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Manhunter limited edition
By releasing a special edition of Manhunter just as MGM's big Hannibal sequel is set to hit theaters, Anchor Bay is showing the kind of smarts that have eluded the video departments of big studios. Nobody thought to reissue all the old dinosaur movies when Jurassic Park was new, and that's only one example. So this new edition of the first Thomas Harris book about serial murders and the maniacal inmate Hannibal Lecter begs a comparison with The Silence of the Lambs, the Academy Award-winning feature that put Lecter on the cultural map, even though Red Dragon got there first in this stylish, tasteful, and well-directed thriller.
Agent Will Graham (William Petersen) is coerced into joining the FBI manhunt to capture a mass murderer known only as 'The Tooth Fairy,' because of his predilection for biting his victims. Graham has been on leave because of a nervous breakdown he suffered after successfully putting the notorious Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) behind bars; because of his special talent for inhabiting the mind-set of these criminal monsters, Graham puts his sanity on the line one more time. But it won't be easy, for to get a line on this new killer, Graham knows he'll have to visit the imprisoned Lecktor again, and give the lethal Doctor access to his now-delicate psyche.
Manhunter is definitely a Michael Mann concoction in the flavor of Thief and the Miami Vice television series. The look of the movie is very important to Mann, and only with the passage of time have some of the criticisms of his style being "MTV shallow" (shiny night photography, moody rock music interludes) dulled. Mann's modern-day crime films do place style first - an Italian sense of high design marks most every scene. Sparse and graphically oriented, the spacious vistas of the sea and immaculate, modern dwellings of everyone in the film (even the gore-washed murder scenes look designed) tend to pull the film toward the abstract. The acting is uniformly excellent, aided by a very good, if predictable, script. William Petersen in particular expresses mental distress without resorting to hysterics. Kim Greist (Brazil) is saddled with the stock 'strong wife' role and carries it well, and Joan Allen is a standout as a blind woman who's not afraid to be forward in a relationship ... even with a very strange workmate. Tom Noonan and Brian Cox are convincing serial-killer monsters. Noonan's inability to relate to other human beings is strongly felt. Flashing wild eyes and sneering out veiled threats, Cox is a bit obvious in his madness, while being somewhat bland, perhaps a fault of the script. (Savant really enjoys his role as the beautifully-written Factor in Rob Roy.)
Perhaps the key scene to 'placing' Mann's style is Joan Allen's tactile encounter with the anesthetized tiger. Mann's rigid design here becomes multi-dimensional and immediate, as we vicariously enjoy hugging the tiger with her, and running our fingers through its hair. Francis Dolarhyde (Noonan) watches the spectacle only as an observer, enamored of the joy but incapable of taking part in it. We thought his date was a murder plot, so we are all the more impressed when it turns out to be his stab at a romance.
Defenders of Manhunter try too hard to convince us that Silence of the Lambs is some kind of glossy, Hollywood-ized version of the tale, and that Mann's earlier foray into Thomas Harris-land is the genuine article. It's not just primarily a matter of taste; Manhunter is not only purposefully remote, but less accessible even to keen audiences. In such a designer atmosphere, the sense of dread never gets as deep as in Silence; and it's not just because the Demme movie has a vulnerable female lead. Hannibal is just another kook in the hoosegow in Manhunter, a very clever one, but there's nothing we feel that makes him seem cause for Graham to lose his mind. Although it's nowhere near as gory or traumatic as Silence, Manhunter has a colder, less humanitarian attitude to its subject, and a slightly exploitational edge, because its style aestheticizes most of what we see. This is not to discount its visual poetry, which is considerable, but it seems rather linked to the Italian giallo movies of Dario Argento in placing form so far ahead of content. Silence of the Lambs may be more 'Hollywood' (I'd dispute that) but it plays much more deeply into its characters and themes. It's less predictable and more compassionate to all of its characters - witness the crass reporter character (Stephen Lang) in Manhunter who serves as an easy target for our scorn. He's a ridiculous jerk, even our hero beats up on him, and his horrible death (one of only two real onscreen murders in the movie) probably met with a hearty 'right on!' from the audience. Mann deals in 'types,' reserving the human dimension for his leads. Finally, there are those who complain about the directorial 'tricks' in Silence, in particular the simultaneous arrivals of Clarice Starling and Jack Crawford at the 'homes' of killer Jame Gumm. Manipulative, but thrilling ... and a darn sight better than the droning Iron Butterfly music that has some token motivation but really serves to provide the gundown finish with a slick rock'n roll veneer. Silence of the Lambs is the sober, humanist equal of Alfred Hitchcock's intellectual, cynical Psycho. Manhunter is an overachieving thriller just a few paces ahead of the average.
Anchor Bay has a classy package in their Manhunter special edition. The theatrical cut is the equal of any new release in quality, greatly improving the appeal of this film which relies so heavily on Dante Spinotti's evocative photography. One of the docus is a short interview with Spinotti where he exhibits real creative enthusiasm for the look of Manhunter, pointing out some color references and gel effects whose design is definitely first-class. The other docu is a little more standard, but revealing, with Petersen, Cox, Allen, and Noonan coming across pleasantly and speaking up for director Mann, who is not interviewed. Noonan, a very good actor saddled with a career playing nasty killers (RoboCop 2), is clearly troubled by how menacing he can make himself on the screen. Cox delivers some slightly jaded comments on how he missed the boat that took Anthony Hopkins on to glory, riches and a knighthood.
The second version of the movie is an extended cut of the film labeled 'The Director's Cut'. Scanning through it, Savant saw several different scenes that fans of Manhunter will be eager to check out (they've all probably read the exegesis of the film in Video Watchdog.), so making this available is the kind of thing DVD does best. It looks simply lousy next to the Theatrical Cut though - fuzzy and indistinct, and is also letterboxed more crudely. After the new material is digested Savant doesn't see it becoming anyone's version of preference.
Savant's appreciation of the finer points of Michael Mann's original Hannibal Lecter movie, Manhunter, has been greatly increased by this excellent Anchor Bay presentation. As an alternative to the Anthony Hopkins / Jonathan Demme take on the squeamish world of Thomas Harris, it is highly recommended.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Manhunter rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: 2nd director's cut on separate disc, "Inside Manhunter" docu, "The Manhunter Look"
Packaging: Double-fold keep case
Reviewed: January 21, 2001