If one had to choose the trait that defines all of Michael Mann’s oeuvre, it would very likely be his dedication to depicting professionalism, whether it be that of DEA agents in Miami Vice, master thieves and the LAPD in Heat, or even the Nazi military in The Keep. Manhunter is very likely the apex of this ethos, a compact film where nothing is wasted in depicting both the thrills and frustrations of the chase, matched by Mann’s impeccable perfection. It is Mann’s most perfect film, a cold, gleaming diamond burnished by the highest craftsmanship possible, yet, especially in the development of Francis Dollarhyde, there is something more, a genuine beating heart that only serves to accentuate the power of this truly consummate film.
Manhunter‘s first two scenes provide a look into the impulses that will drive the images to follow. The first is a shakily filmed, low-res affair that looks akin to a home movie, moving up to the bedroom of a darkness-shrouded house. Underscored by shimmering synth music, it ends in ambiguity as the title card blazes onto the screen. The second scene, after the opening credits, is much more indicative of the overall style of the film, staged in immaculate frames by Spinotti’s incredible cinematography that, after the initial shot, takes place in relatively simple shot-reverse-shot. Yet, despite the charge of the dialogue that manifests itself throughout the film, it and the next few scenes are set in an idyllic location, a sunny beach house removed from the perils of the city and of suburbia. Manhunter seeks to unite these two extreme contrasts, taking place largely in cramped, dark locations but shot using intense, immaculate medium shots.
Much of the pleasure in viewing Manhunter is observing the pieces come together, as Will Graham and his associates calmly but urgently search for clues to capture Fracis Dollarhyde, alias The Tooth Fairy. From lab work to viewing home videos by the deceased families to visiting the homes, Graham observes all, voicing his deductions in an analytical but never detached voice, conveyed by an intensely committed and forceful performance by William Petersen that remains consistently mesmerizing both in stasis and in motion. In turn, Mann observes Graham and company with the eye of a lab worker, using an extraordinary amount of camera angles (but preferring straight-on, slightly off-center compositions) to capture every aspect of the investigation. He withholds nothing, lying in wait to accentuate every development with minute curiosity, often providing quick close-ups on various objects including photographs, documents, and especially the home movies in order to emphasize the tactile, vital nature of these items towards the investigation (epitomized in the brilliant forensic scene with Dollarhyde’s letter).
Of course, Manhunter is perhaps best known for being the first Hannibal Lector (or “Lecktor” here) movie. But his appearance is both well-integrated yet subtly set aside from the rest of the film. He is far more divorced from the action here than in The Silence of the Lambs, and there’s no doubt here that Brian Cox is very much a supporting character, but his menace is clear and apparent, though he only appears in three short scenes, two of which are within the first third of the film and only one in person with Graham. Lecktor is encased in a spotless white cell, itself housed in a building seemingly made entirely out of glass and white blocks. The color of white is robbed of all of its innocuous connotations and replaced with a sickening, overbearing feeling that Lecktor seems to harness with his dismissive sneer, forcing Graham to run out of the building to regain his composure. His forbidding sense of calm extends to Cox’s use of body language: even though he’s always sitting he seems to be hunched over Graham, his eyes glaring hungrily as he dissects him verbally.
By the steady pace and continual suspense of the first two-thirds or so, Mann could have continued in the procedural vein for the entirety of Manhunter, but he decides to make a daring and quite possibly more successful gambit. First, he upstages the investigation in spectacular fashion, using Lecktor to introduce both a suddenly urgent menace and to flesh out Graham’s relationship with his family more, in a series of truly touching conversations that enhance his core humanity even in the face of so much bloodshed. But then, after an intense monologue by Graham staring at his rain-soaked reflection, the film suddenly switches to the perspective of Dollarhyde, who had been heretofore seen only briefly, albeit in an extraordinarily creepy introduction. As the Tooth Fairy, Noonan is both an imposing and astonishingly uncertain presence, as his killer channels his considerable awkwardness into bloodlust, his obsession with William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon paintings offering some way of escape. Graham appears sparingly in these parts, allowing Mann to craft a strangely primal romance between Dollarhyde and his blind co-worker Reba. From the strangely soothing appearance of a drugged tiger to one of the only displays of emotion on his part, Noonan makes this seemingly disconnected section work, connecting his character to Graham’s displays of affection for his own family while still remaining distant.
Of course, this section can’t last forever, and after perhaps the two most startling moments in the film (an imagined kiss that is scorchingly backlit and set improbably to The Prime Movers’ “Strong As I Am” and a shocking vision of one of the deceased women with her eyes and mouth replaced with blank spots looking at Graham), Manhunter resumes its procedural mode for a short while before the final confrontation at Dollarhyde’s home. At this final scene, scored supremely to “In-A-Gadda-Vida” by Iron Butterfly, the film seems as if it shatters into pieces with the window that Graham jumps through, blatantly using slow motion and jump cuts (often to events that had taken just seconds before) in order to create a sense of disorientation. The action itself is quick and straightforward, but it feels punchier, more brutal this way.
Manhunter‘s magnificence is difficult to describe, as it and all of Mann’s films work best in the moment, as they carry off the viewer in their sensual pleasures, but the best way is to talk about the feeling aroused in the viewer at the end of the film. It is one of irrepressible catharsis, as Graham finally gets what he saw in the vision in roughly the middle of the film. As he stares out into the ocean with his family, he and the viewer feel relief, with Red 7’s “Heartbeat” soaring and the sunniness shines over all. It is an affirmation that there is some semblance of good, and if it is one of Mann’s most unambiguously positive endings, it comes only after a dark, immersive plunge into the chase and all that comes with it. That is the Mann ethos, and it comes in its purest, most perfect form in Manhunter.