If you follow me on Twitter then you may have heard recently that I have been devouring the three seasons of Hannibal which had come to Netflix back in June. I had watched the first season back when it first aired but hadn’t had a chance to see the other two so I was more than happy to take any excuse to get caught up. However, when the last episode ended I still hadn’t gotten my fill – I needed more before my hunger would be sated. So I decided that I wanted to give Manhunter a shot, a film which I had a DVD copy of for nearly a decade but which had never actually gotten around to seeing. From there, although it wasn’t my original intention, the idea of doing a retrospective on the Hannibal Lector films emerged.
Before we get into the meat of this series though, I do want to note that I haven’t blogged in quite a while and explain why. In simple terms:
- I have a busy work and family life and so what free time I have I have been dedicating to other pursuits, such as other writing projects which I hope to turn into novels one day.
- On a related note, this blog really doesn’t bring in a lot of traffic. I’m excited if I get, like, a couple hundred views on a post within a month. The most popular posts have views in the hundreds or thousands, but those are usually for obscure movie reviews that don’t have a lot of traffic elsewhere or show up high on Google Image searches. Newer posts don’t tend to do all that well, which is discouraging and so putting effort into other projects seems like a better use of time.
- I like writing these retrospective series (and things like them), but they take a lot of time to write and research for something I don’t get any sort of return on other than my own satisfaction. Like, for the slasher showdown back in October, I spent a solid month of evenings watching the entire Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises and half of the Friday the 13th franchise, in addition to writing up short reviews of all the films… that’s like 24 movies that I was blitzing through for a project which ended up getting subpar views and basically no reaction. I mean, I enjoyed it regardless and I wanted to see all these movies anyway, but you can see why it would be discouraging and make me prioritize projects elsewhere.
Anyway, that’s more or less why I haven’t blogged lately. I still check in here frequently, have been working on some future posts and have like a dozen drafts for other potential posts, but this is the one that finally made it out there. Considering that, like I said, I don’t really have a regular audience here I doubt anyone particularly cares, but I want to get it out there regardless. So let’s get into Manhunter then, shall we?
Before we get to the beginnings of what would become known as the “Hannibal Lector franchise”, we need to take a quick look at the series’ creator, authour Thomas Harris. Harris started his writing career as a reporter, including covering police and crime subjects which would influence his later works. His first novel was 1975’s Black Sunday, a political thriller about terrorists attempting to bomb the Super Bowl, which was adapted into a film in 1977. The movie was directed by John Frankenheimer and starred Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller and was a critical success. Interestingly, the studio had expected Black Sunday to be as successful as Jaws, so when it didn’t meet these lofty expectations it was seen as a disappointment. Regardless, the fact that his first novel was so met with such success meant that Harris’ writing career was poised to reach new heights.
His second novel came about in 1981 with the publication of Red Dragon, a police procedural and crime novel which Harris wrote after studying FBI techniques and serial killer profiling. Perhaps due to Harris’ previous success in Hollywood, Red Dragon was picked up by producer Dino De Laurentiis for a film adaptation, a role which he would hold on every subsequent Hannibal Lector film except, oddly enough, The Silence of the Lambs. David Lynch was originally requested to direct the film, but turned it down as he thought that the script was excessively “violent” and “degenerate”. The job instead went to Michael Mann. Mann was still very early into his career at this point, but was already becoming well known for his stylish crime dramas, being an executive producer on Miami Vice at the time. Mann worked on the script for three freaking years in pre-production, conducting research with the FBI and and with imprisoned murderer Dennis Wayne Wallace in order to ensure that the film would be authentic.
To play the leading role of Will Graham, big stars such as Richard Gere, Mel Gibson and Paul Newman were considered, but Michael Mann ended up selecting William Petersen for the part. Petersen would perhaps become best known for producing and starring in the original CSI, which was itself influenced and inspired by Manhunter. The antagonist, Francis Dollarhyde (changed from Dolarhyde in the novel, inexplicably), was played by Tom Noonan. Unlike his co-stars, Noonan decided not to research serial killers for his role and took more of a method acting approach during filming, isolating himself from cast and crew to make himself more of an outsider. Of course, the role of Hannibal Lecktor (again, changed from Lector in this film for seemingly no reason) went to Retrospectives veteran Brian Cox, who based his role on serial killer Peter Manuel. Rounding out the main cast was Joan Allen playing Reba McClane, only the second feature film role in her career. The film also features freaking Stephen Lang in a supporting role as sleazy journalist Freddie Lounds, as well as Kim Greist as Will’s wife, Molly.
