FlixChatter Review: Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986)

This is the first film where the famous character of Hannibal Lecter (spelled as ‘Lecktor’ in this film), the brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer, first appeared on screen. The story is based on Thomas Harris’ novel called Red Dragon. I was curious because of that fact and also because I generally like Michael Mann’s work. It’s also fun to see William Petersen in a similar role of that in his CSI TV show as he’s the protagonist in the film, kind of like Clarice Starling in this film’s sequel The Silence of the Lamb.

Petersen plays Wil Graham, an FBI profiler who uses a unique method of getting into the criminal’s mind in order to catch him. Such a process is effective but obviously takes so much out of him, and also endangers his family’s safety. In fact, after he was attacked by Lecter, Graham retired to Florida. Lecter is now in jail but his former colleague Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) asked him to help with yet another serial killer case, dubbed the ‘Tooth Fairy’ by the police for his signature bite marks he left on the victims.

The opening sequence is downright eerie, with the killer entering a family’s house late at night and shines a flashlight on the couple sleeping on their bed. He zooms in on the female victim for a few minutes waiting for her to wake up. All of the violence happens off-screen, which is the way I prefer it, because we don’t really need to see all the gory happenings in order to feel the impact of the crime. We get to see it when Graham finally agrees to take the case and he pays a visit to the house. Blood splatters all over the room, on the bed, on the wall and the smashed-up mirror graphically depicts just how gruesome the attack was on this poor family. But what’s more disturbing is the constant play of the home video of the family enjoying themselves during breakfast and also frolicking by the pool. Even without knowing who they are, we get this incredible sense of distress as Graham did when he first saw their pictures. That’s why he couldn’t say no to the case.

Another reason I wanted to see this film is the massively-underrated Scottish thespian Brian Cox as Lecter. He’s not in the movie very much, but when he is, he’s very, very good. I kind of like his portrayal and I wish he’d reprise his role in subsequent movies. Sure Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for his role in the sequel, and it’s become the role he’s most known for, but I think Cox’s nuanced, less-revealing performance is equally spine-chilling (if not more so) and we haven’t even got to him eating liver with chianti and stuff! Mann effectively showed just how menacing and creepy Hannibal is from Graham reaction after his visit to his jail cell. He runs off like there’s no tomorrow as if Hannibal is right behind him with a scalpel, even though he didn’t even touch the man at all the entire time! Per Wiki, Mann kept the role of Lecktor very short, believing that it was “such a charismatic character that [he] wanted the audience almost not to get enough of him” I think that’s a wise decision.

The rest of the performances are good as well. Petersen is convincing as the gifted profiler, though not too different from his famous TV role in CSI. Tom Noonan is downright creepy even when he displays his childlike innocence with Joan Allen, in a brief but memorable role as a blind woman drawn to a psychopath.

I LOVE Mann’s direction here, I think the quiet intensity he displayed here is most similar to The Insider. It proves that you don’t need big explosions or excessive display of blood and gore to create a sense of suspense and dread. Some people might think this is overly slow with not much going on, but I kind of like the fact that this movie gradually explores the psyche of the mind-hunter and the journey to catching the killer. The use of colors, contrasting dark vs. light shots and fully utilizing music to enhance the atmosphere is quintessentially Mann’s. The level of authenticity is great as well, though of course, being this set in mid 80s, the movie doesn’t age well. It’s a hoot to see just how ‘archaic’ VHS is, but I’m sure our Blu-ray and iPhone would be just as dated a few decades from now, ahah.

But to me, there’s a lot going for it here that makes this one of Mann’s finest work. In fact, I like this better than the more celebrated Silence of the Lambs and I don’t really have interest in seeing the remake made in 2002 with the same name as Harris’ novel.

4 out of 5 reels

Have you seen this movie? Who do you think is the better Hannibal actor?

50 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986)

  1. I’ve read the book and seen the remake. I’d really like to see this to see Cox’s performance. He is often outstanding! I’m not a huge Mann fan though. I love the style in terms of lighting, cinematography etc but I think the pace often suffers. Then again, I still need to catch The Insider too after your recent piece!

    1. Cox is an outstanding actor and massively underrated, so yeah, check this out just to see even his brief appearance. The Insider is great but I suppose if you don’t like the slower pacing, you might not love it as much as I do. I actually don’t mind the pace because it’s still suspenseful.

  2. Paula

    thanks for this review Ruth! Mann is one of my favorite directors and I’ve wanted to watch this one for a while but never known exactly how bad the violence/scariness was until now. The Insider is a favorite and I actually liked Miami Vice (the movie).

    1. Yeah, I think he’s mine too as I’ve seen a half dozen of his work and I like all of them except for Public Enemies. I don’t hate that one, just wasn’t too impressed. Miami Vice is good, a much darker take than his own TV show but still has everything Mann is known for.

