80s Bits: Manhunter

Manhunter - Tom Noonan (The Tooth Fairy)

Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous. This week guest columnist Blake Howard gets his profiling hat on.

Manhunter (1986)

80s Bits Logo Small

Manhunter (1986) poster

Director: Michael Mann

Writers(s)Michael Mann

Runtime: 95 minutes

StarringWilliam Petersen, Brian Cox, Tom Noonan, Dennis Farina, Joan Allen

DistributorDe Laurentiis Entertainment Group

Country: US

RatingHighly Recommended (?)

More 80s Bits

Now for a majority of cinema goers out there, the first time they were introduced to the universe of Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lector was in the Academy Award winning best picture Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) with Anthony Hopkins (in his Oscar Winning role) assaying the ingenious serial killer. However a full five years earlier Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider, Collateral, Thief), fascinated with Harris’ first novel Red Dragon and the newly emerging serial killer profiling methodology (which sounds strange to all us faux detectives after watching 10,000 hours of Law and Order and CSI but it was 16 years ago after all), Mann adapted the screenplay for the cinema screen as Manhunter (1986). Yes, Red Dragon was made later and even with the same source material – along with Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes – Brett Ratner still did a very mediocre job. So we’re going to deny its existence for the rest of this review.

Starring your very own Gil Grissom (a.k.a William Petersen), the main guy in the original CSI for the 3 people who don’t recognize the name, as profiler Will Graham. Graham (Petersen) has gone into early retirement after suffering a complete mental breakdown after the ordeal of capturing serial killer cannibal Hannibal Lektor (Brian Cox). Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) reaches out to the retired Graham to assist in the capture of particularly heinous killer Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan). They don’t know his name is ‘Dollarhyde’ initially otherwise it would be heaps easier to catch him. Dollarhyde happens to reaching out to the captive Hannibal Lektor (Cox) in admiration. Graham must immerse himself in the case and get assistance from Lektor to stop Dollarhyde before he gets his next victims.

William Petersen is great as the tortured Graham. He’s stable in his waterfront escape with his wife and child; but as he’s immersing himself into that predatory mindset there’s distinct physical changes in his posture and a focused determination that’s palpable. It’s a far more intense performance, and for me the more powerful one, than anything he did as the cuddly, smug, CSI teddy bear, scientist of his later paunchier years.

Brian Cox’s performance as Lektor (Lector) does not shame the character made famous by Hopkins, in fact, he embodies that gentile, passive Lektor just as well as Sir Anthony. The difference in Manhunter is he’s only got a very limited amount of screen time – I would encourage a posthumous “fava beans and Chianti phh phh phh phh phh phh phh phh phh phh” competition; but they’re both getting a little long in the tooth.

Tom Noonan’s Dollarhyde is a striking and terrifying presence. He’s so soft, and quiet with a bubbling rage beneath the surface than he’s difficult to look at. If you’ve seen the original, don’t expect the same nonsensical painting eating stupidity of the Ratner version.

The opening to Manhunter has not lost any of its potency. You inhabit Dollarhyde’s gaze, viewing through his camcorder as he stalk up the stairs, into the home of his sleeping victims, and enters their room to hover above them. Michael Mann’s characteristic obsessive professionals, reaching toward a sublime escape and preoccupation with the ‘Self and Other’ is on show in Manhunter. Mann distinct visual style presents calm eyes over a series of horrendous situations and invokes physical and mental isolation.

Manhunter (1986) - WIlliam Petersen


Manhunter is a terrifying, atmospheric and cerebral thriller with techniques of the emerging artist, Mann, on show in a genre that [now] dominates his resume. The performances are all involving and authentic. In case you weren’t already ignoring the existence of Brett Ratner, or his resume of cinematic offence, you can now see watch Manhunter and wonder what it would have been like if Mann had accepted the studio’s offer to direct The Silence of Lambs…