In addition to the inexplicable changes to the way that certain characters’ names were spelled, the title of the film was also changed from Red Dragon to Manhunter. However, unlike those changes, this one’s cause and reasoning are quite well documented. Nearly everyone involved hated the title change, but Dino De Laurentiis demanded it after a film of his, Year of the Dragon, bombed at the box office during the production of Manhunter. He also reportedly claimed that people would mistakenly believe that Red Dragon was a kung-fu movie and therefore a different title was necessary to prevent confusion.
Despite having three years to work on the script, when filming commenced on Manhunter it was reportedly plagued with issues of time constraints. For example, the finale was filmed so late into production that the special effects crew had already left and Mann whoever was left were forced to improvise whatever means they could to pull off the big shootout. Mann also recounted how he decided during filming that he didn’t like the shots of a dragon tattoo on Dollarhyde’s chest and so all existing footage had to be hastily reshot. The reshoots weren’t able to recapture the same feel as the original footage due to these constraints. The production also weren’t able to secure a filming permit from United Airlines, so they ended up just taking a flight from Chicago to Florida and filming anyway, much to the surprise of the crew and passengers.
Manhunter was released in theatres on 15 August 1986 and was, on its release, a commercial and critical disappointment. It only managed to gross a little over half of its $15 million budget and was met with mixed reception from critics. It wouldn’t be until after the release of The Silence of the Lambs that Manhunter would get a critical reappraisal and be regarded in much higher standing. It now enjoys a cult status and many critics praise it effusively, some even saying that it’s the best Hannibal Lecter film…
Former FBI profiler Will Graham is brought back into the fold to help catch a serial killer dubbed “The Tooth Fairy”, a sadistic madman responsible for butchering two seemingly unconnected families during the full moon. With a month until next lunar cycle, Graham searches for any leads he can find, starting with visiting imprisoned criminal Hannibal Lecktor to get insight into the killer’s motivations. Lecktor agrees to offer his insight and then uses subterfuge to discover Will’s home address. It is discovered that Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy have been communicating with each other in code via the National Tattler, a tabloid newspaper. The FBI first attempts to intercept these communications and then instead decide to intentionally defame the Tooth Fairy in order to draw him out. This doesn’t work as intended and instead the Tooth Fairy kidnaps the authour of the article, Freddy Lounds. He raves about the great work he is undertaking and that his name is the “Red Dragon”, before he straps Lounds into a wheelchair and then immolates him.
Demoralized by this failure, things get even worse when it is discovered that Lecktor’s coded message to the Tooth Fairy includes Graham’s family’s home address and instructions to have them murdered. The family is moved to a safehouse as the clock ticks down to the next murder.
Meanwhile, we get to meet Francis Dollarhyde, the Red Dragon in his everyday life. He meets with a blind co-worker, Reba McClane, who shows interest to the shy, insecure man and the two hit it off. However, when he mistakenly believes that Reba is seeing someone else, he goes into a rage, kidnapping Reba and murdering one of his co-workers. As this is happening, Will realizes that the crime scene evidence suggests that the killer had access to the victims’ home movies, as his knowledge of the victims’ residences couldn’t have been from casing them himself. This leads them to Dollarhyde, who is found preparing to murder Reba in a fit of rage. Will confronts him and a shootout ensues, ending with Will shooting Dollarhyde and ending his rampage once and for all.
