Sunday, 25 September 2011

Blu-Ray Review: Manhunter (1986)

Directed By: Michael Mann

Starring: William Petersen, Denis Farina, Tom Noonan, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Brian Cox 

Will Graham, a former FBI agent and profiler is lured out of self-imposed retirement by his former boss Jack Crawford to help the FBI catch a serial killer, who has come to be known as the 'Tooth Fairy'. This killer is a house invader who chooses to kill families in their houses during nights when the moon is full. In an attempt to think how the killer thinks, graham returns to the most dangerous and intelligent killer that the US has experienced so far; Dr Hannibal Lecter. The trouble is Lecter not only very nearly killed Graham but he also sent him into rehab for a breakdown. Teetering on the edge of sanity, Graham hunts down his latest target, getting closer to the action that he would have liked and very nearly becoming the killer’s latest victim. 

In this review, I won’t dwell too much on the plot as so much as been written about this excellent movie, which is a favourite of mine. Instead, I will give some views and information on the film and briefly focus on the Blu-Ray disc itself. 
Manhunter (the title changed from the book “Red Dragon” that it was adapted from, because the studio thought it’d get confused with the movie “Year of the Dragon”) was the first film adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel out of the gate. It was an impressive feat to get the complex novel on the screen in a manageable two hour screen time. Naturally, it sacrifices a level of detail from the book that some Red Dragon fans must have found frustrating, including much of Dr Chiltern’s involvement. 

You won’t be surprised to read that I have a view on the Hopkins ’ Lecter vs the Cox Lecktor (as it is misspelt). Hopkins did a superb job of making Hannibal Lecter his own and producing a performance that made the character a legendary bad guy in the history of cinema. Was it an accurate and scary portrayal of the Thomas Harris character? I say “no”. Brian Cox portrays Lecter as he is in the book; calculating but affable. Cox is believable. There’s none of that chewing the lips style of performance in the all too brief scenes that he is in. Yet, there’s something very scary about Brian Cox’s character. I think it’s the believability that does it, in his attempts to unnerve Graham. Simple statements take on a whole new depth when delivered by Lecktor. His opening statement isn’t a question. He already knows the answer and immediately attempts to socialise with Graham to put him of guard; 

“That’s the same atrocious aftershave that you wore in court three years ago” 

He acts as if Graham is the patient, and he knows that Graham has been a patient in getting over his ordeal following Lecktor’s arrest and trial. He follows with;

“Did you get my card?” 

We assume that this was sent to Graham in hospital and furthers the relationship between the cat and the mouse, but which one is the cat?

Lecktor asks after an “Officer Stuart” who it transpires had emotional problems after seeing Lecktor’s basement. The line sums up what we need to know; how prolific Lecktor was when he was killing.
Graham appeals to Lecktor’s vanity by talking about a paper that he had written. Lecktor is amused that Graham refers to himself as a “layman” and finds that almost insulting because it was Graham that caught him and he assumes, therefore, that Graham could consider himself more intelligent because of that fact. The point of going over this is that Cox plays the role straight. You really wouldn’t think that this unassuming guy, that looks a little like a bank clerk, could be capable of extreme murders, that is until he has seen the file that Graham has brought for him, and Lecktor gives his views on the unsub (a term popularised by the TV show Criminal Minds). He talks about involving his lawyer as a mediator for sharing information, then just blurts out; 

“Would you like to give me your home phone number?” 

It’s the delivery of this that unnerves. It’s a fairly innocuous line to look at, but when watching Cox deliver it you suddenly realise that this guy really isn’t right. His eyes are as sharp as a shark’s and belies the patience behind them. There’s a quiet anger that never materialises but you feel it all the same. The nearest that Lecktor gets to anger is when he accuses Graham of attempting to re-gain the mind set of killers. Graham is accused of being too close to one himself. Again, this is Lecktor playing mind games, knowing that if you dip your toe into the ocean, you’re going to get wet. Graham’s reaction is to have an episode and get out of the confines of the hospital.  

Given the amount of police procedure in the screenplay, Mann made the film interesting with its blend of style and substance. Modern viewers might have forgotten, or wouldn’t know, that films or television series about police forensics, and in particular “profiling” were rare back in 1986. Now, we have CSIs in three major cities, NCIS, Criminal Minds and a plethora of cop shows that deal with these subjects across the world on a weekly basis; they’re also very popular. William Petersen’s Will Graham is a world away from his role in CSI Las Vegas. Grissom was a far more placid character, Graham is more intense.

Many have focused on the influence that Mann’s initial time with Miami Vice has on the film but I argue that Manhunter was, in fact, a clear cinematic progression from his previous motion picture: Thief. In Thief, there was more of a reliance on Tangerine Dream as score artists. In Manhunter, Mann began his trademark habit of using various composers, artists and pieces of random music to effect an emotional response in certain scenes. This was practiced to a fine art in Miami Vice; hence the focus, I guess. As with the first season of Miami Vice, Mann doesn’t flawlessly use this technique. One edit in Manhunter that still irritates me to this day, is the edit at the epilogue; we see Graham and Crawford in a dialogue free, brief moment before a transition to Graham’s beach front property. The track “Heartbeat” by Red 7 cuts in too early in my view. It’s a minor niggle in an otherwise masterful movie of style and suspense. This may have been an edit in post-production that was never fixed.

The transfer on this Blu-Ray looks stunning after the initial scene. I’ve read complaints of Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) tampering, that has been applied, and that has taken away the natural grain of the movie and some of the detail that you'd expect from a Blu-Ray release. I didn’t notice this with a 37” Panasonic Viera television and a mid-range Panasonic Blu-Ray player; chances are you won’t either. It's the best looking release that we've had, of the movie, in the UK . Hardcore fans may find themselves importing the Region free US release as it has none of the DNR tampering that is so evident here, but as I said: Is it really an issue?  

This release of Manhunter is almost a reference quality disc of how an older catalogue title should be presented. The "Director's Cut" has been included as an extra. This is just as well as the picture quality is appalling. It's still a very watchable disc if you don't already own it and don't mind DNR.

 Score: 9/10 

Manhunter is available from all good stockists, from 26th September 2011

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