Manhunter (1975)

Year 1986

William Petersen   as   Will Graham
Brian Cox as Dr. Hannibal Lecktor  
Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde
Dennis Farina as Jack Crawford
Kim Greist as Molly Graham
Stephen Lang as Freddy Lounds
Director - Michael Mann
Screenwriter - Michael Mann
Novelist - Thomas Harris

Manhunter has a lot going for it, including being dated. But, keep in mind that almost every murder mystery is dated thanks to the advancement of technology. For example, a pay phone in a movie is downright archaic. So, if you can transport yourself back to 1986, when aspects of technology that we take for granted were yet to even be leading edge, then this movie is a good, tense thriller.

You see, someone is killing one family every full moon. There have only been two massacres, but isn't two enough? An FBI agent, Will Graham (Petersen), has just come back to sanity after capturing Hannibal Lecktor (Cox). Of course, he's the one that is tasked with tracking down the latest murderer. Will he survive mentally? That's one of the questions being asked. Will he catch the new murderer before he kills another family? That's part of the tension. The actions of the killer and his dispassionate view towards life is the main reason for watching.

For some people, this movie may be slow. Most of the action focuses on agent Graham as he methodically attempts to find the killer. If you don't like watching forensics and investigation, then the movie will stall for you. This is a movie that requires your attention to enjoy. Oh, there are some revelations that you might miss if you walk away periodically, but more importantly, the movie creates a mood. If you don't get into the mood of the film, then it's not that enjoyable. In fact, my advice is based on personal experience watching the film.

The director is Michael Mann who was also the producer of a 1980's cop show called "Miami Vice". "Miami Vice" had little to do with plot but everything to do with mood, style, and music. Uh, contemporary music, so that carried over to Manhunter and helped make it dated. Sometimes, it's distracting. Usually, it's acceptable.

For me, besides the mood, what makes the movie entertaining is the story. It's the first psychological profiling detective story that I remember watching. Oh, there are some "state of the art" techniques for evaluating hair samples, the use of infrared to filter different types of ink, and code breaking. But, watching Graham peel away the layers of the murderer's psyche is absorbing. Through it all, there's the grey area of whether it is the killers, Graham's, or Lecktor's personality that's being picked apart.

Dr. Hannibal Lecktor makes his screen debut in this movie. Like Sean Connery is the best James Bond for me, I think that Brian Cox is the best Hannibal Lecktor. A lot of people prefer Anthony Hopkins. For me, he was a charicature. Brian Cox is the real, threatening deal.

Graham has issues. He was responsible for uncovering and arresting Lecktor. In the process, he nearly lost his life. Because he tried to see things as Lecktor saw them, he lost his mind. But now Graham's released from the psychiatric ward and his first case is one that can send him right back to the looney bin if he tries to get into the killer's mind.

There to support/undermine Graham is his wife Molly played by the somnambulist Kim Griest. I went to play a couple of weeks ago. A grade school was performing The Lion King. The acting, although not better than Kim Griest's, was certainly no worse. I guess if you have the effervescent William Petersen as a lead, you need someone that makes him look good. Even the casting of Kim Griest could not pull that one off.

Ah, William Petersen. In my mind, he's an adequate choice for a low key character. I'm not really that impressed with him. Basically, here, he's the same guy as he was in To Live and Die in L.A.. I think he does a slightly better job of acting in this movie that he did in To Live and Die in L.A., but that's faint praise. I suppose he does okay as Will Graham because I enjoyed the movie. Still, I think it's more because Petersen didn't ruin the movie role rather than his being great in the role. Even though the movie is about Will Graham, Petersen does his best to try and turn him into a supporting character rather than the protagonist. The good news is that, except for some odd dialog ("Haven't you, my man?"), there's little about Petersen that detracts from the mood of the film. You can even say that his nearly deadpan performance enhances the mood. You can, I won't.

One nice thing about the movie is that it makes you curious about each character's back story. A smattering of back story is given for each character. There are no flashbacks, so the dialog and some of the scenes tell the history. This approach piques your interest. You hear about Graham's encounter with Lecktor, but don't see it. You hear about how the murderer was abused as a child, but don't see it. It makes the villains enigmatic and almost ethereal. It's all part of the mood.

