|Manhunter (Director's Cut Limited Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 30 January 2001|
On the big screen in February, 2001, 'Hannibal' is eating them alive; this sequel to 'Silence of the Lambs' is making tons of money, and returns Anthony Hopkins to the role of Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter, the smartest, most stylish serial killer around.
But the first actor to play the role (spelled "Lektor," for unknown reasons) was Brian Cox in Michael Mann's 'Manhunter,' based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Perhaps it's because Cox is indeed excellent in his few scenes as the imprisoned Lecter that some feel he's better than Hopkins in the role. He's not, but he is impressive, and so is 'Manhunter,' scripted from Harris' novel by director Mann himself.
No, it's not as good a film as 'Silence of the Lambs,' partly because by its very nature, it's more of a police procedural plot. Although Will Graham (William Petersen), the FBI agent at the center of the story, does consult with the imprisoned Lecter -- whom Graham put behind bars in the first place -- the relationship between the two is not as complex or compelling as that between Lecter and green agent Clarice Starling in 'Silence.' Nor is the troubled Graham as interesting a character as Starling; we keep being told that he puts himself in a kind of spiritual danger by identifying so strongly with the killers he's an expert on analyzing, but we see little of this on screen.
Furthermore, the humorless Mann is something of a grandstander in terms of visual style. Bedroom scenes with Graham and his wife Molly (Kim Greist) are bathed in a vivid blue light; the mental hospital/prison housing Lecter is stark white, without guards, evidently without any other prisoners, and Lecter's own cell is a preposterously pristine white as well. Since 'Manhunter,' Mann has backed down somewhat from this high-style-is-high-art position, and his films are, fortunately, less flamboyant.
Here the story itself is reasonably flamboyant going in. Graham was wounded by Lecter, and has semi-retired with Molly and their sun to a beautiful, and isolated, Gulf home. He's lured back by his old boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina); there's a new, and particularly vicious, serial killer at large: he enters homes stealthily at night and wipes out entire families. Graham's abilities of analyzing/identifying with the killers are sorely needed.
Eventually, we learn the killer is tall, near-albino Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), a solitary man convinced the world shuns him because of a facial deformity. He's become convinced that by killing the families, he is becoming something greater. But his cold, insane path is deflected when Reba (Joan Allen), a woman he knows at work, is attracted to him. She's blind -- in a story that emphasizes the act of looking.
The movie is studded with intense, disturbing set pieces, such as Graham's visit to Lecter, Graham's tour of the second murder scene, and what happens to (overly) nasty tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds (Stephen Lang). Because the two main players, Graham and Dollarhyde, don't even meet until the climax (neither did the actors), and because despite threats, there are no more mass killings after the first we don't quite see, 'Manhunter' has to make the investigation itself, and potential danger to Graham's own family, compelling and involving -- and this it does.
It's an outstanding crime film, not the near classic that 'Silence of the Lambs' is, but certainly better than 'Hannibal' or the majority of similar films in the last 20 years or so. Even if the photography by Dante Spinotti is flamboyant, way over the top at times, it's still brilliantly-composed and, at times, gorgeous. Mann uses colors a lot, mostly green, which are clearly intended to have a specific meaning, though it tends to elude most viewers -- but even if the motif is inexplicable, it's attractive.
Petersen is very low key as Graham, but he's excellent. This was made during the very short period in which it looked like he might be a major star, but he simply does not own the screen the way a star must. He's a good, reliable actor, but he has a kind of softness that steers him in the direction of character actor rather than star. Take a look at his current TV series, 'CSI:' it's obvious Petersen himself realizes he's not The Guy, and instead plays the head of a team. He plays the role very well, but he's not a hero, and never can be.
Joan Allen actually seems more like a star in 'Manhunter' than Petersen does; her role is relatively small, but she sizzles on screen -- even though her character is not exactly the sizzling type. No wonder she's up for an Oscar this year (for 'The Contender'), no wonder she's often cited as one of the best actors in America.
Noonan is also a standout as the twisted Dollarhyde, frightening, pathetic and intelligent. In fact, he's so vivid in the role it probably has somewhat limited his career; in this years' 'The Pledge' he's used as a red herring, probably because he played Dollarhyde.
Cox is broader as Lecter/Lektor than Hopkins, which diminishes him a little as a threat. In 'Silence,' Hopkins was scary just standing there -- his very stillness implied a threat. Cox isn't anywhere near as scary (nor is he intended to be); his threat comes from what he might get others to do.
The handsome DVD package from Anchor Bay includes both the theatrical cut of 'Manhunter' and Mann's preferred cut, just three minutes longer. As often in these cases, it's hard to understand why the director insists that his only slightly longer version is by far the better. It's especially hard to understand here since the print of the "director's cut" is unsatisfactory: the image is soft, the sound is weak, the colors muddy and muted. It looks almost like it was copied off a television showing -- and in fact, Mann's version was aired on a cable channel.
Oddly enough, the previous laserdisc, which supposedly also contained the theatrical cut, is different in small ways from the Anchor Bay "theatrical cut." In particular, a scene in which Graham described what Lecter did to his victims is missing. The "director's cut" doesn't add anything significant, except a scene near the end in which Graham briefly visits the (saved) next family on Dollarhyde's list.
The extras aren't extensive, but when you have two complete versions of a movie in one package, it's hard to complain. There's a ten-minute interview with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, well illustrated with clips from the movie. There's an 18-minute featurette including interviews with Petersen, Noonan, Cox and Noonan that, while it's well done and informative, could and should have been longer. Also, the quick cutting from actor to actor never allows us to get a sense of them as people.
Now that 'Hannibal' is such a smash hit, the producers intend to do a new movie version of 'Red Dragon' (rather than remaking 'Manhunter'), so Anthony Hopkins will have played Lecter in adaptations of all three of the Harris novels. But they'll have to play fast and loose with the plot, since Lecter is definitely a supporting character in this story. It's doubtful, too, that they'll come up with a film as colorful, fascinating and stylish as 'Manhunter.'