine Power.
Kristine: You’re probably correct. I had very mixed feelings about this movie. For all it’s bombastic qualities, I found it a little hard to stay fully engaged with.
Sean: The pace is rather sedate.
Kristine: But there were also things I really liked. Namely, how the architecture/set design and overall aesthetic worked to create a really strong and effective mood of alienation and fear (reminding me a bit of those Alex Katz paintings we discussed in connection with Dressed to Kill). I appreciated how the movie breaks from a lot of tiresome genre conventions. Instead of the mental hospital being a grungy dungeon, it’s an ultra-chic glossy white future palace (IRL that’s Atlanta’s High Museum). Instead of Mick’s outback aluminum siding ramshackle compound of terror, the killer lives in this cool, slick, design-forward pad. The contrast between the film’s glossy high-1980s aesthetic and the grimy subject matter really worked for me. When Graham is fleeing from the hospital? Loved that.
Sean: I agree 1000%. The aesthetics of this movie are wonderful and immersive. I love the outfits. I love the interiors. I love the Miami Vice neon Florida beach settings. I love the moody New Wave-ambient score.
Kristine: Oh, no, Sean. The soundtrack might be first on my “But, here were the things I hated” list.
Sean: You hated the score? Or the soundtrack? Because those are two very different things.
Kristine: Ah, you are correct. I responded too quickly. I hated the soundtrack. The score, yeah, was appropriate and moody.
Sean: I really dug it. And the songs from the soundtrack work for me because they just help make this movie a true document of the garish 1980s.
Kristine: One last thing about the High Museum/Hospital for the Criminally Insane? So, the museum is a real design icon, even amongst the rarified museum set. What struck me, besides the awesome idea to use it as a mental hospital set, is that it is also very much an icon of the 1980s. Like, it appears near the top of most “Best Architecture of the 1980s” lists. So, Mann is really devoted to his era.
Sean: Oh, so is the High Museum an instantly recognizable place?
Kristine: I don’t know about that. I didn’t recognize it at first. I knew it was something familiar, but I couldn’t place it. But that could be because of the crazy, swooping camera work and severe angles. I don’t know if there was ever a full-on still shot.
Kristine: Speaking of camera work, one of my favorite shots was when the guard hands off Lector’s (excuse me, “Lektor’s”) toilet paper note to Dr. Chilton, and for no real reason the camera swoops up to Chilton at his white retro-futurist desk super low and tight. I don’t know why it stuck with me, but it was so cool.
Sean: Yes. I do think the use of that space as Lecter’s prison is a good example of this movie’s retro-futurism, in which there’s a subtle ‘science fiction’ feel to the design (or at least, Kubrickian/2001 kind of sci-fi). That desk moment is a good example.
Kristine: Yeah. I thought of Kubrick, too, based on Manhunter’s specific aesthetic and also the meticulous framing of shots (especially in the beginning). I thought the beginning third or so was the strongest part of the movie. It sort of petered out for me after that.
Sean: I am shocked to hear you say that, because I feel like the Dolarhyde/Reba stuff if the most riveting in the movie. Dolarhyde makes Manhunter for me.
Kristine: That was interesting and genuinely moving, for sure. However, it is only a part of the action, and not a big enough part. Far too much of the action is Graham (who I was fine with at the beginning, and I cared not a whit for by the end) making comically intense declarations: “The killing must stop!” or “It’s just you and me now, sport. And I’m going to find you, goddamn it!” I truly didn’t care about his wife and kid, and the supermarket cereal aisle intense daddy/son convo was weird and ridiculous.
Sean: I totally agree with most of that, especially the cartoonish exposition delivered by Graham. Mann is such a visually gifted director. My main complaint is that he should have found a way to visually communicate a lot of that stuff, rather than having Graham scream “Didn’t you, you sonofabitch!?” over and over at various electronic appliances. A good example of Mann’s ability to convey plot purely visually is the sequence about Dolarhyde’s misinterpretation of the moment where Reba’s coworker drops her off at home and picks a piece of pollen off of her, but Dolarhyde sees it as an erotic exchange. He could have easily had Dolarhyde just rant “You’re a whore, aren’t you?” á la Graham, but instead Mann finds this elegant way to express the moment visually.
