Manhunter (Limited Edition) Review

The first adaptation of Thomas Harris' now-legendary Hannibal Lecter trilogy, Manhunter was based on Red Dragon, but retitled at a late stage after producer Dino De Laurentiis took a hefty tumble with Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon and felt superstitious about the word "dragon".

It's a shame it ended up with such a bland title, as it gives the impression of a rather dull TV movie, which may partly explain why, along with Scorsese's masterly The King of Comedy, it's one of the most criminally underrated films of the 1980s, particularly in its native country.

I was already a Michael Mann fan when I saw it, having seen Thief and The Keep on video, but seeing his work on the big screen for the first time was a revelation in every sense of the word - much of it was so hypnotic that I had to give Manhunter a second viewing just to pick up on key plot points I missed out first time round! Although it follows the original Harris novel reasonably closely (albeit simplifying several key elements and largely eliminating backstory), it's also very much a film d'auteur, with strong parallels between it and Heat (which was actually written earlier) and The Insider.

All three films revolve around two men, outwardly very different but inwardly possessed by the same demons, all three films have the same powerful sense of space and architecture, colour and composition. It's radically different both in terms of style and content to its better-known "sequel", The Silence of the Lambs, which for all its undoubted qualities was a far more conventional horror movie at base.

The two key protagonists are Will Graham (William L Petersen) and Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan). One is a former FBI agent brought out of self-imposed retirement because of his unique skills as a tracker of serial killers (although his ability to empathise with them leads to severe psychological difficulties), while the other is his quarry. Graham dominates the first half of the film, Dollarhyde the second (curiously enough, the spelling of certain names has been changed from the novel - Francis Dolarhyde has become Dollarhyde while Hannibal Lecter is now Lecktor. I have no idea why: I can't imagine it's a rights issue).

The first half is a relatively conventional (although stunningly shot) detective story, but things get rather more intriguing and unpredictable when the focus shifts from Graham to Dollarhyde, specifically his romance with the blind lab worker Reba McClane (Joan Allen) and his William Blake fetish. Quite apart from creating some extraordinary images - I doubt anyone who sees the film will forget the scene where she's encouraged to explore the body of a drugged, comatose tiger - Mann and Noonan follow in the footsteps of Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins in creating a genuinely sympathetic psychopath, deliberately pulling the rug out from under audience expectations and constantly underlining the fact that Graham and Dollarhyde are two sides of exactly the same coin.

So how does Lecter (sorry, Lecktor) fit into this? Considering this is the screen debut of one of the indelible horror creations of the last couple of decades, it's surprisingly low-key - though this is no reflection on Brian Cox's performance, which in many ways I prefer to Anthony Hopkins' rather more overstated, theatrically hammy rendition. Encased in a blinding white cell as opposed to the dank dungeon of Demme's film, Lecktor is very much the manipulator behind the scenes - Dollarhyde signs his correspondence 'Avid Fan', and that's the key to his problems: he's a desperately lonely man who's chosen a decidedly unfortunate role model.

It's a great tribute to Mann's achievement that fifteen years on, Manhunter looks just as striking and distinctive as it did back then: despite the success of the Miami Vice "look" that he pioneered, Mann's much more personal feature films have rarely been imitated. With this film and the earlier Thief, he did more than any other film-maker to bring film noir into the modern era, devising his own Expressionist style based on colour and space (as opposed to distortion and shadow) but retaining the psychological complexity. It's an deceptively intricate film that improves on repeated viewings, and is in no way overshadowed by what came later - either in terms of Thomas Harris adaptations or Mann's own later films.

The DVD

I got rid of my old BMG Region 2 non-anamorphic disc of Manhunter before getting hold of this, so I couldn't do a direct side-by-side comparison - but in the event it was obvious from the far greater definition of the opening shots that this new THX-certified Anchor Bay disc is a significant improvement.

Indeed, if you want an object lesson in how anamorphic enhancement can make a large and obvious difference to a picture, this is as good an example as any - the picture is much sharper, detail is much finer (just look at the tiger's fur and whiskers), and the basic print is in excellent condition, with hardly any spots and scratches (indeed, rather fewer than I'd be prepared to excuse on a 15-year-old film). It's not quite perfect - the colours are impressively rich and vibrant, but shadow detail is often lacking a little too much for comfort - but it's still the best version I've seen outside a cinema, and only the really picky are likely to be disappointed.

I must belatedly apologise to BMG here - in the past I've complained that their DVD's soundtrack was noticeably distorted at the top end, but it's clear from both the Anchor Bay versions that this is characteristic of the original. Actually, I'm not sure "distorted" is entirely fair, but it certainly sounds overly harsh at times (for a good example, try the scene where Graham cases the outside of the Leeds' house). The BMG disc was PCM stereo, while this one has a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, but there's not much difference in terms of the soundstage - there are some rear effects, but not many, and little obvious use of the subwoofer.

