Manhunter (1986)

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Peak 80s Mann. All those surfaces and neon backlights. Mmmm. It’s fun to contrast this with Brett Ratner’s pointless redo Red Dragon (a film I actually enjoy for what it is and have seen a handful of times). Where that film is all about popcorn thrills, fan service and excitement, Mann’s rendition is totally glacial and gorgeously internal with its psychological terror. The 2002 version might have the better cast and the novelty of sharing continuity with Silence of the Lambs, but when you see how Mann achieves a more effective whole with fewer shot choices and spartan storytelling, Ratner’s filmmaking crumbles in comparison. Lecter/Lecktor is also used more efficiently here and Cox/Mann’s interpretation of the character is so far from the Hopkins/Demme/Ratner take that it neither feels better or worse, just right for this particular mileau. I’d forgotten how swiftly Lecktor is brushed aside as well, but necessarily so.

Petersen’s performance as Graham is fascinating. I especially love the way he constantly refers to his imaginary projection of Dollarhyde as “My man” with complete seriousness. It’s hella dumb but also amazing? Maybe that’s the real reason it’s called Manhunter. The scene where he finally cracks the case and the camera just holds on him looking out of a window for an unnaturally long time is one of those instances of Mann’s rule breaking that is revelatory. Petersen holds his hand up to the glass slowly and that gesture just says everything, giving total closure to the central conflict, at least psychologically. I’m actually sad Petersen never really continued film acting after this and To Live and Die In L.A. because he has a really unique vibe.

For a film so much about entering a person’s headspace, it’s no wonder Mann had real affinity with this material. Throughout his career he has evolved into probably American cinema’s finest examiner of criminal psychology. His camera immerses you so deeply into the psyche of his characters, it’s the next best thing to actually burrowing into somebody’s skull and seeing out of their eyes. He eventually abandoned the rigid formalism of his 80s work in favour of a looser (but no less controlled) aesthetic more concerned with total immediacy than distant consideration, so it’s fascinating to go back and look at a movie like Manhunter knowing how these obsessions would evolve and be elaborated on. Not long ago, this movie was accused of being dated and, yes, while some elements certainly are a product of the time it was made, the complete pillaging of 80s style that is currently in vogue has brought it back into the modern age. Unlike a lot of the posers, it’s just cool as fuck. Who wouldn’t want to have a weekend getaway in Dollarhyde’s art deco beach house with “In a Gadda-Da-Vida” blaring?

Watched on blu-ray.

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