Kristine: You are so right. Graham would have screamed, “You’re a whore and now I am going to go full red dragon on ya!”
Kristine: God, I loved the image of Hannibal in his white cubicle cell (especially when he’s kicking back in thick comfy socks, legs up the wall) so much than the images of the Family Graham, clad in white on the beach.
Sean: Wrong, Kristine. Not clad in white. Clad in turquoise shirts with yellow darts on the shoulders and lavender pastel short shorts.
Kristine: True. Another flaw with the latter part of the movie, for me, was the lack of Brian Cox’s Hannibal Lecter. I thought both Cox and Tom Noonan (who, yes, I instantly recognized from The House of the Devil) as Dolarhyde were excellent.
Sean: The obvious question to ask here is, How did you feel Cox’s take on Hannibal Lecter measures up to Anthony Hopkins’ performance in The Silence of the Lambs?
Kristine: I love Cox’s performance. I think they are both great. I liked Cox’s less gonzo interpretation of the character. He’s less scary, but still very powerful. I loved him playing puppet master from his cell.
Kristine: This one may or may not be fair, but I was rolling my eyes at all of the movie’s played out forensic thriller tropes (though I recognize that in 1986 they probably weren’t so played out). This is one of the disadvantages of seeing Manhunter for the first time in 2014, after being inundated by police forensic procedurals for two decades. These annoyances include: the goofy nickname for the killer (by the way, how shitty for Dolarhyde that his chosen alter ego is the badass ‘Red Dragon’ but everyone insists on calling him the ‘Tooth Fairy.’ Not good for one’s complex about being perceived as gay); the hyper-intuitive detective who empathizes (maybe too much) with killer (Vincent D’onofrio on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, et al);the incredible feats of forensic science (getting fingerprints off of corneas) done at the speed of light.
Sean: Well, the actor who plays Graham went on to be the star of CSI for a million seasons, which was a bit of stunt casting because this movie helped invent that kind of forensics-based thriller. And I thought that nickname (‘Tooth Fairy’) was meant to be a homophobic slur/joke at Dolarhyde’s expense and that this was thematic – Lounds prints in his story that the killer is a frustrated homosexual, which incites Dolarhyde to kidnap/kill him in order to force a recantation.
Kristine: I loved the Lounds kill scene. See, that was in the superior first third of the movie. I really loved Dolarhyde and thought he was genuinely unsettling, creepy, and empathetic all at once. But when he reveals himself to Freddy Lounds – is it supposed to be scary? Because I was totally tense and scared during that scene up until the reveal. And then Dolarhyde looks so ridiculous, with that purple shirt and just kind of a goofy face. He totally has some menacing moments later, but not in that first reveal. I was giggling, and Lounds’ telenovela-esque exaggerated response of horror didn’t help matters.
Sean: I love the shirt. I think he’s supposed to be creepy and perverse, but yeah, he’s not the most terrifying image. I did find the stocking half-pulled down his face to be unsettling and gross.
Kristine: Yes, the stocking thing was surprisingly unsettling. Did you love Freddy Lounds on flames in the careening wheelchair? Sans lips?
Sean: It’s pretty good. Though Lounds, as a character, was the most cartoonish and eye-rolling for me, with the Boston-ish accent. I was like ‘Puh-lease.’
Kristine: Heh. I liked him getting under stupid Graham’s skin.
Sean: Can we discuss Graham for a sec?
Kristine: He’s dumb and I didn’t believe his whole deal. Discussion over.
Sean: My argument about Graham is that the way he’s presented is kind of radical and very ‘against the grain’ for a police thriller/action vehicle.
Kristine: Explain yourself.
Sean: My argument is that he is presented by the movie as being very maternal, and that felt kind of radical to me. My evidence: That opening scene where we see Graham building protective enclosures around nests of sea turtle eggs with his son. Very “mother hen.” And at the end of the movie, they’ve hatched. He is the broody hen, his wife is the aloof rooster.
Kristine: His wife was, like, literally not in the movie. She’s just a blonde prop.
