Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Marten Carlson celebrates the 30th anniversary of Michael Mann’s stylish, neo-noir crime thriller Manhunter.
Will Graham (William L. Petersen) watches as his wife strolls down the boardwalk, long-legged and without a care. Her body is a blur, but the beach foliage is crisp and defined behind her. She comes bearing a gift: a six-pack of cold beer. It’s the perfect addition to a perfect Florida day at the boatyard — clear without a cloud in the sky.
It’s a day for hard work done by rough hands. These are not the hands of a cop, though — not anymore. As his wife comes into focus, she’s distracted by something unseen, but there’s no distraction for Will Graham. Their eyes meet and he looks at her intently, his love for her an elemental force. This is Graham’s dream.
Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) watches as a woman plays with her child by the pool. She’s young and beautiful, the glow of motherhood radiating from her. She appears stuck in a time loop as she raises and lowers her child, over and over. Dollarhyde stares at the woman intently, his desire for her a terrifying force. This is Dollarhyde’s dream.
Based on Thomas Harris’ best-selling 1981 novel, Red Dragon, Manhunter tells the story of two men powered by their dreams. Graham is an inspector who fights to protect the dream of his family. Dollarhyde is a killer who will kill to create the family of his dreams. To catch this twisted killer, Graham must ask, “What are you dreaming?”
And it’s the story of Michael Mann, a director in transition. At the time of Manhunter’s production, Mann was in the midst of executive producing NBC’s hit TV crime series Miami Vice. Mann’s penchant for pastels and love of moody, synthetic tones was striking a tone with audiences and killing the Friday night ratings.
At the same time, the filmmaker’s last directorial effort, 1983’s The Keep, was a huge flop. The WWII-era horror film was a stylistic tribute to German Expressionism, and though the soundtrack by Tangerine Dream will completely melt your face off, it remains a mess. Manhunter was to be a mix of these two predilections: the cool, crisp machismo of Miami Vice and the dark dream world of The Keep.
To assist him in combining these two disparate visual styles, Mann turned to cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Manhunter marks the beginning of Spinotti and Mann’s working relationship, one that would become a very fruitful pairing. The two would go on to work together on The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, and Public Enemies.
Over the next 23 years, the two would create a visual language all of their own, a world of cold, blue night; of wide, dwarfing cityscapes; of lonely men standing singularly against an indifferent environment. With Manhunter, they were still figuring it all out, which gives the film an experimental air.
Whereas Heat is calculated, methodical, and well … perfect, that’s not always the case for Manhunter. Yet the film exhibits a playful, dreamy style not found in other works by the Chicago filmmaker. Together, Mann and Spinotti took classical cinematic visual styles to the extreme.
To begin, consider the color palette of Manhunter. Blue hues have often been used to represent moonlight. Obviously, moonlight is not blue in reality, but this has become an established visual cue. Watching Heat or The Insider, we can see that this cue is something of an obsession for Mann and his cinematographer — Neil McCauley staring out at the ocean from his undecorated apartment or Jeffrey Wigand playing golf at midnight, respectively.
Mann’s films are filled with a night world that is breathtaking, evocative, and just plain cool. In Manhunter, the night scenes are expressionistic to a much higher degree. Put simply, they’re bananas. When Graham and his wife make love in their ocean view bedroom, literally everything in the scene is bathed in blue. Where exactly is the light source here?
Sure, one might argue the scene is over the top, but, at the same time, Mann’s portrait registers as haunting, beautiful, and transcendent. Though it’s all happening in reality, this room is given the quality of a dream. It’s perfection, a safe haven where the emotionally and mentally damaged Graham will find no monsters, only unconditional love.
Dollarhyde’s reality offers no such safety. To display the killer’s warped existence, Mann and Spinotti employ wide-angle photography to great effect. The two veterans are no strangers to this technique and have often used a short focal length to present tableaus of distanced characters or single, lonely figures. (As Neil McCauley would say, “I am alone. I am not lonely.”)
However, in Manhunter, the presentation of the killer is more misshapen. The filmmakers allow for barrel distortion, the straight lines bowing out toward the edges of the frame. Noonan’s performance is terrifying in its own right — hell, the actor stalked the cast in his van to get into “character” — but it’s the photography that lends the character its true menace.
In this dream world, he is the monster at the end of the tunnel.
Manhunter is unique in Mann’s filmography in that it provides the audience with a subjective point-of-view for its main characters. While there are direct POV shots in Mann’s later films, the director and cinematographer prefer very tight, over-the-shoulder framing. We almost see what the character sees, but not quite. This positions us as followers and robs us of an interior view of the characters.
This is not the case with Manhunter as the subjective camera is prevalent in the filmmakers’ shot selection. Moments into the film, we can already see inside our antagonist’s mind. In fact, the second shot of the film is point-of-view Steadicam, as it floats through an upscale house, using a flashlight to skim over the domestic accouterments.
In a sense, it’s stereotypical slasher stuff, akin to the opening shot of John Carpenter’s Halloween, but it serves a purpose, as arguably every shot of Mann’s tends to do in his catalog. Before we see any characters, before we have any understanding of the narrative, we are thrown into the killer’s mind. Alas, there’s immediate and unquestionable tension.
Mann can often keep us at a distance with his high-style, hyper-reality coolness. Thematically, we will see this story again and again from the filmmaker. From the get-go, with both 1979’s The Jericho Mile and 1981’s Thief, Mann’s been fascinated with male figures separated only by their vocational and societal responsibilities.
Traditionally, his protagonists are mirror images: McCauley and Hanna navigating the pitfalls of modern romance in Heat, Max and Vincent experiencing the limits of their world views in Collateral. But with Manhunter, the two leads are not simply mirrored narratively and visually. Rather, Graham and Dollarhyde’s realities are melting into one another as the detective dives deeper into the mind of his quarry.
This all makes the film feel alive with stunning cinematic invention. It’s no accident then that the key pieces of evidence are two film canisters. In fact, this is the only evidence needed. The fingerprint dusting, document examination, and poorly laid traps really amount to nothing. To catch a killer, all Graham needs to do is watch some home movies and watch closely. He will then learn that these movies are the true window into the killer’s dreams.
So, at its core, Manhunter is really a film about and exhibiting the dreamy power of cinema. After all, the moving image is what allows Dollarhyde to fuel his fantasy and relive these moments over and over again. As Dr. Lecter explains to Graham: “If man does what God does enough times, Man will become as God is.”
Thirty years later, Manhunter remains a film that is meant to be re-watched or, more specifically, relived. While the crime thriller serves as a time capsule of Mann in his more transitional, experimental years, the strange and dreamy work truly finds the visionary developing his own language for film.
Much like Dollarhyde, he is “becoming.”