Mar 15, 2021

Manhunter



 

I would be lying if I did not confess that, despite my lifelong interest in true crime and dark subjects in general, I oftentimes get an instantaneous sense of guttural disgust every time I hear about films that—whether intentionally or unintentionally—superficially depict and/or glorify serial killers like David Fincher’s SE7EN (1995) and most of the Hannibal Lecter franchise flicks, so it comes as somewhat of a slightly dark irony that Manhunter (1986) directed by Michael Mann (The Last of the Mohicans, Heat) is, at least in some ways, one of my favorite films of all-time, but, then again, I love it more because of its style and mise-en-scène than its savage subject matter. Indeed, while I also have some nostalgic affection for Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991)—the second and certainly most popular cinematic adaptation of Thomas Harris’ ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’ novels—Mann’s inordinately corpse cold yet cool and visually mystifying movie is certainly the one I find myself coming back to most often as a serial killer flick that manages to be more stylistically slick than it is thematically sick as if directed by a super sophisticated extraterrestrial with a detached perspective of Lustmord and human emotions and behavior in general. Once described favorably by a reviewer from the Financial Times as, “If Dostoevsky had been hired to script an episode of MIAMI VICE,” the film was actually (but, somehow, unsurprisingly) a commercial bomb that achieved more successful in Europe than the United States and would not achieve the cult status it has today until years of cable TV syndication and various home video releases and of course the great commercial and critical success of The Silence of the Lambs

Originally filmed under the same name as Harris’ source novel Red Dragon (1981), Manhunter was, to the chagrin of auteur Mann, rechristened at the behest of Dino De Laurentiis as the (in)famous Italian producer did not want the film to be confused with Michael Cimino’s shockingly underrated and rather racially based box office bomb Year of the Dragon (1985). Needless to say, the title of the film is not the only thing that De Laurentiis defiled as the same producer, who previously reedited both John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982) and David Lynch’s Dune (1984), also had Mann's movie cut for time yet luckily the standard cut is arguably more immaculate than the director’s cut (which is less than ten minutes longer) as it flows better and has a more otherworldly alien vibe due to missing various exposition scenes. Apparently heavily visually influenced by the ‘high style’ of great production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who was behind such great works as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) and Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), around the time he started Miami Vice (1984-1990), Mann had certainly yet to develop his signature aesthetic when he directed his first (made-for-TV) movie The Jericho Mile (1979), but his first two theatrical releases Thief (1981) and The Keep (1983) unequivocally demonstrate a singular visual worthy of an old master that feels like a sort of Kubrick-meets-Friedkin neo-expressionist chic (incidentally, according to Friedkin biographer Nat Segaloff, Mann originally wanted the fellow Chicago Jewish filmmaker to play Hannibal).


 

While the novels of source writer Thomas Harris are clearly based on real-life serial killers to the point of gross cliché, Manhunter is completely contra John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) when it comes to aesthetic refinement. Indeed, as Mann once stated himself in regard to his special school of serial killer filmmaking, “I get bored if I treat the events realistically. I’d rather try to conceptualize them. The torments of the human mind included. I think that I express the fantasies in an expressionist way, which always brings me to the fantastic.” For example, instead of depicting the serial killer’s more aberrant ritualistic/fetishistic behavior like ejaculating at the site of his less than festive family slaughters and placing glass in women’s vaginas like in Harris’ source novel, Mann's morosely mad Francis Dollarhyde has a super chic new wave bachelor pad where he blasts Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” while attempting to blow bullets into the boys-in-blue during the film’s semi-surreal climax. Additionally, whereas The Silence of the Lambs—a film that is, somewhat ironically, undoubtedly Demme’s most critically and commercially success work yet arguably intentionally least overtly ‘Demme-esque’—is a coldly clinical yet surprisingly ‘light’ serial killer flick that feels like it could have been directed by its serial killer ‘antihero’ Hannibal (after all, he is the true hero of the film), Mann’s movie is marvelously Mann-esque in the best sense as a singularly stylish cinematic work where, unlike the auteur’s previous unfortunately uneven gothic-horror-holocaust hybrid The Keep (1983), the auteur seamlessly assimilates his style to its source novel (though Harris apparently does not feel the same and apparently only had positive things to say about Scottish actor Brian Cox's performance as Hannibal). While it might be fair to describe Manhunter as virtual audiovisual porn for hopelessly 1980s nostalgic aesthetes, it is also one highly memorable movie that, arguably quite unlike the arguably contrived, cold, and calculated The Silence of the Lambs, rewards the viewer on subsequent viewings. In short, Manhunter is, contrary to bien pensant film dorks and lamestream film critics alike, the most idiosyncratic and masterful of the ‘Hannibal Lecter’ (or, in this case, Hannibal Lecktor) films and it is also, somewhat ironically, the least faithful to its source novel (not surprisingly, Hannibal Rising (2007) is the only film that Harris penned the screenplay for and it is indubitably the worst film in the uniquely uneven franchise), not to mention the fact that it does not even feature Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins (who seemed to want to blot out fellow Brit Brian Cox’s Hannibal from cinema history when he cynically opted to appear in zio-hack Brett Ratner’s patently pointless 2002 ‘remake’ Red Dragon). 



