(director/writer: Michael Mann; screenwriter: from a Thomas Harris novel “Red Dragon”; cinematographer: Dante Spinotti; editor: Dov Hoenig; cast: William L. Petersen (Will Graham), Kim Greist (Molly Graham), Joan Allen (Reba), Brian Cox (Dr. Lecktor), Dennis Farina (Jack Crawford), Stephen Lang (Freddie Lounds), Tom Noonan (Francis Dollarhyde), David Seaman (Kevin Graham), Benjamin Hendrickson (Dr. Chilton); Runtime: 121; De Laurentiis/Roth; 1986)
“This is an overlooked but superior thriller, one of the best films from the 1980s.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Manhunter is adapted from the Thomas Harris novel “Red Dragon.” It came five years before Harris’s other novel was adapted to the screen, “The Silence of the Lambs,” and 15 years before the newly released “Hannibal.” It has become a cult favorite, and I thought it was far superior to the other two films.

There are no over-the-top performances and no unnecessary gore shown, yet it is a nightmarish voyeuristic look at a criminal hunter going after his prey by looking inside himself for answers. This is an intelligent psychological portrayal of both a serial killer and the FBI investigator who dogs him. The killer is awed by William Blake’s painting Red Dragon, while the FBI man visualizes the crime and is thankful that he’s not insane to commit such violence. What director-writer Michael Mann does well, is build suspense through the serious characterizations. The actors speak in muted tones, while in the background the pulsating soundtrack of bands such as Red 7, Shriekback, and Iron Butterfly set the chilling mood. Dante Spinotti’s photography is beautifully effective in making the urban and country landscapes fit so well into the tenseness of the storytelling, while the widescreen is the perfect way to see this original thriller.

Former FBI forensics expert Will Graham (Petersen) is personally asked by his friend and former boss, Jack Crawford (Farina), to return from voluntary retirement and take on the difficult assignment of catching a gruesome killer who struck twice, killing two families, in two different states. He reluctantly accepts, acknowledging how he got into the mind of cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Cox) and was able to capture this most intelligent and feared psychopath. But he also paid a heavy price, suffering from a mental disorder, as he had a tough time getting rid of Hannibal’s thoughts. Will leaves sulking wife Molly (Greist) and son Kevin in their idyllic Florida beach house and goes to the bloody crime scenes in Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia, hoping he can prevent another killing before the next full moon, three weeks away. It is believed the killer is attracted to the moon and its cycles, and plans his killings accordingly. Will visualizes what the killer, nicknamed the Tooth Fairy, sees as he watches home videos of the family. Will concludes that the motive to the crime can be found in the killer’s dreams.

The case gets more complex when Will visits Dr. Lecktor in the isolated cell of the Baltimore asylum he is incarcerated, as he believes Lecktor can help him pick up the scent of the killer. Lecktor smells him and frightens the agent with the knowledge that the two think alike. Brian Cox’s performance is simply brilliant, his Hannibal is a most intelligent and frightening one, superior to Anthony Hopkins’ campy portrayal of Hannibal in the other versions. Also, this brilliantly filmed scene was perfectly framed, showing in frightful details the similarity and gulf between these two antagonists. They even converse while in different cells. The shots of them were framed to expressly show them reacting to each other’s presence in a super-sensitive manner, and how different they were from others because of their rich imagination.

The action part comes down to whether the police can nab the lunar killer before he strikes again under the full moon. The killer is in his high-tech equipped house, where he has a blind woman (Joan Allen) trapped. The stylish photography in this final scene features mirrors, paintings, images, reflections, lunar landscapes, all pointing to the killer’s urge to kill because he needs to be wanted and desired. The killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Noonan), shows that he can be gentle and appreciative of art and nature, and of a woman who desires only him; but, he can also be so twisted that he thinks he must kill to make himself whole again.

This is an overlooked but superior thriller, one of the best films from the 1980s. The director’s cut video has been released to coincide with the opening of Hannibal.