Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986) is a 1980s masterpiece that finely adapts its source, Thomas Harris's 1981 novel, Red Dragon. Since the book, the film under discussion, and a second filmed version (Red Dragon, 2002, directed by B. Ratner) have all been out for decades, I make no attempt to prevent spoilage here.
I have copiously illustrated my essay through linked images and video clips to relieve its length. In addition, I have consciously used the spelling of characters' names peculiar to the work I discuss, so that Manhunter's Francis Dollarhyde may in the next sentence be Francis Dolarhyde of the novel or later film.
I. The story. Jump to section II if you know the film well.
Two families have been brutally murdered in their houses, one in Atlanta and one in Birmingham. Their bodies were moved about after being killed, and the attractive wives in particular received close attention, including terrible postmortem bite marks and the insertion of fragments of broken mirror into the sockets of their dead eyes. The killer appears to act on a lunar cycle, which means the clock is ticking on the next attack.
The FBI, under the auspices of Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), is unsuccessfully investigating the case. Crawford needs some of that old magic and recruits the definitely retired agent Will Graham (William Petersen), a profiler with an unusual ability to get into someone else's shoes.
Graham wants none of it, having quit the FBI after a harrowing incident that left him nearly dead and psychically damaged. Crawford knows his man and lures him in by raising the specter of the families that might be destroyed in coming full moons. His wife Molly (Kim Greist) is none too happy about it, but accepts his reason and his promise not to get personally involved.
Graham visits the crime scenes and with acute insight notes details. We see how he gets into the killers' shoes. He also studies some FBI copies of home movies shot by the dead families in order to get the feel for the victims in their houses. A visit to the local police seems only to establish that Graham is something of a legend, or rather, a sensation; outside the building Graham is accosted by a tabloid journalist named Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang) who wants a scoop on the investigation into the so-called "Tooth Fairy" killer.
An incensed Graham assaults Lounds, reminding Crawford, who tries to rein him in, that Lounds passed all boundaries by sneaking into the hospital and taking photographs of the terrible wounds he had received in the process of taking down a frightful serial killer named Lecktor (Lecter in the book and the 2002 film) and published them for his family and the world to see in his rag, the Tattler.
Crawford suggests that Graham re-familiarize himself, after a span of years, with the fresh scent of an insane mind. Graham steels himself to visit Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), the man who had nearly killed him. Lecktor, a psychologist in Baltimore, had been killing people savagely and eating portions of their bodies, but went long undiscovered because of his tremendous intellect, which helped him mask his insanity.
Graham's visit to the asylum for the criminally insane ostensibly to consult with Lecktor about the Tooth Fairy is not very successful, but it does serve to put us on notice that there are frighteningly intelligent people in the world. Immediately upon Graham's arrival, Lecktor, without looking up to see who it is, says "that's the same atrocious aftershave you wore in court." The two spar, with the doctor toying with Graham, and the latter refusing to be drawn in. Tiring of this, Lecktor decides to play offended and asks Graham if he thinks he's smarter than he is because Graham caught him. Graham wisely discounts this proposition, but shows us that he really is on a par with Lecktor in a parting exchange: "So how did you catch me?" "You had disadvantages" "What disadvantages?" "You're insane." Lecktor, a psychologist, can't rebut this.
We soon see how badly Graham has stung Lecktor: he ingeniously uses a telephone provided to contact his lawyer to instead call up a publisher and obtain Graham's new home address. But as Graham exits the asylum, psychically sickened by the experience, Lounds, who has been hanging around outside the asylum thinking Graham might show up, takes and publishes photographs of GRAHAM SEES HANNIBAL THE CANNIBAL in the Tattler.
Meanwhile, a second storyline has introduced us to Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan, Dolarhyde in the book and the 2002 film), an employee in a photographic film processing plant and, as the film quickly shows us, the Tooth Fairy. Dollarhyde is nervous around women, evidently shy about his deformed lip.
A few lines here and there allude to his unhappy childhood, but Mann avoids offering an origins story. Noonan's acting is sufficient to show us that Dollarhyde is mightily strong, intelligent, and close to popping his cork. He does, however, make friends with darkroom technician Reba McClane, whose blindness offers Dollarhyde the chance to come out of his shell. He does something very kind for her, and she agrees to go out on a date with him.