 

I have to confess that is was probably Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and its inclusion of songs like “Alone” by Colin Newman and “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazzarus (which was later covered in a Buffalo Bill-esque fashion by the Tollund Men) that sparked my initial interest in goth, deathrock, and darkwave music. and thus I see it as a sort of early formative film in my life as a cinephiliac aesthete but I also simply cannot deny that Manhunter—a film with its own similarly crucial and potent (yet sometimes admittedly goofy) soundtrack—is, for me, the stronger, more immaculate, and idiosyncratically aesthetically satisfying film in almost every single way. Also, Mann’s movie does not have the unintentionally campy cartoon antics of Anthony Hopkins to throw one out of the film. Indeed, while he might not be much more than a creepy cipher, I have to confess that I am more of a Buffalo Bill bro than a Lecter lover (Of course, the same could be more or less said for Cox’s Lecktor and Francis ‘The Tooth Fairy’ Dollarhyde, though Cox never becomes cartoonish). Whereas Demme’s film is a slick adaptation of Harris’ novel that features just enough artistic flourishes and ‘pop pathos’ to make it memorable and satisfying enough to be a highly re-watchable classic, Manhunter is a film that is, not unlike like Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining (1980), an exemplary example of an auteur totally transcending the source material and creating something great in spite of its obscenely overrated source writer. In short, Manhunter feels like a stand-alone film and certainly not the forgotten first film of an increasingly sociopathic and sleazy film-cum-TV franchise that, at least in thematic and aesthetic terms, seems rather ironically committed to spiritual cannibalism. Still fresh after forty years (whereas Rat(ner)’s remake is hopelessly and painfully typical of the 2000s in every single way, including its absurd casting of perennially hokey human dildo Ed Norton as Will Graham), Mann’s movie might as well be the creation of an extraterrestrial entity as it has a look and feel the screams uncanny utopia despite technically diving deep into dark hearts and demented delirium. Indeed, somehow Manhunter manages to put scenic oceanic sunsets on the same aesthetic, and in turn, emotional, plane as serial killer bachelor pads without seeming too schlocky or silly and this is exactly one of the reasons the film is so great. 

