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With the recent passing of Dino De Laurentiis, the
opportunity arises to look back at one of the films in his long-lasting legacy.
In 1986, the legendary producer backed Michael Mann’s uniquely stylish
thriller, MANHUNTER, based on RED DRAGON, the first Hannibal Lecter novel by
Thomas Harris. The focus here is on retired FBI profiler Will Graham, who takes
on merciless serial killer Francis Dollarhyde, nicknamed by the tabloids as
“The Tooth Fairy.”
William Peterson, later to investigate grisly misdeeds on a
weekly basis on TV’s CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION, plays the moody and
intense Graham, a bearded recluse with frazzled hair. His near-fatal
confrontation with the psychopathic Lektor (as it’s spelled here) has left him
mentally scarred. Though the audience never actually sees what happened, Graham
embodies the weariness and emotional toll of having defeated Hannibal “The
Cannibal.” His boss, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), reluctantly interrupts his
isolated private life and requests Graham’s help on his latest case.
Even though Lektor is not the centerpiece, Brian Cox still
gives an eerie performance in the role, one that has resonated with audiences
as much as Anthony Hopkins’ more celebrated interpretation. In this version,
Lektor is immensely clever and deadly serious, never resorting to witty
one-liners such as “goody goody” and “okey-dokey.” Behind prison bars, Lektor
has been slowly setting up a diabolical plan to murder Graham; seeking revenge
against the profiler who finally captured him, Lektor has assigned Dollarhyde,
his loyal fan, with the task of killing the agent. Tom Noonan is at his creepy
best as serial-killer-in-training Dollarhyde, portraying this lonesome
character with morbid sadness, speaking in a calm and somber tone.
Dollarhyde has slaughtered two families, each during the
night of a full moon. Following a ritual, he places shards of mirrors on his
victims’ eyes when he is done with their corpses. Graham has to figure out the
murderer’s pattern and prevent another innocent family from being killed before
the next full moon, and as the desperate search for clues leads to dead ends,
he realizes he needs the assistance of his old nemesis. Even though they’re
securely separated from each other in Lektor’s cell, Graham is still deathly
afraid of the prisoner. Lektor advises the profiler on the case, while leading
him directly into a trap. Meanwhile, Dollarhyde is falling in love with a blind
woman, Reba McClane (Joan Allen), and struggles to give up his double
lifestyle, because he believes Reba is his chance at redemption.
The film’s soundtrack makes perfect use of rock and heavy
metal music from the ’60s through the ’80s. At one turning point, Dollarhyde
witnesses Reba cheating on him; the scene solely focuses on Noonan’s
heartbroken performance, without any dialogue, and as the song “Strong As I Am”
by the Prime Movers adds atmosphere, Dollarhyde kidnaps Reba and takes her to
his secluded hideout. This is where the action-packed climax takes place, where
Graham and Dollarhyde finally have their violent and bloody confrontation, with
Reba caught in the middle, and the sequence is driven with true intensity by
Iron Butterfly’s classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” You will never hear that song
the same way after viewing this finale.
Some elements of MANHUNTER may now seem dated to viewers,
particularly the synthesizer score and the costumes, and indeed,
writer/director Mann made this picture in the wake of the success of his very
’80s hit TV series MIAMI VICE. Mann skillfully and successfully managed to
conceive a “music video” thriller, a concept that has been imitated countless
times by others, but none as successfully. De Laurentiis changed the title from
RED DRAGON because he didn’t want to mislead potential audiences into thinking
they’d be seeing a kung fu movie, but in 2002, in the wake of his success with
HANNIBAL, the producer returned to the novel with a reimagined film bearing the
original moniker. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who shot MANHUNTER, also
encored on the remake, with Ted Tally, Ocar-winning screenwriter of SILENCE OF
THE LAMBS, handling the new adaptation and Brett Ratner directing. (Actor
Frankie Faison has appeared in all the Hannibal movies save HANNIBAL RISING, as
Lt. Fisk in MANHUNTER and asylum orderly Barney in the Hopkins pictures).
Although Ratner and Tally follow Harris’ novel much more
closely, their film doesn’t even come close to Mann’s superior version. His
collaboration with De Laurentiis and MANHUNTER’s cast gave audiences a
brilliant example of style and substance working together.
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