“Manhunter” was both written and directed by Michael Mann in 1986, making it his third feature film in five years. After the flop of his second film “The Keep”, Mann became the first director who transformed the 1981 novel, “Red Dragon”, and most famously, the character “Hannibal Lector” from text into a motion picture legacy. The fictional novel, Red Dragon, was written by Thomas Harris, an American Novelist, who first introduced the brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer, Doctor Hannibal Lecter, and who “pretty much kickstarted the entire serial killer genre and began a Hannibal Lecter franchise that’s still chugging along thirty-odd years later”. Since Thomas Harris’s novel was published in 1981, it has inspired a host of post adaptations; including the Hannibal Lecter Trilogy of “Red Dragon”, “Silence Of The Lambs”, “Hannibal”, and most recently the American psychological thriller–horror television series, “Hannibal”, developed by Bryan Fuller, starring Mads Mikkelsen, which was conceived straight from the initial novel, Red Dragon. Mann’s picture was due to initially be called “Red Dragon” directly after the novel, however, after Michael Cimino’s film “Year Of The Dragon flopped” in 1985, Michael Mann decided against it and consequently created a cult neo-noir crime-thriller “Manhunter”.
Manhunter’s narrative begins by Will Graham (William Peterson), an ex F.B.I. detective, and Jack Crawford (Denis Farina), his old F.B.I. boss, sat purposely distanced from each other, on either side of a tree trunk that had been drifted up on the shore of a sandy white Florida beach. Crawford has come to persuade Graham to rejoin the F.B.I. for a special murder case that has just brutally surfaced, after Graham had “recently caught another psychopath and seems to have the knack for the work”.
This opening scene is vital to initiating the plot of the film early on. Graham, who has now moved to Florida with his family to find a peaceful and quiet life after working for the F.B.I as a crime investigator, has now had his dreams of a new life corrupted by this reemergence of Crawford. Instead of the sea acting as the haven escape for Graham and his family, it has now become his trap and confines him into accepting Crawford’s offer to “repeat another dark odyssey of psychic disequilibrium”. It suggests from the opening scenes that Graham has been manipulatively cornered in by two important characters throughout the narrative, Jack Crawford and eventually, Doctor Lecter. Perhaps Graham can’t ever be free until he breaks loose from those controlling burdens; “overcoming the dark influence of two manipulative father figures”. We can see this evidenced in the clip below, portraying how Graham is manipulated by Lecter and holds no power over the situation, highlighting that Graham is feeling unsteady about himself and the current position he finds himself in.
During the early stages of the case Graham struggles to perceive the killer’s motives from the nasty evidence he left behind, as Graham “tries to keep a safe psychological distance” in fear of becoming mentally consumed by his dangerous prey. We learn from observing the horrifying murder scenes that the killer only strikes when the moon is full, “on a lunar cycle”, and that he goes by the name of “Tooth Fairy”, as a result of found bite marks left on his victims. Obviously one very disturbed person!
Throughout these initial investigations Graham is used as a voiceover to narrate what he is thinking and seeing during the examinations of the bodies, crime scenes and videos. They are all spoken in second person discourse, for example, when Graham watches over the videos found of the murdered families at home he narrates, “you needed to see her, didn’t you? You son of a bitch”.; but, why did the killer need to see her? Graham doesn’t quite grasp this idea quite yet, something is holding him back, “to catch this twisted killer, Graham must ask, “What are you dreaming?””.
It isn’t until Graham orders his family into protective custody and casts away all that is good in his life, that he truly begins to focus and fully dedicates himself to the task of catching the monstrous criminal. In doing this Will “embraces the madness and ugliness inside him that he is finally able crack the case”. Here Mann really begins to open up to the theme of the narrative; of what Will has to do in order to get what he wants. The essence behind this idea epitomizes an ever occurring theme throughout this series of my film responses. A statement Greil Marcus, a world-renowned author and culture critic, compiled about Ethan in The Searchers, we could perhaps apply it to Manhunters also, that Will Graham is “Captain Ahab, an American hero gone mad. In pursuing the monster, he becomes the monster himself”. In order for Will Graham to catch the monster he must in turn become the monster himself, to enable Will to understand the killer’s motives, to know the killer’s ways, to be one step ahead. Graham must use all of his flaws, his madness, the ugliness inside of him to catch the Tooth Fairy, which indicates Graham “has an intensity bordering on the psychotic”. This is again evidenced when taunting Doctor Lecter hints to Graham, “The reason you caught me, Will, is we’re just alike”, which suggests Graham isn’t too distinctive from the monsters he chases.
From this moment on, Graham interestingly, and somewhat chilling, switches his voiceover narrations to first person monologue from his original second person commentary, “with “you” becoming “I”, the scariest part of a generally terrifying movie”. Almost as if Graham has made the necessary transformation needed to catch his prey. After releasing all that he holds dear in his life, sending his wife and child away, following the killer into total darkness, only then can Graham find the capacity to track the tooth fairy down, “It’s just me and you now, sport”.
Then enter’s the murderer, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) or otherwise known as the Tooth Fairy. Funnily enough, this is the first time we meet the murderer and the movie brings us half way through before we even glimpse an image of his face. Perhaps this is because up until now the story has been mainly been focusing on Graham battling his own inner demons. Now that he is seeing the case more clearly (and himself), the murderer begins to show himself to us.
Whereas Will Graham’s reality in Florida consists of security, love, peacefulness and happiness with his family by the beach, Dollarhyde’s reality offers non of the above. Dollarhyde is alone, very alone, moving around in the shadows of life, unseen, without much purpose. Will Graham enjoys sitting on the beach with his family, enjoying the sunset with his wife, watching his child play. What Dollarhyde enjoys doing with his spare time is watch videotapes of families, especially women, at home with their dream lives, women playing with their children by the pool, cooking for their families, “she’s young and beautiful, the glow of motherhood radiating from her”. In other words, Dollarhyde enjoys watching families, such as the Graham’s, because that is what he lacks in life. A motherhood figure, a woman to love him, a family. This is Dollarhyde’s dream, this is what he wants and he’s willing to kill for that sensation which he craves. Graham realises this idea when he finds the videotapes and concludes “you needed to see her, didn’t you? You son of a bitch”, talking about Dollarhyde and his victims. Dollarhyde’s motives for killing his victims lie within his dreams, “it’s in his dreams. His act fuels his fantasies”. Within his dream is “his quest to transform himself into Blake’s legendary depiction of the Red Dragon”, transforming from a man into this beast that only comes out in the moonlight. Every little detail of the Red Dragon is acted out to perfection by Dollarhyde.
Be that as it may, before Dollarhyde’s personality becomes completely engulfed by that of the dragon, Reba McClane (Joan Allen), a close friend and a blind muse to Dollarhyde, is offered up to him as a last redeeming chance for atonement, a last chance to be unconditionally loved by someone true.
However, in a building climax that is brought with considerable force and pace, Graham, through intelligent deduction using a programme they called ‘datafix’, finally finds a way to track Dollarhyde down at his home address, where he is put to rest by Graham.
What is intriguing, is that Mann specifically arranged Dollarhyde’s fallen body, to take on a new form, where “he laid out in identikit fashion to the woman — not dragon — in Blake’s painting”. This became the moment Dollarhyde’s dream of becoming a Red Dragon, Blake’s beast, came to an abrupt end, “his merging with the mystical beast has failed. He is still a man”