Sean: True. (P.S. In the book, the climax takes place at Will’s house and his wife is the one to shoot and kill Dolarhyde).
Kristine: I have a different take on the turtles thing. I think it’s a classic example of the alpha male protecting the nuclear family via being mucho macho. The battle with Dolarhyde at the end? How he doesn’t wait for backup, but just leaps through the glass wall (killer in a glass house, hmmmm)? How basically people die and go though hell so Graham can find his inner peace and be a good daddy? I was not impressed. Also, Graham’s a dick. Always screaming at people on the phone to get him those test results “Fast!,” like they don’t already know. And what about that poor jogger that he tackled and terrified and then didn’t even apologize to?
Sean: Ok fair enough. But I still argue that Graham is presented as unusually maternal. I don’t think there’s anything macho about the turtle egg sequences. They’re both these softly lit idylls of quiet talking. Same with his conversation with his son in the supermarket – in a more standard thriller, the wife would be the one to explain to the child what’s “going on with Daddy.” Graham’s investment in his relationship to his son as a pa-/ma-ternal caretaker is really emphasized by the movie.
Kristine: I do agree that the cereal aisle scene showed a male displaying candor and vulnerablity and respect for a child in a way that is not usually seen in these kinds of movies. But I don’t know about anything else he does. It’s not like he’s sitting on the eggs himself. He’s building a wall around them, just like he does with his family. He sends them off, keeps them “inside.” A lot of this movie is about interiors, right? The windowless hospital and police station. Places of authority and safety. The residential houses with their glass walls, surrounded by woods and nature – those are the places where evil can hide and watch. Remember when Wifey goes outside to investigate the threat and the police are all, “You really need to go inside! It’s better for you to be inside!” There is this obsession with interiors. And then at the end, when the evil has been extinguished, the family is allowed to frolic outside on the beach again.
Sean: Yes, exactly. But my last and best piece of evidence for Graham-as-maternal-figure: That moment between Graham and Reba at the end, after Dolarhyde is dead. Where they embrace and whisper to each other?That is so maternal and so un-macho. Try to imagine Mel Gibson in a Lethal Weapon movie treating a female victim that way.
Kristine: Okay, I’ll give you that. But that happens after he crashes through the glass wall and saves her. So.
Sean: Um, he did crash through, but then he immediately got sliced and diced and beat to hell by Dolarhyde. No big fight scene. He’s not a very effective macho hero, actually. He’s better at feelings. He’s better at hugging and comforting the victim of violence. That’s unusual.
Kristine: I don’t buy Graham killing Dolarhyde. Why did Dolarhyde even need to go and get a gun? He could have just ripped Graham apart.
Sean: It was lame.
Kristine: I loved the Dol. He brought the bon mots and one liners.
Sean: I liked how he was this werewolf figure, following lunar cycles and “becoming” something else.
Kristine: Werewolf and lady.
Sean: Speaking of that motif of men and beasts, I thought the tiger scene was pretty incredible. A really powerful visual metaphor for what’s going on under the surface of the plot.
Kristine: Okay, you get another point. The tiger bit was so random and so amazing. It made me love the Dol. Also, it is so at odds with the aesthetic of these kinds of movies. It underscored how antiseptic and cold this world is presented as being.
Sean: Yes. But also, the look on Reba’s face, the teeth of the tiger, the heartbeat.Sensual and scary and pretty.
Kristine: I agree with all that. It was a beautiful scene.
Sean: The tiger’s heartbeat actually syncs up with the song at the end credits. “Listen to my heart beat” over and over. That is Graham’s theme song.
Kristine: Fuck that song. I swear it played like eight times.
Sean: I have a song question.The biggest stylistic break in the whole movie is the use of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” during the Dolarhyde sequence at the end (when he has Reba in his house and his trying to bring himself to kill her, and the assault by the cops and Graham). WTF? Why did Mann choose that song for that moment? When it shatters the ice-cool 1980s New Wave vibe of the rest of the movie?
