Manhunter doesn’t need our help, really. Although it underperformed with audiences and critics upon its release in August 1986, the cult of Michael Mann’s clinically stylish serial-killer procedural has grown steadily over the years. (Its status as the first Hannibal Lecter—sorry, Lecktor—movie has also helped secure its place in cinema history.) Manhunter’s acolytes fetishize it for its meticulousness and painstaking attention to color and composition; each is carefully calibrated to the emotional needs of a scene, although the prevailing emotion is “detached.”
Favoring faraway, symmetrical mise-en-scènes, Manhunter keeps its distance from its blood-stained subject matter, in line with the theme of voyeurism that runs throughout. FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) is still recovering from the last time he got inside a killer’s mind, and a key piece of evidence in his latest case comes when the killer can’t resist the urge to touch his victim without gloves on. Watching from afar is fine; it’s when you get too close that things become dangerous.
Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti color-codes Graham’s home life blue, while his nemesis/spiritual twin, serial killer Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), lives amid magenta and uneasy neon green. Combined with scenes set in Florida (it wouldn’t be a Michael Mann movie without a beach house) and Mann’s infatuation with postmodern design (the High Museum Of Art in Atlanta stands in for a maximum-security prison), the color scheme makes Manhunter look dated at times. But it’s debatable whether Mann, executive producer of the hugely influential Miami Vice, was simply reflecting or actively creating the aesthetic moment. In other words, does Michael Mann look like the ’80s, or does the ’80s look like Michael Mann?
Also alienating (and occasionally rather dated) is the music, which puts up a metaphorical wall of sound between the viewer and the action on-screen. Mann likes to blast the soundtrack whenever something disturbing or revelatory or otherwise emotionally affecting happens, a technique used best in the unsettling climactic scene where Dolarhyde menaces blind co-worker/love interest Reba McClane (Joan Allen) to the tune of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” (Mann also manipulated the frame rates in this scene, recording at 24, 36, 72, and 90 frames per second and cutting them together for a disorienting effect.) Other scenes, featuring bands like Red 7, Shriekback, and The Prime Movers, serve more to take the viewer out of the moment than anything else, but that’s probably exactly what Mann wanted.
Manhunter’s clinical streak is also reflected in its fascination with forensics, a fixation that, along with Graham’s predilection for walking around crime scenes talking into a tape recorder, has led many to credit the film as an influence on CSI and its innumerable offshoots. Manhunter didn’t invent the trope of the detective who must learn to understand a killer in order to catch him, but it did reinvigorate it with Mann’s signature technique of giving equal time to the cop and the robber characters. Noonan plays Dolarhyde as such a lost soul that you feel for him as much as you do for Petersen, who operates in one basic, haunted mode.
Petersen’s performance was initially lambasted by critics for being too withdrawn, and does rely on symbolic cues, like the scene where his briefcase falls open to reveal grisly crime scene photos, to indicate his inner turmoil. Noonan reportedly isolated himself from the rest of the cast and crew to prepare for his role, and Petersen reportedly had trouble shaking off the character of Graham after filming ended, but if anyone on the Manhunter cast deserves pity, it’s Brian Cox. The actor does a perfectly good job playing Hannibal Lecktor as a sneering, contemptuous intellectual, but he’ll always be compared, unfairly, to his fava-bean-eating counterpart Anthony Hopkins. Like the rest of Manhunter, Cox is best appreciated with fresh eyes.
Availability: Manhunter is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from your local video store/library, or to rent or purchase from the major digital services. It is also currently streaming on Netflix.