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This review was written by an old friend and sparring partner under the nom de plume “Pincher Martin” from a chat room I have contributed to for nearly 20 years.  It is an accurate reflection of my feelings on the film and a great write-up of an overlooked and underrated picture.

“Over thirty years ago, I was living in LA and found myself one day in the San Fernando Valley, lining up to see a movie in one of those mall cineplexes that were common at the time. I forget what made me drive over to San Fernando from Westwood, where I was a student living in an apartment, but whatever it was, I know it didn’t have anything to do with the movie I ended up seeing.

I had heard nothing about Manhunter. I’d read no reviews of the film. I’d seen no ads for it. It wasn’t considered a big film at the time. I knew nothing about Michael Mann, the film’s director, who was just some guy known for his work on the new TV series Miami Vice, a show I didn’t watch. I also knew nothing about William Peterson, the star of the film. While several of Peterson’s co-stars in Manhunter would later become familiar to movie-goers (Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Tom Noonan, Stephan Lang), I knew nothing about any of them when I walked into the theater that day. The movie had a cast of unknowns to me.

But it wasn’t uncommon for me at the time to go see a movie on the spur of the moment whenever I had a couple of free hours, and so it must have been some serendipitous event that allowed me to see that day what I now consider to be one of the best films of the nineteen-eighties and one of the best cop films I’ve ever seen.

I loved the movie immediately, and I’ve not changed my mind about it over the last thirty years. I was transfixed by the story I saw on the screen that afternoon. The small movie theater was almost empty (a scene which must’ve been replicated all over the country, since the movie did poorly at the box office), but I didn’t care. Certain scenes in the film made such an impression on my young mind that I could still remember them in detail years later, although I did not have a chance to watch the movie a second time until many years later. Even scenes that were not particularly important in advancing the plot left an impact on me that afternoon because of their aesthetic appeal

I still remember, for example, the blue tint used in an early scene showing Kim Greist and William Peterson as they lay in bed at night with the black-blue ocean behind them. It’s simply breathtaking.

Manhunter was based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, who would later become famous for writing The Silence of the Lambs, which became the way most people were introduced to the character Hannibal Lector, either through the novel or the film.

But Manhunter was my introduction to Hannibal Lector, and it was an intro which later made me lukewarm about Anthony Hopkin’s more celebrated portrayal of the character. Brian Cox’s Hannibal was very different from Anthony Hopkins’s. In his short stint as the character, Cox played Lector with more believable directness, suaveness, and quickness of mind, and with none of Hopkin’s annoying affectations.

Manhunter has perhaps the best scene I’ve ever seen of what I’ll call a realization by the protagonist.

This scene never fails to astound me. It’s one of the few times in a Hollywood action flick that you can see a character thinking through a problem and coming to a realization in a way that seems almost believable. (L.A. Confidential is one of the few other films with this feature which comes to mind.)

The scene, which unfortunately is cut in some versions of Manhunter available today, lasts over seven minutes and involves just two characters – Will Graham played by William Peterson and Jack Crawford played by Dennis Farina. Listen to how the music gradually and quietly enters the film’s soundtrack at about the five-minute twenty-second mark on the youtube video, building up to enhance the tension of the moment when Graham realizes how Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer named “The Tooth Fairy,” is picking his victims.

Manhunter has several remarkable scenes showing FBI agents at work. They’re seriously done, following Thomas Harris’s careful research for his novel. Mann, however, is too obsessed with his own visual style to hew too close to reality. He dresses his agents up more as if he’s thinking of letting them put in appearances on Miami Vice than he does for the real work of the 1980s’ FBI. But it works.

Some critics claim that Manhunter was a precursor of the TV series CSI, which also starred William Peterson, and later branched into a franchise of similar TV shows. I’m not sure that’s the case, but it’s an interesting theory. It’s probably true the movie must’ve helped Peterson more than a decade later when he won the starring role in the first CSI TV show. The movie and the TV series had a similar way of looking at evidence.

Whatever its influence, the movie’s reputation has skyrocketed over the last three decades. After bombing at the box office in 1986, the movie is something of a cult classic today ( 94% on Rotten Tomatoes). Most likely, this had to do with the commercial and critical success of The Silence of the Lambs, which came out five years after Manhunter. The Silence of the Lambs is an excellent film, but in many ways I prefer Manhunter.

Brett Ratner would later release his own cinematic version of the novel Red Dragon in 2002 with a more faithful rendering of the original story. I think it was a mistake.

Manhunter is the superior film in almost every respect. It deviates from the novel in ways which improve the story for film; the acting is better; the soundtrack/music is better. Only in the editing of the final scenes and a few other details is it inferior to Ratner’s fim.