They end up back at his place, and we see him sit with her "doing some homework," studying a silent video of the next family he plans to kill. We see that he stakes out the houses of his victims through their home movies, which he has copied while developing them at his business. McClane, experiencing only Dollarhyde's kindness, makes a move on him. He clearly thinks that this is not mere good luck, but a result of his ritualistic murders. As she sleeps in his arms, he places her hand over his deformed mouth as a gesture of acceptance.
As Graham explains elsewhere in the film, by putting bits of mirrors in the eyes of his victims Dollarhyde can see his reflection in their eyes, see the imagined desire of attractive women for him. By doing this enough, Dollarhyde thinks that he can make it happen--and with McClane has made it happen--in real life.
Dollarhyde has managed to get a message to Lecktor, setting up a coded conversation in the Tattler's personal ad section. This is discovered by the FBI, who cannot quite figure out the code--so while they know both Lecktor and Dollarhyde are reading the Tattler's personal ads, they are not sure what Lecktor's reply to Dollarhyde's first message says. They discover only later that Lecktor has given the Tooth Fairy Graham's home address with the message, "save yourself, kill them all."
Yet Graham's journey back into the land of the crazies has not been without a price. He grants Lounds an interview, retailing false information about the Tooth Fairy impugning his masculinity. Ostensibly, he is setting himself up for an attack where other agents can take the Tooth Fairy down, a plan which fails because, as Graham (signaled by Peterson's body language) expects, the Tooth Fairy has acted out his rage at the public shaming in the Tattler by going after Lounds, whom he kidnaps and kills in a gruesome, sadistic way. Graham has imbibed a little too much of the cruel mindset of the killers he studies, and Mann indicates this by having Lecktor compliment Graham over the neatness of the setup while offering advice about the Tooth Fairy.
Dollarhyde, thinking that his sucess with McClane means he can now cease his killings, drops his preparations and eagerly awaits their next date. Yet his years of failure and humiliation have left him insanely paranoid, as the movie shows us: Ralph Dandridge (Bill Cwikowsky), a colleague, gives McClane a ride home, where the overeager Dollarhyde is already waiting and watching in his van. When Dandridge stops to innocently remove a speck of pollen from McClane's face, Dollarhyde persuades himself he sees him kissing a receptive McClane. Dollarhyde's cork pops at last. He slays Dandridge and kidnaps McClane. She will now substitute as the victim instead of the family Dollarhyde has passed up this month--for it is now the night of the full moon.
Meanwhile, a glum and testy Graham and Crawford pore over the evidence one more time, fearing that they have failed that night's victims. However, in going over the families' home movies, Graham suddenly notices that the Tooth Fairy's crimes appear to reveal a knowledge about the houses that had been true in the recent past but was no longer always true by the time of the killings. He deduces that not only did the Tooth Fairy have older photographs of the houses and family, just as Graham did, but that he had seen the very films of both families Graham was watching. A quick check reveals that both films were processed by the same company in St. Louis where we know Dollarhyde works. This scene has rightly been identified as one of the finest ever filmed.
An emergency flight to St. Louis during which Dollarhyde is revealed as the only viable suspect and a quick drive out to Dollarhyde's remote property puts them in a position to look in just as Dollarhyde starts playing cat and mouse with McClane in preparation to kill her. It is just dawning. Graham, remembering that he's in it to prevent the next killing, rushes the house and, though wounded, manages to kill Dollarhyde and save McClane. The film ends with Graham reunited with his family in Florida.
A long plot summary, but needed, both because I wish you to see the film close to how those of us who saw it before The Silence of the Lambs did, and because I need to refer back to many parts in the three-part discussion that follows.
II. Style in Manhunter.
Michael Mann is probably best known for his popular series Miami Vice, which ran from 1984 to 1990 and which distilled and then crystalized a sort of neon-lit, pastel-colored, glitzy postmodern aesthetic which now smells of the 80s. Many of the choices made by Mann in Miami Vice are echoed in Manhunter, with due allowance made for the film's mostly non-tropical settings. The resulting film is stylized, conforming to a set of stylistic norms Mann chose and which were peculiar to its time.
