“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, a scene that 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.