‘Horror Implied, as Opposed to Explained… That’s Michael Mann’s Strength (Will)’—‘Manhunter’

Manhunter poster by Thomas Walker


By Tim Pelan

In 1986, Michael Mann’s Manhunter elevated schlock-horror to a thoughtful, stylised, forensically psychological level, introducing the concept of a serial killer to a wider base, through two fascinating characters—the incarcerated, urbane and clinically insane psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (spelt Lektor in Manhunter and played by Brian Cox) and his ardent fan, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), who fancies himself as the “Red Dragon,” reflected and adored in the mirrored eyes of his dead victims, but disparagingly referred to as “The Tooth Fairy” by the cops and Feds after the bite marks he leaves on victims. Bouncing off Lektor to get the old scent back and slipping dangerously back into the slick mindset of his quarry Dollarhyde is retired FBI forensic profiler Will Graham (William Petersen). Brett Ratner later needlessly remade the source material, Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, in a pedestrian fashion, after the success of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. It seemed an attempt to cement Anthony Hopkins’ take on Hannibal Lecter as canon, and expunge Brian Cox’s brilliant original. Mann chose to juxtapose forensic analysis with intuitive insight into nightmarish “logic.” In the book Michael Mann Cinema and Television: Interviews, 1980-2012, Mann reflects, “Will Graham, the detective in Manhunter, finds himself trapped, stuck to some degree in madness and nightmare. It bores me to present the events of the story in a realist style. My approach instead is to conceptualize the elements of the plot, taking into consideration the various torments of the human spirit. My aim is to exteriorize the spiritual in the Expressionist manner, and this always leads me to reject realism. What drew me to the story was its connection to the essence of evil, which emerges in the process of dehumanization that leads a simple human being with no exceptional past to become a killer capable of the most terrible atrocities. And when the victims cease being human beings, they become morsels… bits of matter. I want to understand just what this is all about, and also something about dangerous psychopaths, as well as the influence of social context on the behavior of individuals, such as fascism, genocide. This was the theme I explored in The Keep, whose action is set during the Second World War.”

The genesis of the project for Mann was years of correspondence with incarcerated serial killer Dennis Wayne Wallace, a paranoid schizophrenic who’d become obsessed with a woman he’d met only briefly, killing others to save her, convinced the Butterfly’s “In-A-Gidda-Da-Vida” held special meaning for them both (Mann would use the song to stunning effect during the climactic confrontation between Noonan and Graham, the only time they physically meet). For the part of Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lektor, Mann initially considered Brian Dennehy, but the actor generously recommended Brian Cox, dispatching the director to watch him perform on stage in New York in Ron Hutchinson’s Rat In The Skull. For his part, Cox was drawn to a case from 1950’s Scotland when he was growing up, a murderer named Peter Manuel. Coincidentally, Manuel was originally born in America. “He, for about a year, created mayhem, where he murdered two families and raped several young girls, shot and killed a taxi driver. Manuel was extraordinary because he had no sense of right or wrong. He had a kind of absence.” Mann believed Lektor held a “dark, psychotic appeal” to audiences. “We don’t wish to murder… we do wish however to have the command in the most punitive and constrained of circumstances to work his will.” Lektor requests a phone call “like he’s in a hotel suite in the Dorchester and room service just brought in high tea.”

When Graham, who’d caught Lektor (“I had advantages.” “What advantages?” “You’re insane.”), comes to see him to get back in the killer’s mindset for the hunt ahead, both characters are equally framed in shot/reverse shot by the white bars between them in Lektor’s clinically white cell, symbolising the negative space between them, void of any natural human connection. Graham is trapped in Lektor’s sick game (the cost of capturing Lektor was high—Graham was left badly scarred, mentally and physically). The two-hander was filmed in a studio over three days to allow Cox to feel his way into the character. Cox is brilliant as the affable Lektor, with a bonhomie that never reaches his shark eyes, perma-locked on Graham through the bars, staring straight back. Nietzsche’s warning about looking into the abyss springs to mind.


The way Michael Mann frames characters in wide shots in Manhunter tells its own story, one of alternate hope, change, wariness, and uncertainty—also a power play between character’s respective height and positioning against the horizon. Vimeo user and writer/director Michael McLennan has created a video entitled Mann on the Horizon, Introducing each element he wishes to examine, then using a split screen method to illustrate this idea through several juxtaposed scenes. The first, and the opening of the film, is one of the most beautifully arresting of director Mann and DoP Dante Spinotti’s compositions, and deceptively simple. Graham is residing by the beach when his former boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) comes calling, hoping to draw him back to catch a killer “on a lunar cycle.” He’s desperate. They sit, on a piece of bleached driftwood, facing away from each other, negative space between them, the shot dominated by two horizontal lines that mark the delineation between sand, sea, and sky. Graham’s head is dipped slightly below the level of Crawford’s, a subtle illustration of the struggle going on, the pulling of a thread back into the monster’s lair. The mid-point curve of the branch exactly hits the horizon, and separates the two.

