Manhunter (1986 USA 120 mins)

Prod Co: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, Inc. Prod: Richard Roth Dir: Michael Mann Scr: Michael Mann, based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris Phot: Dante Spinotti Ed: Dov Hoenig Prod Des: Mel Bourne Mus: Michel Rubini

Cast: William Petersen, Kim Griest, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Stephen Lang, Tom Noonan, David Seaman, Patricia Charbonneau

Manhunter still remains the best film version of a novel featuring Hannibal Lecter. Brian Cox displays a subtler, more suggestively seductive technique in the role than the overtly melodramatic, “Count Dracula” thespian overtones associated with his knightly successor, Anthony Hopkins. In a February 2007 Guardian Unlimited online podcast (accompanying the release of the latest episode, Hannibal Rising, of a horror soap opera saga now suffering creative fatigue), Cox remarked that each new incarnation of the character often results in him gaining better reviews than the ones he originally received! (1) Manhunter features Lecter as a secondary character in a psychological drama focusing on the traumatic odyssey of Will Graham (William Peterson), a retired FBI agent who is pressured into tracking another serial killer. The film, Michael Mann’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, is far superior in terms of visual style to the unnecessary 2002 remake, a movie designed to squeeze the last drop of blood out of Hopkins’ continuing franchise (2).

There are three different versions of Mann’s Manhunter. The first no longer exists but can be glimpsed via stills of deleted and alternate scenes in the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD release. The supplementary materials included mostly feature Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), the serial killer hunted in the film, displaying his red dragon tattoo to the character of Lounds (Stephen Lang). One of the stills shows him in bed and bathed in the blue colours of moonlight. The original theatrical release version ran approximately two hours, while the 2000 Anchor Bay DVD version contained extra footage showing Graham at an FBI briefing, as well a scene of him nude before a window pondering the symbiotic implications of his quest (3). By contrast, Mann’s 2003 DVD “director’s cut” contained an additional three minutes. The most important sequence depicted Graham’s visit to the Sherman family before his final return home. Although these different cuts are not as challenging or provocative as competing versions of Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (1955), they suggest the illusory nature of any “definitive” version (4).

Nevertheless, all of the versions of Manhunter exhibit stylistic and thematic consistencies. As Jean-Baptiste Thoret notes, the film’s world constitutes an “aquarium syndrome”, an environment formed from the combination of glass, movie screen, and ocean. The film begins with Graham and Crawford (Dennis Farina) gazing at the sea, seated separately and opposite each other, Crawford attempting to persuade Graham to repeat another dark odyssey of psychic disequilibrium. Although Graham now works in Florida building boats, the ocean does not offer him the possibility of escape it did for such 19th century adventurers in American fiction like Ishmael at the beginning of Moby Dick. The ocean confines him as much as those clinically barren, white urban interiors he will soon explore. In a way, it is they that now represent an equivalent of Melville’s “whiteness of the whale”.

As the sun sets, Molly Petersen (Kim Griest) and Crawford also sit apart, framed before a window, overlooking Graham and his son Kevin (David Seaman). The film will consistently repeat these isolated groupings until its final long shot distances Graham from Crawford. It is only at this point that Graham is positioned above Crawford, the two characters no longer appearing as parallel figures in the frame as they did in the film’s introductory long shot. Through his subsequent odyssey, Graham not only removes Dollarhyde from his psyche, but also frees himself from Crawford and Lektor, overcoming the dark influence of two manipulative father figures. Unlike the novel’s bleak climax, which cloaks and isolates Graham in darkness, Mann returns him to daylight. Graham and Molly finally appear together in the right-hand side of the frame, Kevin placed on their left throwing stones at an ocean whose crabs threatened to consume baby turtles (though, as Graham states, “Most of them survived”). Through this statement he makes reference to himself, his family and that of the Shermans, the next target on the killer’s list. In Manhunter, everyone inhabits some kind of prison: Graham appears framed by the bars of Lektor’s cell; Dollarhyde and his victims occupy different kinds of fragile aquariums. The glass frames which encase all these figures represent Mann’s vision of an inhumane modern world, a world he visualises through his clinical mise en scène.

Manhunter is a film of duality and dark symbiosis. For instance, while Graham fears the “smell” Lektor discerns in him as he revives his intuitive powers to track another serial killer, he also gazes at Molly in his dreams, paralleling Dollarhyde’s gaze at those mothers whose approval he desires, reflecting his image inside glass fragments he has placed over their eyes. Dollarhyde does find brief salvation with Reba (Joan Allen), associating this blind woman with the female clothed by the sun in William Blake’s “Red Dragon” painting. When Dollarhyde later becomes the victim of another imaginary image, he attempts to slaughter Reba on his kitchen table while standing over her body in the same way that Blake’s dragon dominates a woman in his painting. Reba now becomes as disposable and vulnerable as the slaughtered family members and the blood red produce that spills out of a refrigerator at one point in the film. Dollarhyde nearly succeeds in killing Reba until he sees Graham outside, running in slow-motion before crashing through his window. (He later crashes through the lunar landscape illustration in his room before his own “Last Stand.”) As a result, both men face each other for the first and last time: twin brothers occupying opposing parts of the image’s frame. Dollarhyde slashes Graham’s face with a fragment from the bathroom mirror he intended to use on Reba. Graham is wounded and Dollarhyde undergoes his desired transformation, an overhead shot revealing his body on the floor, its flowing blood resembling the wings of Blake’s dragon.

