Blu-Ray Review - MANHUNTER - Not A Prequel To Silence Of The Lambs, But Almost An Equal

In the public mind, Manhunter was all but forgotten by the time Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs came out, four years later. Ironic, that the link is both the reason most people now know of the picture, and the cause of their resistance to it. After all, people now have fixed ideas about who Hannibal Lecter is, and going back to Brian Cox€™s portrayal in 1986 is to them presumably like looking at an earlier version of Frankenstein€™s monster before it was defined by Boris Karloff. Anthony Hopkins was synonymous with the character, he€™d won an Oscar for it, and Dr Lecter had been elevated into the most select group of horror villains, along with Norman Bates, Michael Myers, Karloff€™s Creature and Lugosi€™s Dracula. All of which wrong-foots people when they come to Manhunter (they usually see "Silence€ first), but the comparison is not a useless one. The story is taken from €œRed Dragon,€ Thomas Harris€™s first Hannibal novel (a better title, but the studio thought it sounded like a martial arts movie), which he followed with €œSilence...€ The novels, which admittedly it€™s been a long time since I€™ve read, are strikingly similar in structure; Harris almost seemed to be rewriting his own story, from a different angle. Both employ the device of using a killer to catch a killer, both have protagonists with deep emotional scars, and both have sexually mixed-up outsiders as antagonists: in the movies, they are the lanky, almost otherworldly Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan in Manhunter) and the drawling, manipulative Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine in Silence). The main difference between the stories as novels is in the relationship of the protagonist and Hannibal. Manhunter, despite the way it€™s now sold, is not a Hannibal Lecter movie. For a start the spelling is changed €“ I€™ve never understood why €“ to 'Lecktor' in this version, but that€™s not what I€™m talking about. Michael Mann€™s movie (he adapted as well as directed) is an excellent, slick, muscular police thriller which uses the character of Lecktor (Cox) merely as part of its layered story; an extra glimpse into our hero, Will Graham (William Petersen) and an extra piece of the jigsaw-plotting. "Silence" moved this relationship to the centre; it€™s the heart of the movie. Hopkins€™s Lecter is suave, charming, apparently omniscient. Cox€™s Lecktor is both less iconic and more human; pointedly intelligent and just as manipulative, but somehow understandable as a character, more believable. Putting aside the differences in the stories the biggest, most significant difference between the two movies is a stylistic one. This is an €™80s movie down to its teeth, though for the most part that€™s not a criticism. Demme's movie adopts a less realistic, far more gothic approach, and is less identifiable with one time period. It turns Hannibal€™s cell into a modernised medieval dungeon; in Manhunter the cell is pure white, barred and realistic, and probably just as disturbing for it. Mann€™s direction is confident and tense; his photographer, Dante Spinotti, gives the movie a polished, striking look, full of vivid colour schemes and heavy close-ups. The scope frame is used superbly. For photography it beats "Silence"; music is another matter. Howard Shore€™s score is one of that film€™s strongest assets, whereas the €™80s songs that back up Mann€™s movie are... of their time, to put it politely. The story involves Will, who caught Lecktor and has since retired, being drawn back to help find a serial killer who breaks into private homes and murders entire families. He is supposed only to be giving hands-off advice but finds himself unable to stop himself becoming involved. He seeks help from the incarcerated Lecktor, who €“ correctly €“ deduces that he visits him primarily to get the taste for the hunt back. Lecktor does what he can from his cell to interfere with the investigation and reach the killer. Francis Dollarhyde, AKA The Tooth Fairy, is introduced well into the movie; Noonan makes him genuinely unnerving. His unusual features are undercut by a voice that is gentle and rather childlike in cadence. While certainly not a horror movie the movie is unsettling in both its villain and the way that it deals with the families. We see them as the characters do: smiling on screen in their home movies. We see the bloody aftermath in the house afterwards. We never see the murders. A key scene €“ one of the best in the film €“ has Will putting together a killing on a Dictaphone as he walks through the victims€™ empty house. At moments like these, Mann and Spinotti hold the camera on Petersen€™s face for relatively long stretches, allowing us to sense the way he€™s piecing it together internally. The rest of the €“ very good €“ cast includes Kim Greist (from €œBrazil€) as Will€™s wife, Dennis Farina as Jack Crawford (later played by Scott Glenn and Harvey Keitel), Stephen Lang as obnoxious tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds and Joan Allen as a blind girl who Dollarhyde falls for; her blindness allows him not to feel as self-conscious about his looks, and lets him look at her unobserved, which feeds into his deep-rooted voyeurism. Although Will Graham isn€™t as interesting a character as Clarice Starling, Petersen does a very good job at communicating both his obsession and the pain it brings to him and his family. Edward Norton, an altogether better actor, was cast, 16 years later, to play the role in a movie that was a deliberate prequel (rather than an accidental, unofficial one), and he was too young and fresh-faced for the part. Indeed that entire movie was a cash-in; a rather pointless attempt to remake the story in line with the style adopted by Demme in Silence, and expanding the part of Hannibal; allowing him, indeed, to eclipse the whole story. Manhunter had the advantage of being made before everyone knew how much the character would one day take off, and while it wasn€™t anything like the success that Silence of the Lambs later became, it almost matches it by taking a completely different approach. FILM: 4.5 out of 5 The music dates it, but other than that this is one of the best police thrillers of its time and one of my favourite Mann films (though it doesn€™t reach the heights of Heat or The Insider). Its relationship with Silence of the Lambs is both a blessing and a curse, but I€™ve always thought the difference in styles is what makes them such an interesting pair. I cannot even begin to understand people who think Red Dragon is a better movie. VISUALS: 4 out of 5 While closer inspection starts to reveal visual imperfections, the movie for the most part looks excellent in this transfer, and perfectly showcases Spinotti€™s truly outstanding photography. AUDIO: 3 out of 5 Nothing really wrong with this DTS-HD 5.1 mix but nothing really stands out about it, and it's not as sharp as most Blu-Ray sound mixes. EXTRAS: 3.5 out of 5 Both the theatrical and director€™s cuts of the movie are included but - and I found this particularly disappointing - the director€™s cut is in standard definition. This seems rather inexcusable; I would have thought it possible to include both cuts on HD on a Blu-Ray quite happily. I have a slight preference for the directors€™ cut (which, admittedly, is only slightly different, with a few extra minutes). That cut also has an optional commentary from Mann. There€™s a fairly typical, brief making-of and a ten-minute conversation with Dante Spinotti on his photography. These were all available on an earlier release of the DVD. PRESENTATION: 3 out of 5 Straightforward and easy to use, although make sure you go into the extras menu if you want to watch the directors€™ cut. OVERALL: 4 out of 5 The standard-def transfer of the directors€™ cut is a rather unnecessary disappointment, but nevertheless the movie looks great on Blu-Ray and allows an opportunity to discover, or revisit, this tremendous police procedural. Manhunter is available on Blu-Ray now.
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I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.