Film preview: “Manhunter”


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Jeff Turner

“Manhunter” stands towering above as a masterpiece of tension and moody atmosphere. It is one of the earlier works of director Michael Mann, but one that helps him stand out as a definitive auteur. The thing about “Manhunter,” and with Mann as a whole, is that it is built on technique above all else. “Manhunter” is almost schlock, but its artistic direction elevates it.

“Manhunter” will often reveal character traits through its imagery. There’s a scene early on in the movie, when Will Graham (William Peterson) is in bed talking to his wife, Molly (Kim Greist) about him possibly taking this case. He decides to takes it. They make love. The camera cuts to Molly’s face, and its shot with deep hues of blue. The two look almost ethereal, and the shot resembles a painting.

The centerpiece Mann is focusing on is Graham being torn back in forth between a psychotic break and his family. There’s something that’s brilliant about Peterson’s performance and how he communicates this battle with madness is his eyes. Always so laser focused, looking ahead, ready to crack or snap at any time.

The killer, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) has a similar plight. He begins to see a blind girl (Joan Allen) and finds himself between insanity and normalcy. Dollarhyde is cited early on as having likely been molested by his mother, and “how a man treats his mom is likely how he’ll treat his wife.” Dollarhyde’s psychology never recovered, and now his behavior parrots his trauma. He seeks power in all ways. Graham is trying to combat and escape sim-ilar desires.

“If one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is” – Dr. Hannibal Leckter (Brian Cox).

What’s magnificent about Mann as a filmmaker is that, no matter what, he always takes it slow, focusing on dialogue and development of atmosphere. He gives his actors a lot of space to work and it shows. There isn’t a weak link among the performances in “Manhunter.”

But this universe has been revisited since, and this same story has been retold. So why is “Manhunter” different? “Manhunter” is different because it extends far beyond Thomas Harris’ novel, none of the other Hannibal Lector films do so, 2002’s “Red Dragon” certainly doesn’t. “Manhunter” is solely Michael Mann’s piece.

The choice of score is one of the film’s most effective elements. Mann had parted ways with Tangerine Dream, who had composed the score for his theatrical debut “Thief,” and had partnered up with Michel Rubini and the Reds, whom he never worked with again. It’s a surprise, because the film’s music would be right at home with the Mann-created “Miami Vice.”

Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is monumental and every single shot demands an essay by itself.

Mann tends to skew towards cinematic romanticism, and “Manhunter” is one of his dreamier, looser works. Sometimes a little choice won’t make sense, but every image stays with the viewer. Spinotti’s frequent use of cool hues suggest a meditative approach to the material. A meditation on the thin line between madness and humanity. Fundamental goodness and total control.

By the time Mann readies his climax; Graham has become a cowboy, striking down the bad guy. This is by design, he is less a reality than a folk hero, a figment of Mann’s fever dream.

“Manhunter” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.


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