Manhunter’s cinematographer Dante Spinotti artistically employs particular colours to emphasise dark emotional moods and symbiotic parallels. Green, purple, violet and magenta recur in many scenes involving Dollarhyde and Lektor. For instance, when Graham looks inside Lektor’s antiseptic white cell, discordant colours of green, purple and violet appear as the camera pursues a subjective visual odyssey. These colours trigger Graham’s brief mental collapse as he runs away from Lektor suggestion of blood brotherhood. Graham also appears dominated by the mental hospital’s white walls mental hospital as he heads towards the refuge of the outside world. Once outside, the camera subjectively reveals Graham’s disturbed psychological condition by using a prism lens to show us an unsettling image of a grass lawn. Even inside FBI Headquarters, ominous green colours appear. They evoke not just that colour found on Lektor’s academic journals but Graham’s traumatic memory of their past encounter. Deep blue also shades bathe Graham and Molly in bed before he departs on his quest. This colour has ironic overtones as Crawford has already mentioned the lunar patterns that influence Dollarhyde’s activities. When Graham later phones Molly for reassurance, she again appears bathed in moonlight. Meanwhile, her reassuring maternal attributes mark her potential vulnerability as another Dollarhyde victim.

Influenced by modern painters such as Kandinsky, Mann challenges viewers to see, rather than read. Manhunter is about visualising and experiencing the darkest domains of modern alienation affecting so many of its characters. When Graham finally achieves his dark epiphany of identifying with Dollarhyde, he sees a vision of the slaughtered Mrs. Leeds looking at him with mirrors in her eyes and mouth. He identifies with the demon inside of him, a demon from the dark world occupied by a serial killer fascinated by family home movies. But Graham overcomes his demonic dragon. He disavows its full implications and cognitively identifies clues contained within the screen rather than becoming unconsciously fascinated by the images themselves.

In the penultimate scene of the DVD Director’s Cut, Graham visits the Sherman family he has saved. He pauses briefly at their door and refuses Mrs. Sherman’s (Patricia Charbonneau) offer of a cup of coffee, stating awkwardly, “I just dropped by to see you. That’s all.” Graham distances himself from Dollarhyde’s morbid visual intrusion into their world. As he walks away, Mann films Graham in slow-motion, using the same device he used to depict his earlier run towards his adversary. This slow-motion technique registers Graham’s conscious decision, and acts in contrast to the cinematic real-time of the home movies watched by Dollarhyde. Graham ultimately fragments Dollarhyde’s glass window aquarium, saving a potential victim and redeeming her from slaughter by the bathroom-mirror-shard-wielding Dollarhyde. Graham finally rejects the dark reflections that suggest a kinship with Dollarhyde. He has gazed at ominous reflections of himself in hotel and restaurant windows (the latter following Molly’s departure) while dedicating himself to the pursuit of a solitary odyssey against a dark brother who could destroy him. But Graham eventually stands in silence above Crawford as he also does over Dollarhyde’s body. He overcomes various controlling figures: Crawford, Dollarhyde, and Lektor. Unlike Dollarhyde’s dragon who dominates human victims, Graham succeeds by overcoming his spiritual tempter and rejecting the various controlling visions of the monster in Blake’s painting. Graham achieves a positive victory allowing him to leave a dark world that could destroy him. He has overcome more than one dragon.

Manhunter’s last image shows Graham looking at the ocean. It parallels the opening scene where Crawford separates him from his secure haven. Revealingly, a cut (not a dissolve) introduces this final sequence. It shows us someone who has finally broken free from the traumatic past that has haunted them for so long. Unlike Thomas Harris, Michael Mann returns his Graham safely home to his family and away from his own dark version of a 20th century Homeric Odyssey.


  1. Guardian Unlimited online podcast, February 2007: http://download.guardian.co.uk/sys-audio/Film/Film/2007/02/01/FilmWeekly01.02.2007.mp3.
  2. See Tony Williams, Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film, Fairleigh Dickinson Press, Cranbury, N.J., 1996, pp. 255-59; Philip L. Simpson, Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Fiction and Film, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Il, 2000, pp. 97-112; Anna Dzenis, “Michael Mann”, Senses of Cinema: Great Directors Database 21, July-August 2002; Anna Dzenis, “Michael Mann’s Cinema of Images”, Screening the Past 14, September 2002; Jean-Baptiste Thoret, “The Aquarium Syndrome: On the Films of Michael Mann”, trans. Anna Dzenis, Senses of Cinema no. 19, March-April 2002.
  3. Another difference involves the credits. The name of Brian Cox’s character is deliberately spelled Lektor as opposed to the more familiar “Lecter”, the spelling used for the surname of later incarnations played by Anthony Hopkins and his successors. For the sake of consistency and textual accuracy, “Lektor” will be used here. The features and menu accompanying the 2000 DVD release significantly employ the film’s ominous colours of green and purple.
  4. For a discussion of the different versions of Mr. Arkadin see Tim Lucas, “The Cutting Room Floor”, Video Watchdog 10, 1992, pp. 42-60. See also the detailed studies of the various versions of Manhunter in Tim Lucas, “Michael Mann’s Manhunter: Spread Your Wings and Learn to Die”, Video Watchdog 13, 1992, pp. 24-29; and Paul M. Sammon, “The Unseen Manhunter: The Slaying of Red Dragon”, Video Watchdog 13, 1992, pp. 30-35.

About The Author

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. A frequent contributor to CTEQ Annotations on Film, he has recently published the second edition of Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of an American Filmmaker. The second edition of Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Filmis scheduled for December 2014. The second edition of The Cinema of George Romero and an edited collection of essays, Postcolonialism, Diaspora, and Alternative Histories: The Cinema of Evans Chan, will appear in 2015.

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