Kristine: I know, right? I felt like it was deliberately out of step, not only with the vibe of the movie, but also with Dolarhyde’s character. He’s an aesthete, right? He has unusual taste perhaps, but he is still presented as a man of the arts. There is no way that is his music of choice. I felt like Mann chose the song as a deliberate break, as proof that Dolarhyde had finished “becoming” the Dragon, and Francis was really gone forever as he told Reba. But we can see by his reluctance to kill her that Francis is not gone. He is still human and feels and loves.
Sean: Right. I also feel like Manhunter suggests that Dolarhyde’s inability to kill Reba is a moment of male ‘impotence.’ But that song is a hybrid – a moment when psychedelia is giving birth to heavy metal. A song that is becoming.
Kristine: A song that is sucking.
Sean: It’s such an incursion of 1960s mindfuck. So weird. Also, that Martian landscape on the wall?
Kristine: Yeah, his whole moonscape thing. So, can we talk about how this film differs from The Silence of the Lambs?
Kristine: In Silence, with the exception of Clarice (and I guess her boss) authority figures are corrupt, cruel and ineffectual. Dr. Chilton, the cloddish redneck cops, etc. In Manhunter, authority figures are in the moral right and are competent.
Sean: Right. You may have just pinned down the main reason why Manhunter really isn’t a horror movie, and The Silence of the Lambs is. Silence leaves you destabilized, suggests that the world is off-kilter and cannot be righted. Manhunter is a recovery narrative and a story about the forces of good balancing the world. The focus is healing. Any horror movie worth its salt is not interested in healing. Its interested in diving into the wound.
Kristine: Though Dolarhyde’s story and ultimate fate are very horror movie. More Dolarhyde. Less Graham. Down with the unsettled male recovering his RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority] skills.
Sean: More comparisons?
Kristine: We already talked about the aesthetics. I was going to charge Manhunter with being nothing but a lad land, whereas Silence is about the penetration of the lad land… But Manhunter does have Reba, and she is awesome. I love that she is sexual and confident. But her blindness and victim role don’t give her much to defend herself with. Which brings me to a likeness – Reba’s blindness made Dolarhyde’s assault that much more awful and anxiety-making, yes? Durning the final confrontation with Buffalo Bill in Silence, Clarice has her sight taken from her while Bill retains his. I thought that was a cool parallel. Clarice is a Reba/Graham hybrid.
Sean: Good point.
Kristine: I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know how much of Hannibal’s characterization in Manhunter is from the original text, but I noticed and liked how a lot of Lecter’s physicality and mannerisms were alike in both films, despite Cox and Hopkins’ very different approaches to playing the role. For example: how he is sitting on the bunk in the cell, slightly hunched, observing – pretty much identical in both portrayals.
Sean: Plus there’s the tv show Hannibal now, with Mads Mikkelson as Hannibal and its revelatory. Mikklesen’s Hannibal is to Hopkins’ Hannibal as Heath Ledger’s Joker is to Jack Nicholson’s Joker.
Sean: Did you know that Manhunter existed? That Hannibal Lecter had appeared in an earlier movie?
Kristine: I think maybe I knew that? But I didn’t know about this specific film. I am not that well versed in Mann’s filmography.
Sean: He’s a ‘guy’s director.’ My last question has to do with your art expertise.
Kristine: Hold on. Let me adjust my beret and grab my palette.
Sean: Dolarhyde’s Red Dragon mythos is inspired by William Blake’s series of paintings of the Red Dragon.Are these iconic paintings? I’d never heard of them.
Kristine: I am not going to know shit about this. I am not a student of the Romantics. But it makes sense that Dolarhyde would be drawn to that school, right? Romance, tragedy…
Sean: Here is the Blake that appears in the movie.
Kristine: Yeah, I loathe that shit and do not respond to it at all. But it fits the theme of “becoming” in both this and Silence – the butterfly, transformation.
Sean: You loathe it?
Kristine: Yeah, I hate it. To me it looks like cheesy heavy metal band album art. Hey, maybe an Iron Butterfly album. Oh, fuck, Sean. You don’t think… You don’t suppose Mann’s reasons for using “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” could be as literal and grody as using the Iron Butterfly song to signal Dolarhyde’s transformation to the Dragon because, you know, dragons are like iron butterflies? I am dying. If this is true I am dead.
