A scene from MANHUNTER.

Retro Review: Manhunter

United States. Directed by Michael Mann, 1986. Starring William Petersen, Dennis Farina, Kim Griest, Tom Noonan, Brian Cox, Stephen Lang, Joan Allen. 121 minutes.

Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon, the book that introduced the world to Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, has already been filmed twice. There’s no better time to revisit the first of those movies–especially since early signs indicate that the back half of Hannibal’s upcoming third season will adapt the novel in some way, shape or form.

You probably know what the story is about, but just in case: ex-FBI agent Will Graham has a rare ability. He can analyze murder scenes in such a way that allows him to understand a murderer’s psychology and actually put himself in the killer’s place. Some years ago, he nearly died during the capture of notorious murderer Hannibal Lecktor (as it’s spelled here). Now Graham’s former boss calls him out of retirement to assist in the investigation of “the Tooth Fairy,” a serial killer preying on families in the American southeast. But in order to succeed, he needs to face Lecktor, once a brilliant psychiatrist–and a man who’s never lost interest in the man who caught him.

At the time of Manhunter’s production, the film’s screenwriter and director, Michael Mann, also served as executive producer of Miami Vice. That explains the brightly-lit interiors, too-expensive suits and too-expensive cars, the synth score by composer Michael Rubini and Philadelphia new wave act the Reds, and William Petersen’s beard. To be sure, Mann prefers a darker, less obviously glamorous aesthetic here than he did at his day job, but the two projects seem, in a visual sense, like two sides of the same coin. Audiences more familiar with the darker color palettes of the Anthony Hopkins films and the Hannibal series may find Manhunter’s look jarring, or even a little dated. It certainly took me a while to get used to it.

That being said, the mid-’80s styling doesn’t detract from the overall effect the film delivers. Mann is as good with emotional effect as he is with his visuals, and several key scenes (including one particularly memorable sequence featuring “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida”) burst to overflowing with tension. Plot tends to take a back-seat, and while Mann preserves most of the important plot beats of the novel, at a couple of points the astute viewer will notice gaps in the story, things that the film seems to foreshadow that never happen. (A great example of this is an action Lecktor takes after his first meeting with Graham, which those familiar with the novel will recognize as setting up an encounter toward the end of the story…which never actually happens in the film.)

When it comes to the performances, it’s easy to make the mistake of putting too much emphasis on Brian Cox’s Lecktor. Considering the attention Hopkins brought to the character, that’s certainly understandable–and without Hopkins, Manhunter might never have been picked from obscurity–but both Cox and Mann know that this isn’t Lecktor’s story (indeed, his role in the film’s plot is actually cut down from the novel) and he shouldn’t attempt to steal it. Accordingly, Cox’s performance is less flamboyant and more subtle than his successor’s, but thankfully it has a similar effect.

The real protagonist of Manhunter is Will Graham and future CSI star William Petersen’s turn in the role is nothing short of electrifying and commanding. He’s more stable than his successors, and when he intimidates his attitude is more tough than scary–more like “I’m going to kick your ass” than “I’m going to slit your throat while you sleep.” This is a bit out of keeping with Harris’s conception of the character but Petersen makes it work in what struck me as a very ’80s way.

This is Petersen’s show but the rest of the cast, including Dennis Farina as Jack Crawford, Will’s former boss at the FBI, and Tom Noonan as the killer, is excellent. The only dud is Steven Bauer, horribly miscast as slimy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds.

Manhunter stands up as a solid psychological crime-thriller even when it looks and sounds a bit too much of its time, which is often. And it certainly stands up well on its own, apart from the infamy its second-string villain would ultimately acquire.