Monday, June 29, 2009

MICHAEL MANN WEEK: PERSONAL FAVES: Manhunter

Posted as part of Radiator Heaven's Michael Mann Week

While it's impossible to overstate the importance of 'Manhunter' in Michael Mann's filmography, something happened five years after its release that has forever left it overshadowed. As Tim Brayton acutely puts it in a recent Antagony & Ecstacy article, "Post-1991, there's a big elephant in the room whenever anyone wants to talk about 'Manhunter', of course: Jonathan's Demme's Oscar-winning 'The Silence of the Lambs'."

Demme's film wasn't just an award winner, wasn't just a sequel to 'Red Dragon' (the Thomas Harris novel 'Manhunter' is adapted from), wasn't just hugely popular and wasn't just populated by a cast of (mainly) better and (certainly) better-known actors ... it also had a performance by Anthony Hopkins that renewed his career and defined, for a generation of film-goers, the character of Hannibal Lecter. Its stratospheric success led to three more Lecter outings: the sequel 'Hannibal', Ridley Scott's thankless take on Harris's least interesting novel; the redundant prequel 'Hannibal Rising', directed by Peter Webber, with Gaspard Ulliel disrespecting Hopkins's characterisation in scene after scene; and an even more redundant remake of 'Manhunter' (here reverting to the original 'Red Dragon' title), which was directed by Brett Ratner. And if the words "a film by Brett Ratner" aren't enough to strike fear into your heart, you are either dead or have questionable taste in cinema.

So: 'The Silence of the Lambs'. Anthony Hopkins redux, Jodie Foster at possibly the peak of her career, an amazing switcheroo wrong-address set-piece, and five golden statues in the bag on Oscar night. Some elephant.

Good job I've got my elephant gun, a fuckload of buckshot and no compunction about spitting on an icon, then.

Because I'm going to say it once and say it proud. I'm going to put on the mantle of the loneliest film blogger on the internet, I'm going to step out of the closet. 'Manhunter' is a more interesting film than 'The Silence of the Lambs'.

Anyone still reading? Anyone out there I haven't pissed off yet? Okay, I've got one more hawk-a-loogie-on-the-icon bit of business left to attend to. Ready? Here goes. Brian Cox's portrayal of Lecter, while different, is every bit as good as Hopkins's - which is a hell of an achievement since he had considerably less screen time in which to make an impression.

(Parenthetically, Lecter is inexplicably credited as "Lecktor" in 'Manhunter'. Since it's Lecter in the novels and the other films - and because I can't be bothered with that keyboard-unfriendly C-K-T combination, I'm using the Lecter spelling throughout this article.)

Not - hastily trotting out the caveat here - that I'm dismissing 'The Silence of the Lambs'. In many respects it has the edge on 'Manhunter' - it's plot-driven where Mann's film tips in favour of stylistic flourishes; it has a gutsy lead performance by Jodie Foster where 'Manhunter' has a rather stilted turn from William Peterson, and it has the smarts to realise that Lecter was the most interesting character on offer and focuses on his unique blend of charm and sociopathic amorality. 'Manhunter' also loses points for its very '80s power-ballad soundtrack and luminous green opening credits that look like Mann handed a work print to some subway graffiti artists and told them which frames to go to town on.

So it's just as well that I didn't start a my-Lecter-could-eat-your-Lecter's-liver kind of pissing contest by claiming that one of these films was better than the other. I do, however, stand by my original claim: 'Manhunter' is the more interesting film. Visually, it's more interesting. As a stylistic exercise in framing, composition and aesthetics, it's more interesting (remember how everyone gassed about the use of the bars between Clarice Starling and Lecter as framing device in 'Silence'? 'Manhunter' uses much more intricate and effective camera angles and movements). As an experiment in editing designed to accentuate fractured/disturbed mindsets and perceptions, it's one hell of a lot more interesting.

'Silence' is a bloody good, deservedly popular mainstream entertainment. But it never really stretches itself beyond that. And much as this blog is probably being logged off in droves and deleted from link lists, I have to say it: 'Silence' is ever-so-slightly overrated.

'Manhunter', though, improves and continues to intrigue with repeated viewings. Plotwise, 'Manhunter' and 'Silence' follow similar lines (substitute "rookie FBI agent" for "former FBI agent" and "Buffalo Bill" for "Tooth Fairy" and you've essentially got the set-up for Demme's opus): former FBI agent Will Graham (William Peterson) is brought back from early retirement by Bureau head honcho Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) to track down a serial killer nicknamed the Tooth Fairy, who is operating to a lunar cycle. With only three weeks till the next full moon, ergo the next killing, Graham reluctantly enlists the help of intellectually brilliant psychopath Dr Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox).