I found Manhunter to be a particularly interesting film to watch in this day and age. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to watch this movie with fresh eyes, because so much has changed since it was released. First of all, The Silence of the Lambs itself came out only 5 years later, redefining how we would interpret this movie, reshaping how we interact with serial killer stories and stylizing the entire landscape of police procedurals and crime drama. Then came shows like CSI which brought forensics and the details of the investigation of murder to the public conscious. Not only that, but then there was the true crime boom of the past decade and how that has affected how we view and consume these kinds of stories, for better or worse. Going back to Manhunter after all of these cognitive shifts make the film feel almost simple. I also found it interesting to learn during research that changing the title from Red Dragon to Manhunter was a producer-mandated change, because it really captures the differences in this adaptation. Modern serial killer stories tend to place a lot of emphasis on the actions and motivations of the killer (including subsequent adaptations of Red Dragon), but Manhunter‘s focus is primarily on Will Graham, his investigation into the murders and the toll that it is taking on him. Dollarhyde himself doesn’t even show up until nearly an hour into the film and much of his motivation is left unexplored (again, this is especially noticeable compared to subsequent adaptations of this story, as nearly everything about the titular “Red Dragon” is omitted). The film also doesn’t linger on the lurid details of the crime scenes, the violence is after-the-fact, necessary extensions of the professional and clinical investigations. You can see this difference even in the marketing of this film – the original poster is focused on Will Graham investigating, whereas nearly every home video cover places the emphasis squarely on Dollarhyde and changes to font from the cartoony, colourful, rounded font to much more sinister-looking fonts. Like I said, it’s interesting to go back to Manhunter and see what a serial killer movie looks like with decades of evolution in the genre stripped away.
Similarly, during my research I found that the film’s stylized cinematography was particularly noted and praised by critics. In fact, upon its release, it was actually criticized for being too stylish, as if this film was goddamn 300 or something. So what is this stylishness that has the critics so in a flutter? Well… that’s a good question. In my initial viewing I didn’t notice any particularly noteworthy stylistic excess, so when I saw all this praise it made me wonder if I had not paid close enough attention, or perhaps the copy I saw was defective or something? From what I can gather, the style that’s being praised so much is that certain scenes are colour coded to allow the audience to know what to feel (eg, family scenes are awash in an unearthly blue, Dollarhyde’s scenes are tinged green, etc). I did notice these examples, but they aren’t really prevalent throughout the film so I’m still kind of left scratching my head about why they’re so notable to film critics. Again, this is also coming from a modern day lens – digital colour grading has been prevalent in Hollywood for nearly two decades now, leaving films far more over-saturated and colourful than they were able to be in the 80s, which takes away what may have been a unique charm at the time. Subsequent films in the genre, such as Seven, have also set a dark, desaturated style for serial killer films which continues to this day, which makes Manhunter‘s style feel unremarkable compared to these conventional expectations. As I said at the outset, I wish I could see this film with fresh eyes, because seeing it in 2020 makes the film feel quite dated, even if this is because it has influenced its own imitators.
Speaking of expectations, the soundtrack is another unavoidable source of dissonance. Mann fills the movie with 80s synth pop, which makes it sound more like Top Gun than the dark and serious tone a modern audience would expect from a serial killer movie. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad but it does make the film feel very dated.
In general, the direction in Manhunter is great, as one would expect of Michael Mann. Check out the scene when Will meets Dr. Lecktor for the first time for a prime example. I’m particularly impressed by the way Mann frames the shot, utilizing the cell bars for internal framing and to show the literal divide between these two characters. I noticed that these kinds of internal framing are used throughout the film and help to suggest insight into the characters rather than just telling us outright. That said, as good as the direction is, I can’t help but feel like the filming was rushed. I noted some instances of this in the production section, but I do feel like this carries over into the film in noticeable ways. The finale in particular is shot in a strange way, like Mann and company were so short on time that they mounted a bunch of cameras around Dollarhyde’s cabin and then filmed the shootout in such a way to reduce the amount of times they’d have to reset the scene. The editing is so weird too, featuring some really bad looking, low frame rate slow motion and making really jarring cuts over and over again. This would suggest that it was done for stylistic reasons, like they wanted it to be dissonant for the viewer, but in my opinion it just looks bad and robs the ending of any serious impact it may have strived for. There’s also a moment early in the film where a tree branch catches on the camera, obscuring the frame for several seconds and… why? Why did this make it into the film? Did they not have another take of this scene that was better? I honestly don’t know and while it’s definitely nitpicky and doesn’t affect my view of the film that much, it’s details like these that make me feel like the direction gets held back by some of the rougher aspects of the finished film.
