revisited – michael mann’s ‘manhunter’ (1986)

Two films came out in 1986 where a deranged serial killer wears women’s hosiery over his face as a mask – Brian Thompson as “The Night Slayer” in George P. Cosmatos’ Cobra and Tom Noonan as “The Tooth Fairy” in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. The latter is an adapted screenplay by Michael Mann, based on the novel “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris, a crime/horror mystery about a former FBI profiler who returns to the service to hunt down a mentally disturbed serial killer called “The Tooth Fairy”. The opening sequence is raw and voyeuristic as we’re taken into a true-to-life crime scene at a suburban house, with blood splattered across white sheetrock walls and white bedsheets of a master bedroom. This is, of course, occurs after Michael Mann cunningly primes the audience with neon green colors over the opening credit titles, as opposed to his trademark blue, and an innovatively cinematographed opening scene where FBI Agent Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) visits former Agent Will Graham (William Peterson) at his beachside house in an attempt to convince him to join the service one last time, because he believes Graham is the only one that can use his divine sixth sense to track down “The Tooth Fairy”. Mann begins the picture in the darkness of a home, where a flashes of a murder takes place, then quickly transitions into a blue sky over a beach into the light, foreshadowing the arc of the story; from darkness to light.

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) | 1986

Michael Mann does an incredible job of personalizing the main characters of this film to a humane level; they’re so much more than their professions. We meet Crawford’s wife and Graham’s family. Graham has a loving wife and a protective adolescent son. Graham makes love to his wife, almost religiously, with the beautiful blue moonlight bating its glow in their beachside master bedroom in the opening scene. His wife, Molly Graham (Kim Greist) begs Graham to stay with her and their son. Between his wife’s refusal and Crawford’s proposal for Graham’s return, very brief dialogue is utilized at just the proper amount, to inform the audience what’s at stake, leaving us with gaps to fill, using the characters’ expressions and body language to communicate emotion, as opposed to the typical use of dialogue that’s excessively drawn out in any given film. Graham’s decision is ingeniously conveyed with a simple jump cut from the beach house in daylight, to him riding shotgun in a patrol car, escorting him to the crime scene; Michael Mann shows us Graham’s decision as opposed to telling us. By making these types of filmmaking decisions throughout picture, Mann subliminally states his awareness of how the audience is sharp enough to figure things out on their own; he ceases to undermine the intelligence of his audience.

It’s an ingenious method of subliminal communication to the audience when Graham recites the case files into his recorder while standing amid the blood bath of a crime scene. Throughout various scenes, Graham speaks out loud when he’s the only one there. But he isn’t speaking to himself, he’s speaking to the universe; he’s transmitting frequencies to the living, breathing serial killer that’s within his reach as he attempts to link the clues deciphered by his extra sensory mind. “It’s just you and me now, sport.” Graham says, communicating to “The Tooth Fairy” through the ether. When he speaks out loud, it’s also as if he’s speaking to the audience, and in some bizarre and spiritual way, the audience not only jumps into his skin as the protagonist, but inhibit his soul, becoming whole with the hero as one. Several years prior, Graham locked up Dr. Hannibal Leckter, putting an end to his murdering spree. The Leckter case brought severe mental damage to Graham’s psychological health, resulting in his resignation from the FBI and seeking help for his mental health. Now, Graham must use Lekter to assist with finding “The Tooth Fairy” killer – a name labeled for the killer by the news media. Graham admits that Dr. Lekter’s intellectual vanity is breathtaking, but it’s Lekter’s disadvantages that led to his capture. When Lekter asks Graham which ones, Graham responds matter-of-factly, “You’re insane.” Graham refers to the main reason why he was able to imprison Lekter.

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) | 1986

The inventive cinematography with artful lighting was captured by the Italian master Dante Spinotti, who has collaborated frequently with Michael Mann on films like Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999). It’s interesting to note that Dante Spinotti was also behind the lens in Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002) – the second film based on the novel by Thomas Harris. Harris wrote “Red Dragon” in 1981, followed by the novel “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1988. Dante Spinotti has cinematographed many films without Michael Mann as his director, such as the recent Black and Blue (2019) and Traffik (2018). Though those films are impressive sights to see as far as their imagery, it’s the directing by Michael Mann that takes Spinotti’s caliber of cinematography and lighting to a prominent degree. On the surface, Manhunter can be perceived as a grim and dreadful picture, but at its core, in a deeper level, Manhunter is a beautiful film about fighting for the greater good. Mann and Spinotti depict stunning imagery of sunsets, silhouettes, ocean waves, city skylines and the magnificent use of the color white. The smooth transitions employed with slick editing by Dov Hoenig (The Last of the Mohicans) innovatively executed. Despite the unattractive subject matter, Mann brightens up the film with vivid colors, especially neon green, giving it vibrancy and radiation; giving it hope as opposed to darkness. Very few murders occur in this film; the majority of the carnage displayed are encountered in their aftermath.

