Saturday, March 21, 2009
#57: Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)
The blurb on the Manhunter DVD cover invites trouble by claiming that the film is "better than The Silence of the Lambs." Considering the popularity of the Jonathan Demme film, Manhunter's promotional blurb begs people to disagree. I'm not one of those people. I like Demme's film, and I think he's generally a more interesting filmmaker than Michael Mann, but Manhunter beats the pants off The Silence of the Lambs in a fake contest between Thomas Harris adaptations featuring the character of Hannibal Lecter (or Lecktor to use Mann's spelling, which has been changed for no discernible reason).
Anthony Hopkins' much ballyhooed performance as Hannibal never convinced me. He's fun to watch, but he makes the character into a charismatic and cartoonish monster movie villain. He's just a Freddy Krueger/Sherlock Holmes/MacGyver hybrid, with a pinch of the media characterizations of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. There's nothing particularly scary about Hopkins' Lecter because we always know we're watching Anthony Hopkins. Brian Cox in Manhunter, however, is truly creepy. Though his Lecter is a supporting character in the film, Cox, to my taste, is far more unsettling than Hopkins' co-starring role. Cox is understated instead of broad, and his quick but calm body language is unpredictable and eerie. He gets the character's intensity and lack of conscience across without talking about eating livers and wearing funny masks.
Lecter's part in Manhunter is small, but the effectiveness of his scenes complements the overall effectiveness of the entire film. This might be Mann's best movie. It's smartly cast, well-written, nicely edited, consistently unsettling, and full of eye-popping shot compositions and colors. Only some inappropriate and dated musical choices, a glaring continuity error in a supermarket scene, and a pair of ridiculous purple shorts mar an otherwise unified tone. William Petersen of CSI fame plays a more intense spin on his CSI character. He's a serial killer profiler who caught Lecter the first time but sustained serious injuries in the process, with resulting mental problems. He's brought back into the fold to track down another killer, the nicely named Francis Dolarhyde, played so well by one of my favorite actor/directors Tom Noonan. Noonan's creepy house in the woods is one of the most interesting locations I've seen in the movies. Joan Allen has a small but interesting part as a blind woman who briefly gets involved with Dolarhyde.
Mann and his cast and crew do an excellent job of creating a sustained feeling of tension, dread, and unease, and Noonan's killer is both frightening and recognizably, sympathetically human. The movie works as a horror film, a suspense thriller, a police procedural, and an action movie without seeming like a disorganized collection of elements.
The Hannibal Lecter juggernaut has inspired a franchise of mostly shitty sequels and prequels, and Mann has become a big-shot Hollywood A-list director, but Manhunter is unfortunately mostly neglected as both a Lecter adaptation and a Mann film, which is crazy because it's the best of both.