The original film would only have been plain Dolby Surround, so this isn't a particularly major problem - but it's not a film for those in search of sonic thrills: it certainly does the job more than adequately (the electronic score is particularly crisp), but not much more. There are thirty chapter stops, which is plenty - and the disc comes with THX Optimode test signals for picture and sound, something that I'm glad to see is becoming increasingly common.

One word of warning should be uttered at this point: despite being called the "theatrical cut", it's not the same as the version that played in cinemas or which was released on VHS or Region 2 DVD - in fact, it's slightly longer. One scene is missing (where Will Graham and Jack Crawford have a conversation with the Atlanta police), but two scenes have been added: where an estate agent shows Graham round the house belonging to the murdered family and a scene between Graham and Molly in the hotel room. No explanation for this anomaly has yet come to light.

As for the director's cut on the second disc, though I'd been warned about its shortcomings in advance, I have to say that the picture quality still came as a shock. If it's not the worst anamorphic transfer I've ever seen (I think that dubious honour probably goes to the French Last House on the Left), it's certainly not far off.

Actually, to be fair, it's probably a perfectly good transfer of a very poor original - I'm virtually certain it was sourced from videotape, presumably the only form in which this cut exists, and the end result is sub-VHS quality: grainy, underlit and with horribly smeary colours that don't suit the DVD medium at all. On-screen text that's crisp and clear on the first disc (for instance, the telegraph that Graham reads) is practically unreadable here, and to be honest the only advantage over my old VHS copy is that it's framed correctly - but I don't think the anamorphic enhancement offers any benefits at all.

Frankly, it's a painful viewing experience, and I think Anchor Bay might have been better off just offering the additional footage as a seamless branching option - not least because the differences are relatively slight: a handful of extra scenes, existing scenes edited slightly differently, but nothing so obviously at variance with the original that it's especially significant.

The sound is plain Dolby Digital 2.0, and isn't that different from the 5.1 mix, apart from a slightly less expansive soundstage and fewer surround effects. Again, there are thirty chapter stops, mostly identical to those in the theatrical cut.

Extras are surprisingly skimpy for a two-disc special edition, though the quality threshold is agreeably high - the basics include the original theatrical trailer (in non-anamorphic 2.35:1), plus impressively in-depth biographies on Michael Mann and actors William L Petersen, Brian Cox and Tom Noonan.

Even meatier are the two documentaries - Inside Manhunter runs 18 minutes (though it feels longer: there's very little fat on it) and features the film's four leads - William L Petersen, Joan Allen, Tom Noonan (who looks unrecognisably normal!) and Brian Cox - exploring the film and their characters, intercut with relevant clips.

Sadly, Michael Mann himself is absent, which is a pity (though there's a great deal about what he was like to work with, confirming rumours that he's an obsessive perfectionist), and there's little apart from talking head interviews and clips from the film (plus occasional stills, most notably of the attempt at decorating Noonan's body with the Blake painting, which didn't make it into the film, and the revelation that the French title is The Sixth Sense!) - but in terms of actual content this is still one of the better production featurettes I've seen.

The other documentary, The Manhunter Look, is a ten-minute interview with cinematographer Dante Spinotti and is probably more of interest to those interested in film technique, as he discusses the look of the film, especially his striking photography and approach to colour. Both documentaries are presented in 4:3, which is a pity in the case of the Spinotti piece, as more detail would have helped the clips no end.

Anchor Bay are releasing two versions of Manhunter, a single-disc edition that contains all the above minus the director's cut, and a two-disc limited edition (100,000 copies) that also comes with a rather nice… well, the box describes it as a "collectible booklet", though it's actually a loose collection of pages stored in a fake miniature FBI file, containing stills, production notes and other background info - this loose-leaf arrangement can be a bit fiddly, but the content is excellent: . Unlike many recent Anchor Bay releases, it comes in a double-sized Amaray case rather than a tin.

I bought the two-disc edition purely because Play247 were selling it for a mere £17.99, so there was no good reason not to. But if you missed out on the chance to get hold of it - it's in a limited edition of 100,000 - you really haven't missed much: you have to be a pretty heavy-duty fan of the film to sit through a transfer that poor for just three minutes of extra footage (the "booklet" is nice to have, but not really worth the price difference).

If you can't decide between the single and double-disc versions, I'll sadistically muddy the waters further, as Momentum are planning a R2 version of Manhunter as part of their Director's Chair Collection. At the time of writing, the specification has yet to be announced - but it might be worth waiting for a comparative review: good though the main Anchor Bay disc undoubtedly is, especially in transfer terms, there's definite room for improvement, especially on the extras front - and it'll be interesting to see which version Momentum choose to feature, given that there are currently three different cuts in circulation!

But for the time being this is by far the best small-screen version of the film I've come across, and a welcome reminder of what I think is still comfortably the most satisfying Thomas Harris adaptation to date. Rumour has it that a remake (returning to the original title, Red Dragon) is being mooted, but I somehow doubt it will be quite as compelling or original as this.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
6 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

Last updated: 02/05/2018 05:28:18

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