While certainly a rare film where the style almost creates the substance, Manhunter still has an interesting storyline that touches on some aberrantly compelling themes.  Indeed, the story of an (ex)FBI profiler named Will Graham (William Petersen) who reluctantly gets back in the game to catch a super sick family-slaughtering serial killer simply known as the ‘The Tooth Fairy’ (Tom Noonan) and, even more reluctantly, seeks the professional criminal profiling advice of another serial killer by the name of Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) who was responsible for causing him to abscond to a heavenly Florida beach from his prestigious G-man position due to a mental breakdown caused by a near deadly altercation while apprehending said homicidal Herr Döktor, the film largely successfully manages to juggle both the internal struggles of the protagonist and the killer he is trying to catch whilst wowing the viewer with an aesthetic package that is no less meticulous than a Kubrick flick.  As the film's title, which undoubtedly has a dual meaning referencing both protagonist Graham and the Tooth Fairy, certainly indicates, Manhunter is also a film about the soul-draining psychological struggle of the hunt, albeit in a somewhat less obvious way than say the 1932 pre-Code classic The Most Dangerous Game (notably surprisingly, David Fincher would make reference to the film in his uneven Zodiac (2007)).  Notably, the film also confirms Georges Bataille's words, “Sacrifice though, while like war a suspension of the commandment not to kill, is the religious act above all others,” albeit it a somewhat sick ironical way where the serial killer's preternatural self-stylized religious views result in pretty much the opposite of his intent.  While featuring content that is less sexually subversive (for example, the Tooth Fairy is a virtual necrophile in the book and a “secretor” that, among other things, wedges a piece of glass in a female victim's labia) and an ending that is certainly happier than its source novel, Mann's movie is only superficially normie-friendly, hence its somewhat fitting relegation to the cult realm.


 

Due to SE7EN and various numerous The Silence of the Lambs-inspired virtual crappy carbon-copy clones and cons like Hebraic hack Jon Amiel’s feministic filmic feces Copycat (1995) and Dominic Sena's conspicously anti-Southern/anti-white trash-masquerading-as-art Kalifornia (1993), the serial killer (sub)genre has largely becomes an all-around artistically bankrupt trend and the singular stylistic majesty of a film like Manhunter in comparison to such frivolous filth really underscores that (a great example of the nadir of the (sub)genre is the Gary Busey vehicle Rough Draft (1998) aka Diary of a Serial Killer). Indeed, I recently watched The Golden Glove (2019) aka Der Goldene Handschuh—a film based on the excremental escapades of Hamburg-based dipsomaniacal serial-whore-killer Fritz Honka—and it is not simply because of its tiresome Turkmite auteur Fatih Akin’s glaringly grotesque anti-kraut angle that the film is so painfully insufferable (after all, Iranian auteur Sohrab Shaheed Salles’ epic morbid whorehouse (anti)melodrama Utopia (1983) is hardly Teutonophile-friendly yet it is a virtual unsung masterpiece of sorts). While The Golden Glove is surely a sick and repulsive film that does not inspire one’s faith in humanity, it is also a rather redundant piece of cinematic rehash that owes absolutely everything to German Lustmord cinema history of the past ranging from Fritz Lang’s M (1931) to Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night (1957) aka Nachts wenn der Teufel kam to Ulli Lommel’s The Tenderness of Wolves (1973) aka Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe to Jörg Buttgereit’s Schramm (1993). Likewise, Austrian one-time auteur Gerald Kargl’s Angst (1983)—a film that, among other things, heavily informed Argentinean-French auteur Gaspar Noé’s entire style and practically single-handedly reinvented the serial killer (sub)genre (though few people noticed aside from Noé and Buttgereit)—makes The Golden Glove seem like primitive child’s play by comparison in terms of its seemingly immaculate combination of enterprising technique and viscerally grotesque subject matter, but I digress. Of course, the serial killer subject matter of Manhunter almost feels secondary, if not irrelevant, as the film is an exercise in pure unmitigated style, which becomes apparent when one watches director Mann's previous different genre works like Thief and The Keep



 