I will note though that I watched the Director’s Cut of the film which had some weird issues. I don’t know if it’s just the version that I watched or what, but all the added footage was literally upscaled VHS footage and it’s patently obvious. Like, you’ll be watching the film in crisp HD and then all of a sudden it just turns to blurry VHS-quality footage, like someone was playing a Youtube video on 360p. This was strange to say the least, but I would advise either seeking out the Restored Director’s Cut (which sources these additional scenes from the original footage like they should have in the first place) or the theatrical cut, since I’d say that the additional footage doesn’t change the movie significantly (or, y’know, the Shout Factory Blu-ray which has both).
As for the characters and acting, everyone puts in solid performances. I was a little taken aback that the characters aren’t presented as flashy or larger than life as they are in later Hannibal Lector films, feeling like much more grounded human beings than heroes and villains. William Petersen plays Will Graham as a very straight-laced cop, someone who really struggles with his work, not because of a crippling character flaw but because he’s submerging himself in a world of murder, dredging up past trauma, knowing that peoples’ lives depend on him if he doesn’t succeed. While Petersen plays the character very well, I unfortunately find Will Graham to just be not a particularly compelling protagonist. One of the main reasons for this is because instead of focusing on the mental trauma this case is putting on Will, the film decides to just go for the cliched shorthand and make the real problem be that he misses his family. The film really tries to hammer home that the worst part about all of this situation is that Will has to be away from his family for nearly an entire month, dedicating several scenes to make sure we know. While the film does do some groundwork to show that this work is taking a toll on him, I didn’t get the sense that it was leaving him unhinged, making him make tough choices, or that he was in any way blurring the lines between good and evil – dude’s trying to stop a killer from killing people using the legal process, it’s hard to find much fault in that.
Tom Noonan’s Dollarhyde is also an interesting take on the character, especially compared to other incarnations. From what I understand, there are several deviations from the book which omit most scenes of Dollarhyde’s psychosis that he believes he is becoming the Great Red Dragon from William Blake’s paintings. The movie instead leaves most of his motives ambiguous, leaving us only with Will Graham suggesting that it was abuse as a child which caused Dollarhyde to develop into a murderer and that he kills ideal families because he wishes he could have one. Aside from that, we’re left to interpret for ourselves Dollarhyde’s motives based on how he is portrayed… and, man, the fact that I watched this movie through a 2020 lens strikes again because Dollarhyde is portrayed as a goddamn incel. Like, I’m not even exaggerating – he’s a socially isolated weirdo, he has a cleft palate which causes him to believe that he’s ugly and unlovable, he kills families because he doesn’t think he can ever have one, the mere suggestion that he may be homosexual throws him into a murderous rage, etc. Hell, his entire worldview gets turned upside down by the fact that Reba has sex with him and he even goes on his final rampage because the misogynist dumbass thinks that she cucked him. In this film, Dollarhyde being an incel seems to have more bearing on his actions than any sort of mental illness, which is another detail that I think is particularly interesting in retrospect. In fact, the de-emphasis of mental struggles for both Graham and Dollarhyde might show how mental illness just wasn’t openly acknowledged at the time this film came out.
Of course, I can’t ignore Brian Cox’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecktor. Like most characters in the film, he feels far more grounded and less theatrical, but is still the most dramatic role in the film despite his limited screentime rendering him essentially a plot device (not that I can argue about that, he serves his role in the plot as intended and doesn’t overshadow it). For this first portrayal of the character, Cox portrays him as a smug, amoral asshole. He openly taunts Will, talks to him like he’s the superior one (despite being locked in a prison cell) and tries to get Will’s family killed out of revenge, all while acting like he and Will are old acquaintances. It’s very distinct compared to future portrayals of the character, feeling more like what a real serial killer.
While there is a lot to enjoy in Manhunter, it just didn’t resonate with me nearly as much as I had expected it to. Like I said at the outset, this movie has been on my radar for at least a decade (if not more) and I’ve heard plenty of praise for it, but it just didn’t come together for me. I think this largely comes down to me not caring all that much about Will Graham as a character. Trying to explore exactly why I wasn’t particularly fond of the film is what drove me to do this retrospective series in the first place as it led me to all of these realizations about how the serial killer genre has changed since Manhunter came out. In that regard it is an intriguing relic of its time and, considering its cult status, it may resonate with you more than it did for me, especially if you find yourself caring about Will Graham and his family troubles. However, for my own part I thought that Manhunter was just “fine”.
Be sure to tune in again soon when we look at the next film in this franchise, The Silence of the Lambs!