Whereas 'Silence' (and, even more explicitly so, 'Hannibal') then veered off into a darkly romantic treatment of the relationship between Lecter and Starling, there is nothing between Lecter and Graham but antagonism. It was Graham who put Lecter away. But not before Lecter attacked Graham viciously. Result: physical and mental scars for Graham; a clinically white cell and a lot more time to catch up on his reading for Lecter. A lot more time to plan his revenge, too. So when Graham comes to Lecter for help, the not-so-good doctor plots his revenge from behind bars, concocting a manipulative scheme to send the Tooth Fairy in Graham's direction.

It is Lecter around whom the two most suspenseful showpieces occur. In one, a fan letter from the Tooth Fairy is found secreted in Lecter's cell during a routine search; Crawford, Graham and Lecter's shrink/jailer Dr Chiltern (Benjamin Hendrickson), realising that a line of communication between the two psychopaths is their only solid lead on the Tooth Fairy, race against the clock to effect a forensic analysis of the letter and return it to Lecter's cell before his suspicions are aroused. Here, style and substance achieve equilibrium: Mann directs the procedural scenes with urgency and precise attention to detail. The other scene has Lecter get the information he needs to sic the Tooth Fairy on Graham using only a telephone and a soupcon of down-home charm. Whereas the charm is the raison d'etre of Lecter according to Hopkins, Cox shows us Lecter putting it on and taking it off like a mask. He also shows us the icily impenetrable face behind the mask. That, for me, makes his Lecter the more chilling, the more unpredictable, the more dangerous.

I started this article off, over 1,000 words ago, by claiming that it's impossible to overstate the importance of 'Manhunter' in Michael Mann's filmography. In it, the cohesion of his overarching theme of men driven by what they have to do (shades of Peckinpah in his aesthetic) never mind that they endanger themselves (the alternative - being untrue to the self - is far worse)*. In it, his talent for the double narrative; the Graham/Lecter plot is thrown into sharp relief by the surprising, unexpected scenes between the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) and Reba (Joan Allen), the blind woman who almost taps into his humanity. Both performances are superb. 'Manhunter' also marked the first collaboration between Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Here, an already mature statement of the awe-spiring visuals that would characterise 'Last of the Mohicans', 'Heat' and - most exquisitely - 'The Insider'. The forthcoming 'Public Enemies' reunites them. Here, too, in 'Manhunter', the visceral staging of action, pulsatingly edited, that tears up the screen in 'Heat'.

But beyond this, there's a weirdness to 'Manhunter', a feeling of wrongness, something off-kilter and slightly surreal. It's in the scene between the Tooth Fairy and hack journo Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang); it's in what happens to Lounds afterwards. It's in the scene with the sleeping tiger. It's in the disorientating slo-mo and lurching editing of the final shoot-out. As 'The Keep' had intimated before 'Manhunter', there's a touch of David Lynch about Michael Mann's worldview; apart from a few surrealist touches in 'The Insider' (I'm thinking of the abstract intro to the golf range sequence), Mann has yet fully to explore this tendency in his work. I'd like to think the man has a fucking great cerebral/psychological horror movie gestating inside him and when he gives it to the world it could be the rival of 'Blue Velvet' or 'The Shining'.



*A tip of the hat to Mark Steensland, whose 'Pocket Essential Michael Mann' perfectly distills the themes and preoccupations of Mann's filmography and remains one of the best titles in that series.

7 comments:

Samuel Wilson said...

Red Dragon, to me, was a better book than Silence of the Lambs, and on screen the Tooth Fairy remains a better villain than Buffalo Bill, but while I'll agree that the Silence movie is overrated, I still can't rank Manhunter ahead of it. That's mostly William Petersen's fault as far as I'm concerned. I've never warmed to the guy. The film is also just too 80s-ish in ways you you note. But your interest is not unjustified, and you make a good case for the film.

Neil Fulwood said...

A very valid point about William Peterson: he's never been particularly compelling in anything, and even though Mann gives him any number of scenes that a more capable actor would turn into cinematic dynamite, he does little more than glower at the camera and spit his lines out. Kim Griest, playing Graham's wife, is the other weak link in the film: her character should be the beating human heart of the piece, but her acting style is little better than vapid.

Fortunately, Brian Cox, Joan Allen and Tom Noonan are all top drawer and I continue to love the film for its awesome visuals and eerily disturbing atmosphere.

Thanks for your comment.

J.D. said...