While The Silence of the Lambs is noted for being a crucial influence on The X-Files (1993–2018), especially before the show turned into a bad (and oftentimes unintentional) joke (incidentally, Tom ‘The Tooth Fairy’ Noonan would also appear as a serial killer in the great fourth season The X-Files episode ‘Paper Hearts,’ albeit of the all the more putrid pederastic sort), few seem to recognize the imperative aesthetic and thematic influence that Manhunter had on the show’s creator Chris Carter’s following series MillenniuM (1996–1999). Described by some as a sort of ‘The Thinking Man’s The X-Files,’ the show is decidedly darker and more esoteric than Carter’s hit extraterrestrial-centered excursion and, not unlike Manhunter, centers on a moody and broody (ex)FBI agent that has a special talent for entering the oftentimes highly hermetic minds of serial killers, though it comes at the hefty metaphysically-draining price of destroying both his mental health and family life (indeed, as Harris describes the character of Will Graham in his novel, “He viewed his own mentality as grotesque but useful, like a chair made of antlers.”). Of course, both Manhunter and William Friedkin’s similarly aesthetically potent and idiosyncratic To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) would lead actor William Petersen to a lifelong career as a fictional cop, most notably (but unfortunately) the almost lethally lame CBS drama series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000–2015). While it is a damn shame that Petersen later opted for such light and lame roles in shit shows that are made to further pacify braindead boomers, he apparently had his reasons, or as he once claimed in regard to symbolically committing character hara-kiri, “After MANHUNTER, I had to actually kill off the character. I cut off most of my hair and dyed it blond. I changed my whole look just to get rid of him.”  Aside from television, Manhunter apparently had some influence in the English neofolk scene as Tony Wakeford's main musical outfit Sol Invictius (in collaboration with Evil Twin) sampled dialogue from Brian Cox's Hannibal Lecktor for the epic 15-minute song “A Palace Of Worms.”


 

Not unlike his fellow working-classic kosher Chicagoan William Friedkin, Mann stands out among the stereotypical Hebraic Hollywood filmmaker in terms of his complete and utter lack of bullshit, sharp yet fair cynicism, and unwavering commitment to certain streetwise truths. For example, Mann’s underrated NBC series Crime Story (1986-1988)—a dark and gritty show that depicts a virtual anti-romance between an destructively obsessive wop cop and his guido gangster ‘other-half’—depicts, among other things, Judaic leftist lawyers, Hebraic hoods and gangsters (notably, Ted ‘Buffalo Bill’ Levine even portrays a proudly koserh thug that literally moonlights as a lounge singer) and the auteur-cum-producer even had the gall to allow Abel Ferrara to direct the show’s feature-length pilot episode. In Manhunter, Mann also cleverly cast Stephen Lang as degenerate tabloid journalist ‘Freddy Lounds’ in a pitch perfect performance worthy of Der Stürmer that totally blows away Philip Seymour Hoffman’s lazy lame duck performance as the same character in rat-boy Ratner’s patently pointless ‘remake’ Red Dragon. Needless to say, it is no small surprise as to why Manhunter received its greatest initial success in Europa where hubristic phoniness is more frowned upon and where the film was described by some as a masterpiece and favorably compared to Dostoevsky at a time when mindless and/or childish big budget blockbusters were vogue and escapism was the norm.



 Speaking of Miami Vice, the hit NBC show touched on the theme of the thin line between art and criminality with its excellent fourth season episode ‘Death and the Lady’ where a pretentious art-porn auteur named Milton Glantz virtually anticipates Teutonic artsploitation auteur Marian Dora by making an artsy fartsy pornographic snuff film. Of course, Manhunter’s Francis ‘The Tooth Fairy’ Dollarhyde is an aberrant avant-garde artist of sorts that, as inspired by his warped quasi-spiritual metapolitical influence from William Blake—a genius that Camille Paglia once somewhat rightly described, especially in the context of the film, as, “...the British Sade, as Emily Dickinson is the American Sade”—leaves behind ambitious artistic creations in the form of his grisly crime scenes (notably, Scottish auteur Donald Cammell touched on similar themes in a more overt way with his underrated third and ultimately penultimate film White of the Eye (1987)). Undoubtedly, what makes Manhunter different from all the other Hannibal Lec(k)tor films is that it makes art out of the socially aberrant phenomenon of Lustmord while recognizing the (failed) transcendental potential of Lustmord. Indeed, while the Tooth Fairy believes that, as Hannibal explains, “if one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is,” he is left dead in the end lying on his back with worthless ‘wings’ of blood instead of achieving the beauteously brutal Blakeian Red Dragon of his deep dark dreams. As Mann himself explained himself in regard to the sort of person that degenerates into a serial killer, “…when people are not human anymore, they become bits… of matter.” Had the Tooth Fairy not degenerated into a virtual black void of a man that finds it hard to even maintain a successful romantic relationship with an overly eager blind chick that is completely willing to overlook his social retardation, he might he became an artist worthy of making something in the vein of a great cinematic work like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960)—a film that features a filmmaker ‘antihero’ of sorts that, not unlike Dollarhyde, enjoys shooting footage of his victims—instead of wasting his life on senselessly wasting other people.  In fact, I would not be surprised if Mann's films—most of which feature some sorts of criminal antihero—were the direct result of some pathological therapeutic need to express some criminal tendency.  Also, I am pretty sure that there are tons of morons out there that consider films like Thief, Manhunter, L.A. Takedown (1989), Heat (1995), Collateral (2004), and Public Enemies (2009) to be more obscene than actual criminal acts.