      1. Paula

        Thanks to you all! how cool to know i’m not alone 🙂 Ruth, Public Enemies to me is the least Mann-like of Mann’s films, if that makes any sense.

  3. Great review, Ruth. This one is Michael Mann channeling his 80s vibe through it and gets a lot things right in the film while giving it his own take with Thomas Harris’ source material. Brian Cox portrays the character of Hannibal Lecter chillingly and is quite underrated in the role. Couple of years back, I wrote up that seminal book in a post that might interest you. This is easily my preferred film adaptation — though some would argue Brett Ratner’s version is closer to the novel’s storyline. Either way, I’ll stick with what I wrote about this:

    “Still, as good a film as Manhunter is, I’m afraid no adaptation was ever as gripping or harrowing as the source novel. To be certain, no film ever dared put Red Dragon’s shattering book climax onto any of the two screen adaptations.”

    Enjoyable read, Ruth. Well done.

    1. Ted S.

      So true Michael, either of the films really captured the “horror” of what Harris wrote in the novel, I kind of got mad at Ratner for showing the history of Graham and Lector in Red Dragron but then I sort of wanted to see why Graham’s so scare of Lector.

    2. Thanks Michael. Brian is just perfect here, it’s understated but there’s so much boiling beneath the surface that makes it scarier. Even that scene when the guard gave me the phone, I kept thinking ‘oh man, what’s he gonna do??’

      Wait, Brett Ratner directed ‘Red Dragon??’ Meh, that’s another reason I’m not interested in seeing it. No way he could top Michael Mann!

  4. Excellent. Glad you really liked this one. VERY creepy. Totally disturbing. Mann did a great job, and all the performances were great too. I’ve watched it several times… Its a great flick!!

    1. Indeed Dan. I don’t know if I want to see it again though, it kinda gives me the heebie-jeebies. I just wanted to see it for Cox’s performance mainly and it certainly did not disappoint! In fact, I like the acting from the rest of the cast as well.

  5. jackdeth72

    Hi, Ruth and company:

    You’ve written a review after my own heart, Ruth!

    I was quite taken by Petersen’s earlier performance in ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’. Which kept my eyes open for his next opportunity as Will Graham under Michael Mann’s deft touch. Everything about ‘Manhunter; resonates mood, atmosphere and authenticity.

    Petersen, Farina and a briefly cast Bill Smitrovich are all spot on. Yet, even more so Brian Cox’s Lector and Stephen Lange’s slimy tabloid reporter, Freddy Lounds. Both pull out the stops in charm and oiliness to make their roles exceptional and memorable.

    Tom Noonan’s Dollarhyde has yet to be topped. I especially enjoyed the scene with him, Joan Allen’s blind Reba McClane and the Tiger under anesthesia. There’s something very beautiful and primal about it. That works!

    Is it any wonder that the later, ‘Red Dragon’ which is a near word for word carbon copy of Mann’s work failed to live up to expectations?

    1. Why thank you Jack, glad to hear that. I actually like Petersen in the first CSI, I thought he’s just so darn charismatic. I should check him out in ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ as I quite like the look of him as a young man 😉

      Oh yeah, Stephen Lang! I forgot to mention him but I almost didn’t recognize him at all here. He’s not as buff as he was in Avatar, ahah.

      Yeah, that scene with the tiger takes my breath away. Allen’s performance is fantastic even in her brief scene, I’ve since like her work every time she appears.

      I have no interest in seeing ‘Red Dragon,’ especially after Michael pointed out it’s directer by Brett ‘the hack’ Ratner!

      1. Ted S.

        You might enjoy Red Dragon Ruth, especially if you like Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes, both of them were pretty good in the film. I actually thought Fiennes did a great job of portraying Francis Dolarhyde than Noonan did and the role is much bigger than in Manhunter; they really tried to stay true to the book. I have it on DVD, I can give it to you if you want to see it.

        I think it’s probably Ratner’s best movie which isn’t saying much since his resume is pretty atrocious. But he really tried to actually make a good movie on this one, but somehow he must’ve realized it takes a lot of effort to make a good film and decided to just go back and be the YES man director to studios again.

        1. WOW Ted, I thought I’d never see a day where you’d recommend a Brett Ratner movie, ahah. But I see your reasoning here, I suppose he *could* be good if he tried, and the cast does sound appealing. So Norton is William Petersen’s character then? Wow, now that’s something I gotta see. Both him and Fiennes can be convincing playing good and evil characters.