The plot in the novel Red Dragon is too complex for a feature film. Mann in Manhunter wisely chose to focus on the chase – without the need for the complex twist at the end. But Ratner’s Red Dragon made the mistake of trying to emulate the complexities of the novel rather than streamline the story for film.

As far as the acting, Red Dragon has the more acclaimed cast. At least on paper. Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Mary Louise-Parker are all celebrated in their profession, with multiple Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA awards and nominations from their peers.

But Ratner didn’t get much from these names. Hopkins was too old. Fiennes and Norton were miscast. Ratner chose to play Mary Louise-Parker like she’s smart trailer trash. Watson was not bad in the blind role, but Joan Allen was better. And Stephen Lang is better than the soporific Hoffman as Freddie Lounds.

Anthony Hopkins is a superb actor, but he was a glassy-eyed 65-year-old actor in 2002 when Red Dragon came out. He had lost the menace he possessed more than decade earlier when The Silence of the Lambs was released.

Brain Cox, on the other hand, was excellent in his short stint as Hannibal Lector. He underplayed the menace with more believable suaveness and quickness of mind. Perhaps that’s because Cox was only forty-years-old when he played the role and so much more alert-looking than Hopkins, who sometimes seemed like he was battling astigmatism whenever he glanced in the direction of the camera.

Mann gets so much more out of all his actors. Peterson is more convincing as Graham than is Norton, who sometimes comes across more as if he’s a depressed professor rather than a haunted cop.

Tom Noonan was a revelation as Francis Dolarhyde. That character requires a large, strong, ugly man to play the role, whereas the somewhat effete, handsome Fiennes is simply not believable in it. His voice is too affected, even when he damps it down for the role. (This is an excellent example of how a classically-trained Brit actor can’t fit into just any role an American actor can do.) Noonan is a huge man who looks like he could be a serial killer.

One can’t compare the two movies without mentioning the soundtrack of Manhunter. It’s one of the best soundtracks in a feature film I’ve ever heard. I bought it and listen to it on some of my playlists. And yet the music was criticized by movie critics as too synthetic when the movie was first released. (Go to Youtube to listen to the soundtrack. It’s stupendous.)

Manhunter has become a cult classic for a reason. The movie was unfairly neglected by movie-going audiences and maligned by movie critics when it was first released in the theaters. (For what it’s worth, the novel was also unfairly neglected by book readers when it was first published.) But the success of The Silence of the Lambs got Manhunter another look from both critics and audiences, and that second viewing has allowed the film to be reevaluated to its proper stature.

13 Things You Never Knew About ‘Manhunter,’ the First Hannibal Lecter Movie

2) For the lead role of FBI profiler Will Graham, the filmmakers considered Nick Nolte, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, and Paul Newman. Mann ultimately went with Petersen, after seeing him play a relentless sleuth in 1985’s “To Live and Die in L.A.”

3) For the part of Hannibal Lecktor (yep, that’s how it was spelled in the script), the producers thought of John Lithgow, Mandy Patinkin, and Brian Dennehy. It was Dennehy, however, who recommended Cox.

Mandy Patinkin as Hannibal Lector?  Interesting choice.

Read items #8, #9, and #10 to see just how tight the budget was on the movie. They explain why the end of Manhunter was so poorly edited.

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Lawrence Kasdan sought to revive the western, and thank God his vision of it failed.  We can thank better filmmakers for rejecting settling for sweeping camera shots, Aaron Coplandesque scores, and stories where all the heroes are Clean Gene goody-goodies spouting banal, wistful tripe.

It has a few inspired moments, such as Scott Glen’s opening shootout rising above White Rock, New Mexico and the final Kevin Kline/Brian Dennehy gunfight in the middle of the windy town.  Kevin Costner also showed real personality as Glen’s wild younger brother.

Other than that, it’s pretty awful, made even more silly by the gritty realism that followed in Unforgiven and HBO’s Deadwood.  Nobody misses when they shoot, even with a pistol from hundreds of yards away.  The town of Silverado also has the best and quickest dry cleaners around, because everyone looks so damn fine in their cowboy get-ups.

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Ladies and gents, The Village People!”

The language and attitudes are as new as the fashion.  Danny Glover is enlisted as the proud, honorable messenger of racial tolerance; Roseanna Arquette is the feminist landowner; and Kline is a gunslinger with a sweet disposition towards animals and women (Kline’s casting is peculiar; he seems too nice to be the town barber much less a desperado).  It’s all very precious, and for each of our enlightened characters, there are ten chaw-spitting, sneering henchmen to assure us of their goodness.  Bad picture, getting worse every day.

I just saw this on the AFI big screen with Will and my nephew in from Spain, Julian.  A great holiday classic.