Great post! I also agree that MANHUNTER is a better film than SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. First and foremost, I prefer Brian Cox's understated performance, how he oozes menace under a polite facade as opposed to Anthony Hopkins' scenery-chewing (pun intended) antics.

You write:

"it has a gutsy lead performance by Jodie Foster where 'Manhunter' has a rather stilted turn from William Peterson"

I would have to respectfully disagree. I think that Petersen does a helluva job in this film. He plays it really intense and you really feel him getting slowly sucked in the serial killer mindset and see the conflict in his face and he tries to not let it overtake him.

There is one scene that he has with Dennis Farina's character that was cut out of all the special edition DVDs but is restored on the Theatrical Release that came out a little while ago where they talk about what motivates and creates monsters like Dollarhyde.

Graham: He dreams about being wanted and desired. So he changes people into beings who will want and desire him.

Crawford: Changes?

Graham: It's a word. Killing and arranging people to imitate. And Lecktor told me something. If one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is. You put it together you get: if our boy imitates being wanted and desired enough times, he believes he will become one who is wanted and desired and accepted.

Petersen takes the intensity of this scene up another notch when he delivers this monologue about the duality that exists within Dollarhyde:

“My heart bleeds for him as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time as an adult, he's irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks. Do you think that's a contradiction, Jack? Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable, Jack?”

It is a disturbing monologue, delivered with scary vigor by Petersen. This scene is the heart of darkness in the film.

But what I also like about the film is that Mann also humanizes Petersen's character in that great scene where he goes shopping with his son. The scene between them features some of Mann's best writing. Fascinating insight into Graham's past and his special ability are discussed in detail. It takes place in an every day setting – a grocery store – but they are talking about extraordinary things. Kevin tries to understand what his father does and Graham explains how he caught Lecktor: "I tried to build feelings in my imagination the killer had so that I would know why he did what he did." They also talk about how catching Lecktor affected him:

Graham: But after my body got okay, I still had his thoughts running around in my head. And I stopped talking to people. And a doctor friend of mine, Dr. Bloom, asked me to get some help. I did. And after awhile I felt better. I was okay again.

Kevin: And the way he thought felt that bad?

Graham: Kevin, they're the ugliest thoughts in the world.

This scene beautifully underlines the danger that Graham faces.

Anyways, those examples really demonstrate how good Petersen is in the film.

If you want to see another great performance by him, check out TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. - the best Michael Mann film not made by Michael Mann. It's a great one.

Neil Fulwood said...

Wow! Even though I watched the film just a couple of evenings ago, I feel I ought to put the DVD on again right now and reappraise Peterson's performance in light of your comment.

I must confess, though, that I'm of the same mind as Samuel Wilson: I've just never warmed to Peterson as an actor. The scenes you have quoted, however, are polished examples of the script writer's art, especially the dialogue between Graham and Crawford (another bit of casting in which 'Manhunter' has the edge on 'Silence': I find Farina a much more convincing Crawford than Scott Glenn).

I see your point about the supermarket scene: the fact that Graham and his son are framed against an expanse of breakfast cereal boxes in every shot not only emphasises the ordinariness of the setting and the fact that this should be a normal, safe moment for both characters, but also renders the scene almost abstract the longer it plays out.

I've not seen 'To Live and Die in L.A.' in years, but remember it as being a gripping and very underrated film. I'm planning a short season of crime movies on the blog next month; I might revisit it.

J.D. said...

"I must confess, though, that I'm of the same mind as Samuel Wilson: I've just never warmed to Peterson as an actor."

Oh, I agree with you guys on that point. Outside of MANHUNTER and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., I'm not really a big fan of Petersen's work either, which is too bad because in those two films he showed such promise.


"(another bit of casting in which 'Manhunter' has the edge on 'Silence': I find Farina a much more convincing Crawford than Scott Glenn)."

Agreed! There is just no contest. Glenn comes off as rather stiff while Farina just inhabits the role with his trademark charm and authenticity which comes from actually having been a law enforcement officer.


"I've not seen 'To Live and Die in L.A.' in years, but remember it as being a gripping and very underrated film. I'm planning a short season of crime movies on the blog next month; I might revisit it."

Yeah, you should check it. William Friedkin directs the hell out of that film and it is really startling in some respects how nihilistic the film is at times and how it messes around with convention.

steve said...

Manhunter is better that Silence of the Lambs etc. What is more important though is that Brian Cox's portrayal of Lector is better than the OTT antics of Hopkins. The telephone scene where you describe Lector as putting on and taking off the charm like a mask is the key to this. He is a psychopath, he has no empathy and all the charm is purely surface. A much more chilling and realistic protrayal.

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