          Ok then since you have the DVD, I might borrow it. You sold me 🙂

          1. Ted S.

            Yeah Norton’s Graham and like I said Fiennes was very creepy as the killer, pretty much all of the characters got enough screen time. Heck they even added more scenes for Lector. Also, Phillip Seymore Hoffman played the reporter. The film actually got a lot of good actors in it, had a more talented director made it, the film could’ve been great.

            Just a warning though, there were some intense sequences in this version than Mann’s, just FYI.

            1. “…there were some intense sequences in this version…” Hmmm, I was afraid of that. I think today’s movies tend to lay on the brutal violence for shock value. That’s why I appreciate Mann’s version as he didn’t go overboard with it but enough to frighten you.

        1. I agree that “Red Dragon” is a very good adaptation and is an effective movie. This was the first Brett Ratner movie I ever saw and didn’t understand why everyone was trashing him. Then I saw his other movies…

          1. “Then I saw his other movies…” Ahah, that made me laugh! Like Ted said though, he probably had talent, just figured it’s easier to make a buck if he becomes a ‘YES MAN’ instead.

  6. Ruth, glad you enjoyed this one. I didn’t see it until fairly recently, and I was really impressed by the style Michael Mann used, which is very distinctive. It’s not my favorite Mann film, but it’s very solid and holds up well today.

    1. Oh good then so I’m not the only one who has just recently discovered this. Glad you enjoyed it, Dan. I wish Michael Mann makes more movies!

  7. Ted S.

    Nice review Ruth, I love all of the Lector novels by Harris, even the bloated Hannibal but Red Dragon is still my favorite. I thought Mann did a good job of adapting it for the screen. I still think Silence of the Lamps is the best of the films based on the books though and Anthony Hopkins will always be Lector to me, he captured every essence of what Harris described in the books. But I thought Cox was good too.

    1. Oh surely Mr. Hopkins did a tremendous job as Lecter, and he’s obviously praised for his work and even won that Oscar. Maybe I just prefer Cox’s performance as ‘Silence’ was just too shocking for my liking. Of course that’s my issue as the books probably are just as brutal if not more.

  8. I have yet to see this movie. Not sure if I ever will. But I liked your review.

    I’m do think, though, that Brian Cox is a massively-underrated Scottish thespian. He’s done quite a bit and I tend to like him a lot. He is picked for several roles and I would say that he is a great actor and considered as such. Kinda like Paul Giamatti.

    1. In hearty agreement there, T. Brian Cox never fails to give himself fully to a role, no matter what it is. “Massively-underrated” fits perfectly with regard to this actor.

    2. Paula

      I have to agree about Brian Cox, he has got to be one of the most versatile actors around. There aren’t many who can do roles as diverse as the police supervisor in Super Troopers (slapstick-y comedy) and the corrupt CIA guy in the Bourne movies (serious suspense) and be totally believable in both.

      1. I’m happy w/ all the love for Mr. Cox. He’s also great when he’s hamming it up (with a Russian accent to boot) in RED. Have you seen it Paula? Oh I love that movie! Cox played Helen Mirren’s lover 🙂

        What? He’s in ‘Super Troopers’?? I have to see that now!

        1. Paula

          He’s their boss…i think Super Troopers is one of the funniest movies ever made but i have strange taste sometimes.

          And I forgot he was in RED…he is a disappearer 🙂

  9. I didn’t even know about the existence of this film. So bad of me!
    The Lecter character is so fascinating that just knowing there’s another film out there that revolves around him makes me put this one on my must-see list.
    It helps that it is directed by Mann and that the underrated (but always great) Brian Cox is in it.
    I’m not so sure about Petersen. Maybe this is why he was cast in CSI, it certainly sounds like there’s a lot in common between the two roles.

    1. Why I’m glad I brought this to your attention, Niels. If you’re a fan of Mann’s work, this is a must-see. Petersen is very good here, and actually his character is quite different from CSI in that he’s got a family and there’s a softer side to him here, whilst in CSI he’s more of a forensic geek, ahah. He’s charismatic though, I’ve always liked him.

    1. Well, it’s not a ‘flashy’ movie, so I could see that it’s not as popular as the sequel. I think the pacing also turns a lot of people off.

  10. Haven’t seen this movie but funny that Gerard Butler just got attached to a movie with a similar title 😉 I might check this out though since it’s one of Mann’s earlier work

    1. Ahah, I just saw that news piece came in. I thought he’d be dealing w/ a serial killer but turns out it’s a terrorist. I’m getting tired of hearing news of him being attached to this and that, and yet there’s NO movie of his coming out in the near future!

      Anyway, give this a shot, Castor, especially if you like Mann’s work.

  11. This sounds pretty awesome! I saw Red Dragon many years ago, but honestly don’t remember much about it. I’ll have to check this one out thanks to your high praise.

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