John McClain (Bruce Willis), a NYC cop who is flying to LA to spend some time with his kids over Christmas, drops by his estranged wife’s (Bonnie Bedelia) holiday party in the gleaming high-rise, Nakatomi Plaza.  Unfortunately, he arrives just when the party is crashed by a terrorist gang led by the slick and debonair Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).  The terrorists had the perfect plan, but they did not foresee a rogue cop picking them off one by one.

When I first saw Die Hard, I was impressed such an efficient, commercial, cop-against-the world shoot ’em up could be so deft and clever.  Most contemporary blockbuster cop pictures were devoid of humor; featured laughable, deadly serious male leads spouting leaden dialogue and women relegated to looking 80s video hot; invariably starred Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal; and sucked.  The only outliers were vehicles for established comedians (Beverly Hills Cop) or buddy pics (48 Hours and Lethal Weapon).

Willis, in his first big role, is winning.  When the terrorists strike, he is in his wife’s private office bathroom, shoeless and clad in pants and a wifebeater.  He’s vulnerable, put-upon and even giddy, and his charm is infectious.  He’s the perfect guide.

He’s assisted by an intricate, charming villain.  Rickman eschews stock heavy,  opting for an amused persona that hides a deeper ruthlessness :

 

The film also features numerous secondary characters who resonate even with limited screen time.  Reginald VelJohnson is the patrolman first on the scene and McClain’s link via walkie-talkie to the activities on the ground, with a tragic backstory of his own; Alexander Gudonov is the number 2 for the terrorists, infuriated because McCalin has killed his brother; Bedelia becomes the de facto leader of the hostages and has a few nifty exchanges with Rickman; and William Atherton (the haughty EPA investigator in Ghostbusters) is a convincing slimy television reporter.  Most notable is Hart Bochner, the coke-snorting LA cool cat who works for Bedelia.  I always thought Bochner would be a big star and the scene where he tries to “negotiate” McClain’s surrender damn near steals the picture.

Finally, Jeb Stuart’s writing is fresh, cynical and all the more surprising given this was his first picture.  Stuart writes for all characters, providing great repartee, such as this back-and-forth between two FBI men who are brought in late to take over operations:

Martin Scorsese’s surreal nightmare of one man’s (Griffin Dunne) ill-advised late-night trip into lower Manhattan is painfully funny and, at times, genuinely unsettling. Dunne is beset by a quintent of quirky, if not outright dangerous females (Roseanna Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, Teri Garr, Catherine O’Hara and Verna Bloom), a fact that will one day be Exhibit X in his anticipated trial for misogyny.  His torture is lovingly photographed by Michael Ballhaus, giving SoHo’s grimy exterior a dream-like quality (and there is no greater horror than being hunted by a mob that has commandeered a Mister Softee truck).

Dunne is very good and much like Steve Carell, except he’s not burdened at all by the imprint of a long-running character, and where Carell is childlike and vulnerable, Dunne is sympathetic, but sexually opportunistic.

Bonus: if anyone asks you, “What movie casts the parents from Home Alone, one of whom went to filmvetter’s high school?”, now you know.

When Rain Man came out, I enjoyed it, but soon came to sour on the film for its easy emotional manipulation and an affected star turn by Dustin Hoffman. I didn’t credit Hoffman the prescience of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder (“never go full retard”) and found Hoffman’s portrayal of an autistic adult unsubtle and obvious. Perhaps had I waited until Al Pacino’s blind rampage in Scent of a Woman, I would have been more forgiving.

Pauline Kael called it “a piece of wet kitsch” and I can’t say I could have disagreed. Rain Man has always maintained a spot in the pantheon of overpraised domestic drama Oscar winners that, I assumed, would age very ungracefully (see Forrest Gump, American Beauty, Crash).

Rain Man has hit the schedule on my pay movie channels, and yes, it is emotionally manipulative and yes, it does sport some of the more annoying hallmarks of the 80s (a Hans Zimmer synthesized score that would put him on the map, a few too many montage scenes, a gorgeous and pointless female lead, Valeria Golino, who came and went). But Hoffman’s performance as a hidden older brother to Tom Cruise (Cruise learns of him upon their wealthy father’s death and “kidnaps” him to have an edge in getting his share of the will) is very strong. What unfortunately became represented by cute catchphrases (“I’m an excellent driver”, “10 minutes to Wapner”) is actually a canny, deep portrayal of a tortured soul, and director Barry Levinson never really lets you forget the dangers that lie therein. Much like Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, Hoffman is endearing until he is terrifying, and at exactly the moment Spielberg would have inserted treacle, Levinson has Hoffman explode again.

