The last time I watched Manhunter (the first time I saw the director’s cut), my friend maintained the film’s superiority laid in the added scenes. The director’s cut mostly features more scenes concerning the effect of manhunting serial killers on William Petersen’s character. On this viewing, it’s clear the film’s greatness isn’t so simply assigned. While Manhunter‘s approach to the serial killer genre–the emphasis on the investigation’s psychological destruction–and those additional scenes to contribute, it isn’t the only factor. Also incredibly important, maybe just as important, is Mann’s humanization of Tom Noonan’s serial killer. Manhunter‘s actually at its lowest point when the Petersen-centric plot comes to a close. A lot has gone on (even though the film’s approach to police stings–a distant one, without explaining anything to the viewer–is brilliant) and it seems like it’s not going anywhere, the film switches focus to Noonan and becomes something wholly new. Mann doesn’t juxtapose the characters, he doesn’t mirror them; the scenes are totally unrelated, except in the beat when Petersen has his eureka and Noonan has his meltdown. And then it’s only stylized cinema.
Mann’s approach to the filmmaking, the vibrant colors, the singular composition (I can’t imagine what it must have looked like on a big screen), the synthesizer soundtrack, wows. It sets Manhunter apart not just from every other serial killer movie but also every other Mann film. He takes what is, at most times, a small and quiet story and makes it as big as Cinerama. The realization montages are still unparalleled and the procedural investigation ones are spectacular as well. But Mann’s best scene, maybe his best scene as a director, is still that walk down the supermarket aisle where the boxes don’t match from shot to shot. The way he opens it up. It’s absolutely brilliant.
All of the acting is good. Petersen isn’t perfect, but he has some great moments. His “my man” line reading, combined with the score and the sound, is great film. Noonan’s great, as are Joan Allen and Brian Cox. Dennis Farina, back before he had his schtick down, is also good. Only Stephen Lang is a little broad, though it’s probably intentional, as he is playing a tabloid reporter. The best performance in the film is Kim Greist, though Mann’s probably responsible for it.
I always think about turnarounds–quality turnarounds–and I think Manhunter‘s the best example of one with a bump-up (due to the Noonan focus) from superior genre picture to an actual masterpiece. It’s strange, because I can remember it getting monotonous in the middle, but I’d never use that word to describe the film.
Directed by Michael Mann; screenplay by Mann, based on a novel by Thomas Harris; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dov Hoenig; music by Michel Rubini; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Richard Roth; released by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.
Starring William Petersen (Will Graham), Kim Greist (Molly Graham), Joan Allen (Reba McClane), Brian Cox (Dr. Hannibal Lecktor), Dennis Farina (Jack Crawford), Tom Noonan (Francis Dollarhyde), Stephen Lang (Freddy Lounds), David Seaman (Kevin Graham), Benjamin Hendrickson (Dr. Frederick Chilton), Michael Talbott (Geehan), Dan Butler (Jimmy Price), Michele Shay (Beverly Katz), Robin Moseley (Sarah), Paul Perri (Dr. Sidney Bloom) and Patricia Charbonneau (Mrs. Sherman).