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Blood In the Moonlight

August 26th, 2011 · 4 Comments

“The best thing about Red Dragon (Universal), the second adaptation of Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel, is that it reminds you how scary and seminal the first adaptation — Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) — was. This new movie, directed by Brett Ratner, recycles the same narrative, many of the same lines, and even some of the same camera set-ups, but it stubbornly refuses to haunt … you could be watching a plodding, Hollywood-studio remake of some idiosyncratic foreign classic: The beats are the same, but the eerie vibe has been lost in translation.” David Edelstein reviews Red Dragon for Slate Magazine, October 2002

Manhunter (1986)
Directed by Michael Mann
Screenplay by Michael Mann, based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
Produced by Richard Roth
121 minutes (theatrical version)/ 124 minutes (director’s cut)

For those who’ve feasted on almost every variation of the psycho killer genre — particularly through TV forensics shows, with their nice and tidy finishes in under an hour — this special category of crime thriller begins and ends with filmmaker Michael Mann’s fervent and nearly flawless adaptation of Thomas Harris’ 1981 bestseller Red Dragon. The tightly wound source material launched a franchise and still endures as the ultimate dance between predator and prey, yet the original film version has precision moves and timing all its own. FBI Special Agent Will Graham (William Petersen) is semi-retired and living in Marathon, Florida with his wife Molly (Kim Greist) and 11-year-old son Kevin (David Seaman) when his boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) visits the beach with a plea for help.

Graham’s dark talent lies in his ability to enter the mind of a killer and think as they think. To track down a sociopath who’s slain two families — earning the nickname “Tooth Fairy” for the post-mortem bite marks he’s left on the women — Graham reaches out to Dr. Hannibal Lektor (Brian Cox), a homicidal psychiatrist who Graham almost died bringing to justice. A note recovered in Lektor’s cell indicates the doctor is in communication with Tooth Fairy through coded ads placed in a tabloid. A gambit to lure Tooth Fairy to Graham using sleazy journalist Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang) backfires when the killer makes a date with Freddy instead. Revealed to be a gargantuan, socially awkward lab tech named Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), “Tooth Fairy” is drawn out of his shell by a blind co-worker (Joan Allen) who threatens to become Dollarhyde’s next victim.

Film rights to Red Dragon were snared by producer Dino De Laurentiis and after David Lynch tangled with the material — which he found too violent for his taste — Michael Mann was approached. The executive producer of TV’s new sensation Miami Vice, Mann had corresponded with convict Dennis Wayne Wallace for a penal script he’d since abandoned. Using an FBI agent to descend into the psychology of a criminal opened a door Mann had been looking for into that world. To play Will Graham, the director held out for William Petersen, who Mann had auditioned for the role that went to Jim Belushi in Thief. In a battle over the film’s title, Mann was overruled by De Laurentiis, who felt Red Dragon was too similar to his maligned cop thriller Year of the Dragon. Released in late summer with scant marketing support, Manhunter was dismissed by many critics. At the time, audiences ignored it as well.

What Michael Mann brings to the Hannibal Lechter game — a pastime revisited by Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott, Brett Ratner and Peter Webber with diminishing attention — is a relentless pace and brooding chill that evokes Thomas Harris’ page turner, even if much of the author’s backstory is left in the dugout. Instead of focusing on the peccadilloes of the prey, Harris created a hunter whose skills set is far more compelling. Mann knows that guy well. The scenes between Will Graham and his family have an emotional purity, even with the starkest of dialogue, while close attention is paid to the psychologists, cryptologists and ballistics experts working together toward a common goal. Collaborating with casting director Bonnie Timmermann and composer Michel Rubini, Mann was restricted in budget and in time, but in spite of them, perhaps because of them, cranked out the definitive thriller of its class.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 48,623 users: 70% for Manhunter

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: N/A

What do you say?

Tags: Based on novel · Dreams and visions · Father/son relationship · Forensic evidence · Interrogation · Master and pupil · Murder mystery · Psycho killer · Reconstructing Crime Scene · Shootout · Woman in jeopardy

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeff // Aug 26, 2011 at 8:03 am

    This has always been my favorite Hannibal movie, even though he plays a secondary role. Brian Cox’ take on the character always struck me as more frightening than Anthony Hopkins’ more famous version, because it seemed real – just a charming guy, smarter than just about everyone on the planet, who didn’t really care whether anyone else lived or died.

  • 2 J.D. // Aug 26, 2011 at 8:48 am

    I agree with Jeff! Give me Brian Cox’s interpretation over Anthony Hopkins’ overly theatrical Lector any ol’ day. I like how Cox plays Lector as unfailingly polite almost to the point of annoyance as you can see him trying to get under Graham’s skin, getting his hooks into his mind.

    I also like how Mann takes the time to show all the procedural stuff that the FBI/cops do, like that great scene where they analyze the Tooth Fairy’s letter to Lector. Fascinating stuff.

  • 3 Neil Fulwood // Aug 30, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    What Jeff and J.D. said, basically. Cox plays Lector without Hopkins’s charm offensive – in his scenes with Peterson, he mainly looks bored, as if he’s a chess master who’s already a dozen moves ahead and knows his won the game.

    Great set of screengrabs, too. Your article has had the effect that all great writing on cinema does: I immediately want to go and watch the movie again.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Sep 1, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Jeff: I think Mann deserves a lot of credit for Brian Cox, who I’m in agreement with you is plainer but far creepier than Anthony Hopkins. Mann may have been struck by how mundane prison life is. His Hannibal seems more like a janitor whereas in Silence of the Lambs, Lechter comes on like Frankenstein’s Monster in a dungeon. Thanks for the comment!

    J.D.: Manhunter is the Apollo 13 of serial killer movies. Thanks for commenting!

    Neil: That’s the kindest and most killer compliment I’ve received in a while. Thank you for that. I’ve seen several ’80s movies recently that did not hold up for me much at all. Manhunter is an exception. Uncanny how skilled Petersen, Farina, Joan Allen and Brian Cox all were this early in their film careers. I almost forgot Stephen Lang too! What a cast.

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