If we do not have the sun-drenched beach houses of Miami, we do have a constant barrage of modern, or postmodern spaces, white and antisepticky clean. The victims' houses are good examples, both McMansions of the sort that were just growing into popularity in the 80s, with carefully staged murder scenes in white rooms, even when spattered with blood. The game is given away when Mann chooses to use the High Museum of Art in Atlanta as Lecktor's asylum. Built by arch-postmodernist Richard P. Meier and recently finished when filmed, it is manifestly unsuitable as an asylum space. But its monumental atrium furnishes Mann a splendid set in whites and glass and sunlight and angles which was more important than a realistic asylum. Lecktor's cell is in cinder blocks, but similarly bright with fluorescents and painted an unrelieved white.
Again, the clothes, for example Graham's tie-less buttoned up shirts, and the oversize cuts of the jackets and suits, especially Lounds' baggy 50s retro look and Dandridge's overcut Armani look.
Part of the film's style is a color palette which is systematically used. Or, put another way, while the real world has all of the colors the real world should (see Graham and family at home, for example), Mann makes special use of white (as we've seen) blue, green, and red.
White seems to be used for the most alienating moments, when Graham must confront the horrible: Lecktor in his cell, the asylum, the bedrooms of the dead families.
Blue is the color of safety, of sanity, and order. See for example, the scenes in the Grahams' bedroom, the FBI building, and the lab where the Tooth Fairy's message is analyzed.
Green is the color of investigation, of danger, of Graham's separation from his family and from the center of his life. See, for example, the green cast as he waits for his plane to join the investigation, the green illumination of an entire façade of Federal Triangle when Graham unsuccessfully sets himself up as a target for the Tooth Fairy, the background in the Birmingham police headquarters (and Graham's shirt there), the interior of Dollarhyde's house after he has been killed, inside the FBI, and when Graham investigates the woods behind the Leeds' house.
Red is the color of the Red Dragon, the symbol of Dollarhyde's madness. Red is never a good sign, as when Crawford and Kim Graham talk about Graham joining the investigation, the large photomural in Dollarhyde's house, conspicuously present when he tortures Lounds, the scene of Lounds' death, the blood issuing from Dollarhyde's corpse, giving him blood wings of the Red Dragon, the streamer of red neon applied in the set when Dollarhyde is developing his pictures for the next kill, and the fading red of dawn turning into the blue of day after Dollarhyde has been killed.
Mann is fond of blue and green palettes and has used them elsewhere, too, though they do not always have the same significance. But what the colors readily show is how the stylization serves the story in Manhunter.
III. What Mann is trying to say with his story.
Critics of Manhunter sometimes point to Mann's truncation of the novel's ending as a dereliction or a clumsy flaw rather than as evidence of artistic control in wrestling the nearly 350-page novel down into a self-contained film of an already longish 120 minutes. In the book, Dolarhyde escapes the raid on his house and follows Graham down to Florida to enact revenge, dying in that attempt.
Again in contrast to Manhunter, the bare-bones (but adequate) sketching out of Dollarhyde's pathology was fleshed out with a lengthy origins story in 2002, showing us in laborious detail how he became a monster. This agrees with the modern predilection for origins stories since approximately the time of Tim Burton's Batman (1989). Nowadays we like to spell out dark characters' formative pain.
Given the attention Mann gave to his stylistics, it would be foolish to assume by default that he casually or clumsily omitted plot elements. An adaptation must stand on its own grounds, not on how closely it follows its source. Red Dragon is the same length, yet its extended content requires zippy editing that sacrifices the atmosphere Mann could take the time to create. Perhaps the stylistic dependence of Red Dragon on Silence of the Lambs (see below) gave Brett Ratner the sense that he could count on the audience importing the atmosphere already set by Jonathan Demme.
Well, what story is Mann trying to tell that leads him away from a faithful reproduction of the story as told in the novel? While Dollarhyde plays a major role in the film, his psychology and past are not featured, or are deduced by Graham or Lecktor. Lecktor, too, is a minor, though important character, as he was in the book. He provides some insight into the Tooth Fairy, but he also--as he might admit himself--serves as a foil to Graham. He even asserts during their interview that they are much alike. It was only after Anthony Hopkins' outsized performance became a cultural phenomenon that an interest in Lector took on an increasing importance in the films (and Harris' subsequent books). Manhunter is about Will Graham, not Hannibal Lecktor.
