Michael Mann is possibly the most 80s director of the 80s. Even though he only made three features in that decade, as the executive producer of the Miami Vice television series, he can take much of the blame for the clichéd look of the era that has been used in so many clichéd punch lines in the years since. Watching Manhunter made me realise how familiar I was with his style of film making, without having really seen that much of Michael Mann’s work.
Probably most famous for being the Hannibal Lecktor movie before The Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter, based on the novel Red Dragon (not the confused with the Lambs sequel of the same name), follows an FBI agent, played by William Peterson, on the trail of a serial killer. Also like Lambs, he hopes to use the incarcerated Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) in his persuit. Unlike Lambs, Peterson already knows exactly who Lecktor is, because he’s the one who caught him and put him in prison. Where Jodie Foster was scared of the unknown of Anthony Hopkins’ Lecktor, Peterson already knows everything he ever can about Cox’s Lecktor and even has the scars (literal and emotional) to prove it.
Because this is Michael Mann in the 80s, the score is littered with synthesiser drones and each scene is drenched in a strong colour filter to let us know which side of Peterson’s world we’re dealing with at any given moment. Subtly is not really a big concern of Mann’s and here every aspect, acting, dialogue, camera, editing, is turned up to eleven to make sure he gets his point across.
Peterson, the conflicted FBI analyst still reeling from is time chasing Lecktor gets to show his emotions by literally screaming his feelings and outrage when piecing together how his latest prey carried out his crimes. His latest prey, known as the Tooth Fairy, is played by a creepy as shit Tom Noonan. He’s somehow way more disturbing then Buffalo Bill in Lambs without getting as many blatantly horrific things to do. Sure, Mann lets the Tooth Fairy pursue and seduce a blind woman for added menace, but even without that, he’s legitimately terrifying.
Despite being a flop on release, Manhunter has built a bit of a reputation as the better of the Lecktor movies. In some ways I agree, Cox’s Lecktor is more subdued than Hopkins’, but in being so, loses some of the fun that added to the threat of Hopkins’ incarnation. Jody Foster definitely gets a more interesting role to play as the protagonist than Peterson. Peterson knows what he’s up against and has already been damaged by it. His story is all about redemption and getting some control back. Foster gets to play the wet behind the ears rooky. Being so out of her element and more and more blown away with each revelation about by who she’s dealing with makes her a more relatable audience surrogate.
But it’s biggest achievement? While everything about Manhunter screams 1980s, it still somehow manages to have a timeless quality to much of it and you can see why film studios keep going back to the Lecktor character and these stories.