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) | 1986

Manhunter is an exceptional film, and superior to its successors, if considered solely as a story that exists in a world of its own. Five years after its release, in 1991, Jonathan Demme surprised audiences and critics with The Silence of the Lambs, a film that could have been a sequel to Manhunter, had it not been made within an alternate cinematic universe using different actors portraying characters; such as Scott Glenn playing FBI Agent Jack Crawford as opposed to Dennis Farina, or, Anthony Hopkins becoming world renowned for his portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. It would be a shame to discount Brian Cox’s outstanding depiction of Dr. Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter, which is arguably superior to Hopkins’ version, in terms of intensity and intimidation. Tom Noonan’s “The Tooth Fairy” is more threatening than Ralph Fiennes version in Red Dragon (2002), considering Noonan’sbolder facial expression and towering 6’5” physique. Not to mention, William Peterson’s Agent Will Graham is more cerebral than Edward Norton; we empathize with Peterson’s character as a man who sacrifices himself and his family, for the greater good of humanity. Peterson’s character of Graham is genuinely humanized with psychological obstacles he must overcome, as he goes against his own will by returning to a life he left promised himself to leave behind.

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) | 1986

Mann’s colorful aesthetic is captured in the most minute ways; when Graham is on an airplane with the pink sunset sky through his window seat. Graham falls asleep, and Mann shows us his dream in the form of a flashback sequence as Graham locks eyes with his wife on a boat amid a vacation. A frightened a little girl sitting in the middle seat screams after inadvertently catching a glimpse of crime scene photographs laid before Graham’s seat tray. Graham misses his wife, and when he’s awakens back to reality, he realizes the photos are haunting the little girl; more motivation for him to hunt down this serial killer. “When are you going to kill him?” Graham’s son asks him. “I’m not. It’s only my job to find him.” Graham responds, in a brilliant line of dialogue. Graham’s relationship with his wife is deep, and his love for his family is a central theme of film. Graham confides in wife, and she reciprocates his love dearly. Though Graham’s obsession with hunting “The Tooth Fairy” affects his marriage, he a maintains his vigilance; he’s a man on a mission. “The killing has got to stop.” Graham says with utmost sincerity and determination. The ambient musical score by Michel Rubini (Hollywood Homicide) keeps the film’s adrenaline flowing, in addition to representing the fierce mindset of Graham to hunt after the “The Tooth Fairy”. Graham’s mental health recovery from Dr. Leckter’s capture created a layer of alligator skin on his body, resulting in an evolved man who can’t be punctured by anything anymore.

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) | 1986

Michael Mann humanizes “The Tooth Fairy”, by introducing his character to us in the second act with a subplot that serves as a backstory for his unspeakable actions. The Tooth Fairy’s real name is Francis Dollarhyde, who gets involved in a shockingly intimate relationship with the blind woman, Reba (Joan Allen). We see Francis’ pain as tears flow down his eyes laying in bed with her asleep next to him. It’s surreal, horrifying and maddening to think that such a deranged soul has seduced an innocent blind woman, but Mann counters this with showing how Francis has an emotional heart; he’s capable of loving, but damaged from childhood torture.

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) | 1986

Ultimately, when it’s all said and done, we look back at Mann’s ingenious vision with pairing William Peterson and Dennis Farina in 1986; they have great chemistry and feed excellently off of each other. William Peterson maintains a fierce, bold presence with a purposeful demeanor throughout the entire picture. His intensity on-screen is revealed through his wild eyes determined to hunt down an evil soul. His firm physical stance, planted on the ground in addition to his urgent stride is a force to be reckoned with.

Checkout the song “Heartbeat” by Red 7

Nevertheless, Manhunter isn’t entirely about a man hunting a serial killer; it’s a story about a man overcoming the mental blocks and psychological obstacles involving his post-traumatic stress by coming out of retirement; something he promised himself he’d never do after the grueling effects caused by capturing Hannibal Leckter. Moreover, Manhunter is a character piece about Graham’s love for his family; but even a love so great, as the one he has, can be superseded, if it means doing a service for the greater good of humanity. The song “Heartbeat” by Red 7 plays on the soundtrack over the closing scene and throughout the entire end credits. Michael Mann’s implementation of this song could have been for the purpose of his mere liking and musical taste, but, for the sake of film theories and reading too much, or too little, into a directors creative choices, one can conclude that the lyrics of “Heartbeat” resemble Graham’s character; a pro-life man determined to save lives, even if it means sacrificing his own.

Checkout the original HD trailer for Manhunter (1986)

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