Despite their shared abilities to get into other people's heads and other similarities Lecktor might assert, Graham is also importantly different from the doctor. Lecktor uses people like puppets, or tools, or destroys them at a whim. Graham, however, has a sense of responsibility beyond himself, and he desires to help others.
We see that in his return to work for the FBI despite his debilitating injuries. But where we see him most is in his psychically tortured persona. Whatever his thoughts when he was an eager young agent, he is now nauseated by contact with the criminally insane, as we see in his visceral reaction to his interview with Lecktor. Peterson does an excellent job in conveying how the case weighs down on Graham through body language--see how he seems crushed when in the police station in Birmingham, or when he is talking to Crawford in the climax when he puts the pieces together. His shoulders are hunched down, and he can hardly raise his eyes to meet his interlocutors.
At many points in the film, Graham reveals the price he pays for getting empathetically into the mind of the evilly insane--after all, he tries to think like they do, and this conflicts constantly with his inborn sense of right and wrong. The fear is always that he might get stretched too thin, snap, and become like the people he hunts whether he wish it or not.
He tells his son that these empathetic thoughts are the worst in the world; and he asks Crawford at one point if his empathy with the killer is offputting, even to him (it clearly is, and we know Crawford's seen it all by now). And of course, Mann makes sure we see how close Graham is to slipping when he shows Graham set up Freddy Lounds, an act which looks culpably intentional not just to Hannibal Lecktor but to us, and, worryingly, looks at first like a satisfying comeuppance to us, too. We are neatly implicated in the depiction of how attractive evil can be. Graham endures it all, sacrifices his physical and mental wellbeing to help others, and this is the moral arc of the story.
IV. The Disservice of The Silence of the Lambs to Manhunter.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991, directed by J. Demme), deservedly recognized as a great film, did no favors to the vision expressed in Manhunter. Silence takes place in the country, in small town police stations, in a gloomy, dark Smithsonian lab, in a dungeon, and in Jame Gumb's dirty house, dark, cluttered basement, and musty well. One might argue that the story, set in poor, rural parts of the country, requires something like these settings, just as Manhunter's upper middle class victims' houses in up-and-coming suburbs were rightly depicted as McMansions with white featureless interiors.
Still, just as Mann gave his game away by bringing in the High Museum, whose aggressive postmodernism is laughably unsuited to a criminal asylum, here, too, Silence tips its hand by placing Lecter in a grim dungeon--for the stone basement in which he is kept is a ridiculous version of a desperately-high-security cell. Yet it serves Silence's style, which is that of a macabre monster movie. Many features of the horror-film Frankenstein have been transposed onto Lecter, and there is more than a touch of Grand Guignol.
These very different choices animating the two films can also be handily seen in the music soundtracks. As befits the crisp, clean visuals of Manhunter, the soundtrack, when it is instrumental, consists of a set of crisp, dry musical whispers and echoes, synthesizer arpeggios, minor key buzzes and hums that set the mood without getting in the way. The one exception is Graham's theme, which is played behind the scene in which he puts the pieces together. As is common in Mann's filmed work, the music has been selected to complement and inform what we see, and here the music dominates the scene in a way illustrating Graham's dogged perseverance and personal struggle. At other points, such as when Dollarhyde pops his cork, or when he gets together with McClane, the immersive music, both in lyrics and tone, carries the scene.
Howard Shore's fine soundtrack for Silence fully supports, with its romantic orchestration and brooding tone, the horror and Grand Guignol elements of the story, already heard in the opening titles, and clearest in the gruesome scene of Lecter's escape from Memphis.
I could go on, but my point is probably already clear. Silence had a very different aesthetic, and since Manhunter was relatively unknown when it came out, Silence effectively had an open playing field and colonized our imaginations, making its take on Harris's stories canonical, not least because it was an exceptionally good film, and not without the knowing help of Harris himself.
And so, 2002's Red Dragon, which is visibly filmed in accordance with the aesthetic established by Silence, somehow seems more canonical to many. The 2002 film may also feel more authentic because it follows the novel quite closely, whereas Mann has wrestled the story into a film that emphasizes Graham's vision and self-sacrifice over Red Dragon's interest in Dolarhyde's origins and Hannibal Lecter's backstory. Neither approach is wrong. Manhunter is a masterpiece of adaptation and filmmaking in its own right.