 

As has been more than obviously alluded to throughout this review, the serial killer film has become a mostly banal ghetto genre that provides the mindless masses with an appeal to their more base instincts while simultaneously conveniently offering them an alibi for their darkest desires via disgustingly disingenuous pseudo-moralistic sermonizing, hence the importance of a film like Kargl’s Angst where, quite unlike Fincher’s SE7EN—a film that depicts its ‘John Doe’ character portrayed by Kevin Spacey as having virtual godlike powers in terms of keen intelligent and ascetic devotion—the killer is revealed to be not much more sophisticated than a drooling retard in terms of his thoughts and social skills. Undoubtedly, the genius of Manhunter is its equal distribution of aesthetic refinement, entertainment value, and moral integrity as a rather revolutionary serial killer flick that transcends the genre ghetto while somehow simultaneously paying tribute to it. In that sense, Mann’s movie anticipates the first season of True Detective (2014), though it provides you with a completely different aesthetic experience as a film that, despite its dark and dejecting true crime-inspired subject matter, is an absolute narcotizing joy in terms of sheer audiovisual prowess. Indeed, in that sense, Francis Dollarhyde might as well be Mann speaking to the filmgoer in regard to Manhunter when he defiantly declares: “It is in your nature to do one thing correctly: Tremble.”  

Indeed, while that might sound like it is plagued with puffery, I dare anyone else to name another film where the filmmaker somehow gets away with depicting a superlatively sexually dysfunctional and atypically autistic creep as the sort of Beau Brummell of serial killers.  Additionally, Mann's movie certainly passes Paglia's test in terms of genre as demonstrated by her words, “Gothic horror must be moderated by Apollonian discipline, or it turns into gross buffoonery.  The run-of-the-mill horror film is anti-aesthetic and anti-idealizing.  Its theme is sparagmos, the form-pulverizing energies of Dionysus.  Horror films unleash the forces repressed by Christianity—evil and the barbarism of nature.  Horror films are rituals of pagan worship.”  Of course, Manhunter is both an expression and cautionary tale about such expressions of atavistic pagan worship where a damaged serial killer dudes self-destructive under the weight of his own increasing Dionysian drunkenness.  Admittedly, Mann's movie is similar to most serial killer films (aside from, say, Zodiac) in the sense that it demonstrates that is only a matter of time before a serial killer fucks up.  Unfortunately, the same can also be said of Mann's post-Heat career.  After all, Manhunter may seem like a rather bleak film for the 1980s as an era that personified feel-good escapism and pie-in-the-sky utopias, but it seems rather uplifting compared to something like his Miami Vice (2006) movie reboot and his dreary Dillinger Gang flick Public Enemies.  Undoubtedly, Mann's serial killer film is pure 1980s in the best sort of way as the auteur arguably exemplified the zeitgeist more than any other American filmmaker, so it almost seems like an artistic sin that he would work past the 1990s, let alone well into the 2010s, hence the steady drastic decline of his work.

 

 

-Ty E

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