It's a tense, scary movie that relies more on a slow burn than a quick flash. Oh, there are some gruesome scenes, so don't expect this to be pure suspense. But, it's a well constructed movie, and what you see and when you see it feeds your imagination.

A few side notes. First, Hannibal Lecktor. Notice the spelling. It's not Lecter, as it became in Silence of the Lambs. It's also a different portrayal. Rather than Hopkins' campy cavorting, Cox's portrayal exudes a seriously intense power. Brian Cox exudes charm, class, and strength. You'd never hear him talk about fava beans and chianti. He's a fearsome, intelligent enemy pitting the murderer against Graham. But also, because he is an egoist and he also respects Graham, he drops clues to help Graham understand the murderer. Lecktor is memorable even though his part is small. I would've enjoyed seeing Brian Cox reprise his role instead of being re-gifted with Anthony Hopkins.

If you think Silence of the Lambs is a great movie, then you might not enjoy Manhunter. Silence of the Lambs is a Jonathan Demme movie. You know, the guy who brought you Married to the Mob, Swing Shift, Caged Heat (not Chained Heat), and a bunch of music documentaries. Silence of the Lambs is a B-movie slasher with a ludicrous antagonist. Manhunter isn't a great work, but it tries to be an A-movie feature and is more powerful.

The 17 minute version of "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida." There's a Cheech and Chong routine where a game show host asks the contestant to name the three most often heard songs of all time. The answer is, "Happy Birthday", "Aud Lang Syne", and "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida". That's how popular the song was, despite or perhaps due to its length. In our house everyone under the age of twenty had their own copy. You needed your own copy! Just for the drum solo! From what I gather, the song was supposed to be "In the Garden of Eden" which is in keeping with the hippie, trippy, dippy Iron Butterfly peace, love, dove message. Fortunately, the singer was so toked up or drunk that he couldn't say, "In the Garden of Eden." It came out as if Sterling Sharpe said the words. So, Iron Butterfly simply retitled the song to what the singer was saying.

Needless to say, the fact that Gadda and Vida are made up words only added to the song's popularity. No one believed that something as "heavy" and distorted as that music could possibly refer to the light and peaceful Garden of Eden. As people are wont to do, they made up all sorts of meanings to the lyrics, including one that said that the song was about being buried alive. The drum solo, according to this theory, was the sound of the interree's fists pounding on the inside of a coffin. This interpretation is just another example of how myth is sometimes better than truth. In Manhunter, the song is wonderfully used and edited and calls to mind dark places rather than the shiny Garden.

One other thing about this movie sets it apart from others. There are lots of details and side issues. Graham, after his release from the sanitorium, builds a pen around some turtle eggs to protect the baby turtles after they hatch, Graham has a special discussion about his condition with his son, the sensational tabloid journalist is kidnapped by the murderer and his interrogation is shown, and how Lecktor gets Graham's address is feasible. It's a full movie even if it's not thorough.

The acting of Petersen and Greist is weak. Farina and Noonan are both good. When Petersen is paired with Farina in a scene, Petersen comes alive. When he's paired with Greist, he's a plant.

Fair amount of blasphemy and some profanity. No nudity. Since you know who the killer is, this isn't a whodunit. It's a study in personalities. Sit and watch it, and it'll stick with you. The movie is based on the book Red Dragon by Thomas Harris and the book complements the movie. If you like the movie, then read the book. Don't read the book first. Red Dragon refers to a painting by William Blake. Blake painted the Red Dragon four different ways. The one entitled, "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun" is the one shown in Manhunter. It's small, as the book points out, at 17" x 14".

Powerful, but not all that red or lizard-y

There're also the paintings "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun", "The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea", and "The Number of the Beast is 666", all of which are interesting. If you want nightmare creepy, check out his painting, "The Ghost of a Flea". <shudder>

What's in his right hand? Huh?

Back to the "At Least Once" list or the main movie list.