Tom Cruise is even better in his role as Hoffman’s wheeler-dealer, LA smooth brother, Ray. His frustration with Hoffman is communal. His entire performance is a study in anger at Hoffman, not for being denied his loving company or for being shut out by his father, but because Hoffman is an annoying lunatic. “I know you’re in there somewhere,” he screams, and while he undergoes change in his time with the afflicted Hoffman, he does not become redeemed so much as educated.

The film is also very, very funny, perhaps too much so for our times. I can imagine grievance groups objecting to the use of an autistic adult for chuckles, but the screenwriters’ (Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass, the former of whom, like Golino, pretty much disappeared after this film) don’t pull many punches and the exchanges between Hoffman and Cruise are often brutally comic:

 

Writer/director Bill Forsyth was born in Glasgow so he was well-positioned to create this love letter to Scotland. Big oil executive Peter Riegert, who lives a precise, antiseptic and singular life in Houston (he prefers to do deals at arm’s length – “I’m a telefax man”) is sent to a small fishing community in Scotland to buy up the land for a new refinery site. Before his journey, the company’s quirky owner and amateur astronomer, Burt Lancaster, enlists Riegert to canvass the skies in search of a comet. Riegert finds a quaint, simpler life that slowly transforms him from uptight businessman to wistful boy, entranced by the scenery, pace and wonder of the coast.  The charm of the film is embodied in the village, in the film’s quieter moments, and as it infatuates Riegert, so too the audience.

There are so many good things about this picture it’s hard to catalogue them all. Riegert manages to be deadpan yet earnest, never once lapsing into sarcasm or condescension, and Forsyth writes him in a manner that never requires an explanation of or ode to his disquiet. The villagers are not schmaltzy local yokels, with a song in their heart and a lesson to impart.  Rather, they are a slightly cynical bunch who received intel on the purchase and they – like anyone – lust for the big payoff.  As Forsyth has acknowledged, “I don’t want you to think there was some deliberate message. You talk about the plot, but was there one? I mean, people can look back and say, oh, this was all an early one about the environment or whatever, but it didn’t happen that way, or if it did it was accidental. I’m not political, either in film or personally, and I don’t really do plot, and certainly don’t aim to broadcast a ‘message’. I suppose I like to tell stories. And if I’m writing a film, and don’t really have a plot, then you have to fill the screen with something, so I try to do so with characters, incidents.”

The picture features an impossibly young Peter Capaldi (In the Loop, World War Z), hilarious as Riegert’s liaison.  His high dudgeon when the town’s cook serves him an injured rabbit he has saved from a road injury is priceless.  Mark Knopfler also contributes a restrained, moody score that melds his guitar licks with a little-80s Vangelis synthesizer.

Apparently, Forsyth only got a few bites at the apple in Hollywood, the last one being a poorly reviewed Robin Williams vehicle, Being Human.  It’s a shame.  Forsyth was interviewed by The Guardian in 2008, which correctly called Local Hero “one of the quiet must-see little masterpieces of British cinema.” 

During AFI’s recent LA Modern series, we were hoping to see William Friedken’s picture on the big screen, but schedules wouldn’t permit, so we settled for a Netflix rental.  Friedken’s modern crime noir tracks Secret Service agents William Peterson and John Pankow as they hurtle through a maelstrom in an effort to bag master counterfeiter and killer Willem Dafoe. Their zeal seals their doom.

It’s a competent thriller, but there are not insignificant problems.  Peterson’s adrenaline junkie character is too one-dimensional, and the screenplay (written by a former Secret Service agent and Friedken) can be awkward in its reliance on hyper machismo, tough guy patter (“you want bread?  Fuck a baker!”) or even hackneyed (“I’m getting too old for this shit”). And if you were a Wang Chung fan, this is your movie, but the synthesized 80s score was hit-or-miss at the time and doesn’t travel so well 30 years later.

But the second half of the movie overcomes a lot of the weaknesses of the first, as Peterson and Pankow are revealed to be screw-ups in the ultimate clusterfuck. As they dig deeper, Pankow enlists the aid of Dafoe’s own lawyer, a confident but slightly oily Dean Stockwell, and it is a revelation to see the portrayal of a cop who is probably took weak for the job. Meanwhile, Dafoe proves less efficient than his stylish demeanor suggests and his errors eventually become too much to bear. Dispensing with super cops and criminal masterminds results in a much more satisfying picture.

Friedken also includes a boffo car chase after a heist gone bad in homage to his own The French Connection, and all of his action scenes are non-stylized and immediate (my son observed that the flick has to hold the record for guys shot in the face at 3). Notably, and in keeping with its inclusion in the AFI series, the locations are almost exclusively sun-bleached and bleak industrial LA, a rarity.