Sean: Oh my god. You’ve cracked the code and I am dying.
Kristine: Fuck. I did not want this to be the answer.
Sean: This is ridiculous.
Kristine: Sean, I think it might be true.
Sean: Oh, it is true.
Sean: So, if you are not moved to discuss Blake, then what about this: A lot of perverted killer movies revolve around fine art/visual art in some way. Deep Red – the paintings that line the walls in Helga’s apartment when Marcus discovers her body; the child’s drawing under the paint at the Gothic house. Dressed to Kill – the Katz pieces and the rest of the art in the museum sequence; Liz’s painting/investment. Manhunter – Blake’s paintings of the Red Dragon.
Kristine: I noticed the art thread as well. In each case, it’s not about art, it’s about seeing and transformation. Self-identification versus how others see you. Right? Dolarhyde is upset that he is seen as queer and also reviled for his scarred appearance, so of course his fantasy is about transforming into something scary/beautiful and deadly and hypermasculine. We’ve already discussed the ‘perception versus reality’ theme in Dressed to Kill when it comes to the female archetypal leads – and how they both transform to the “other” kind of woman by the end of the film. For Deep Red, it is about how we are capable of not seeing what is right in front of us because of a veneer of some kind (the mirror image lost among painted images, the painting on the wall beneath paint). And it’s also about an identity crisis – Martha’s lament over what she could have been, was truly meant to be versus what she actually is.
Sean: Right, right. So, these movies all dramatize that question of seeing and perception through the motif of paintings/visual art.
Kristine: Yes. Which is totally ‘80s, right? Working out one’s identity only through some kind of object that we project upon? Which happens to be a precious, desirable aesthetic object? As opposed to just looking within?
Sean: That reminds me, I kept thinking that Manhunter felt exactly like what a decent adaptation of Less Than Zero should feel like – the ’80s style, the score, the chic alienation.
Kristine: Yes. You are so right. Which leads to my question – Why is the bulk of perverted-killers-with-identity-issues-and-gender-dysmorphia movies from the 1980s?
Sean: I guess the reason is because the sexual politics of the 1980s were so about post-feminism really taking hold and slowly spreading outward?I mean, today’s “End of Men” crisis could almost be traced back to these movies, where all these straight male artists are making art about the drama and confusion of gender roles post-feminism, post-‘women’s lib’ from the 1970s.
Kristine: Right. Interesting that all three of these movies are from total dude directors, also. The 1980s were all about the image. As opposed to the earthy 1970s or the introspective 1990s.
Sean: Is 1970s was ‘the Me Decade,’ the 1980s was the ‘No, Really…. Me! Decade.’ Which brings us to the other trope that connects these three movies – mirrors. Deep Red – the mirror where Marcus glimpses the image of Martha but mistakes it for a painting. Dressed to Kill – the mirrors in which Dr. Elliott often gazes at himself; the reflective surfaces of the straight razors. Manhunter – the mirrors Dolarhyde rants about, the shard of glass from a broken mirror he uses to threaten Reba; his fantasy that the eyes of his victims become “silver mirrors.”
Kristine: You are correct. We are code-cracking right and left today.
Sean: That self-regard and self-perception would be at the center of these movies feels very 1980s. Kate in Dressed to Kill might be the perfect corollary to Dolarhyde – she’s “becoming” in the midst of a new era, so who is she now?
Kristine: Plus the sense of alienation.
Sean: Plus Elliot’s gender-based “becoming.” The world is changing, society is changing, so we project that onto our bodies. Kate (sexuality), Elliot (gender), and Dolarhyde (patriarchal power as represented by God/the Dragon).
Kristine: Right. They’re all about this obsession with an ideal that one is not living up to.
Sean: And the ideal is often embodied by the “ideal” art object. Katz, Blake, etc.
Kristine: Right. The 1980s – perfection is becoming an idealized object that cannot be touched by time, that will last forever. Impossible and tragic.
The Girl’s Rating: This movie IS the ’80s AND Stylistic triumph
The Freak’s Rating: Pop perfection AND Stylistic triumph AND Bloody wonderful gender exploration and critique (for Graham-as-maternal-masculine)