Mirrors, reflection, duality—all elements of the narrative. The focus on Graham gradually gives way to Dollarhyde “becoming” as it were, the focus, fully inhabiting the frame from the margins. When Graham has an insight it’s usually accompanied by hearing him vent angrily. Matt Zoller Seitz in Zen Pulp, Part 4: “Dollarhyde represents the hideous aspect of Graham that the agent must channel, confront, and defeat in order to defend the domestic paradise that Dollarhyde threatens, and from which he must ultimately separate in order to live in peace with his family.”

Mann saw Graham as “torn apart by getting too close to the criminal’s mind… I never wanted a movie with explicit violence… the film is less about the killings themselves than about Graham’s consciousness, his methods of detection.” The whole film is about seeing, intuitively and literally, mirrors and reflective surfaces symbolic of the act of “becoming”—both for the twisted killer, and his hunter, determining his method. When Graham addresses his reflection in a rain-streaked window at the airport, he’s addressing himself as much as Dollarhyde—“It’s just you and me now, sport.” There’s also a lovely trombone shot in one of the victim’s houses as Graham zooms in on a eureka moment. He also verbalizes a further epiphany with regards to what drives Dollarhyde, “seeing” the slaughtered Mrs. Leeds rise from her bed and look upon him with mirrored shards in her eyes and mouth—“Because everything with you is seeing, isn’t it? Your primary sensory intake, that makes your dream live, is seeing.” Mann did the scene with Petersen many times, walking a tightrope between hammy and “an unconscious verbalization of a state of mind,” exposing for the actor.


Noonan plays Dollarhyde as a seemingly aloof, but shy outsider. He is careful to shield his repaired cleft palate when speaking, which he does as little as possible. Physically imposing, he seems non-threatening, and keeps very much to himself at the film processing lab where he works; all the better to examine home movies for potential victims. His blind co-worker Reba (Joan Allen) then engages him in social contact. With her unable to see his (perceived) physical flaws, he begins to dare to open up. In a perceptively sensuous gift, he takes her to the zoo where a sedated tiger is being prepped for dental work. As Reba strokes and embraces the powerful subdued animal, other senses alive, Dollarhyde watches in disarmed delight, imagining himself as the tiger, or Red Dragon, and she the “Woman clothed in the sun” in William Blake’s painting he has become obsessed with.

Later, back at his place over drinks, he watches “home movies”—his future intended victims. He also videotapes them afterward, arranged in tableaux with mirrored shards over their eyes. When Reba, a very forthright woman who refuses to let her blindness hold her back, initiates sex, it is a shock to the withdrawn Dollarhyde. In a brilliant overhead shot post-coitus, he places her hand over his mouth as he stares, silently sobbing, adrift in a sea of newfound doubt about his inner demons. Just as Reba cradled the tiger to listen to its heartbeat, he also listens to hers.

Dollarhyde and Reba, like Graham and Crawford earlier, are also framed deliberately against the horizon, the morning after their hook-up. As McLennan says:

“It’s a morning after, but she doesn’t know he’s a killer, and he’s caught in the tension between his feelings and his inclinations. The romantic qualities of the image contrast with the tension of a long take from a long lens, but don’t disregard the horizon position. As uncomfortable as Graham is buried below the horizon at this moment in the narrative, his nemesis is even more uncomfortable above it.”


The next evening he parks his van outside her home and waits for her to arrive. When he sees her arrive at her door from across the street he spontaneously smiles, such an incongruous thing. Which is why it is terrible that his poor social skills and years of abuse misinterpret what comes next. Dollarhyde/Tooth Fairy is both monster and victim. When Jack Crawford incredulously asks Graham if he feels sorry for him now, Graham replies “Absolutely. As a child, my heart bleeds for him. Somebody took a little boy and made him into a monster. But as an adult… as an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks.”

Reba is left to her door by their boss. Dollarhyde sees what he imagines to be the pair drawing closer for a kiss. In reality, the man removes pollen from Reba’s hair. The pair, framed in the porch light, become brightly backlit and frozen in time as Dollarhyde’s blind jealousy zeroes in on this perceived betrayal by her. The light around them also dims to a sickly green, a signature touch by cinematographer Dante Spinotti to illustrate the Tooth Fairy’s malaise.

The music here powerfully illuminates Dollarhyde’s severing of any final links to a way back to a normal life. “Strong As I Am” by The Prime Movers, grows louder, an insistently driving, pounding beat. Originally written as a piece on parental abuse, its lyrics absolutely nail Dollarhyde’s torment; his confusion, low esteem and anger boil over (“Strong as I am / There’s something about this thing that scares me”).


Dollarhyde hangs his head, then stretches his massive hand like a powerful claw along the dashboard, scratching and tearing back the fabric cover in an exaggeratedly loud primal roar. From then on, Dollarhyde is lost forever to the madness of “The Red Dragon,” dispatching his rival with precise efficiency. Knocking on Reba’s door, he tells her, “Francis is gone, forever.”

Graham must ensure that he overcomes the demon within and continue to cognitively push on through to identify, locate and destroy the killer, exploding at his boss, knowing he’s on the verge of a breakthrough. Disavowing his promise to his partner Molly (Kim Greist) to stay detached, he puts himself in harm’s way as the net closes in, no more able to stay away than if it was his own mirror image holding Reba in mortal danger. “Stop it,” he says, to both himself as avenging angel, and Dollarhyde as Red Dragon, stood over his “woman clothed in the sun.” Matt Zoller Seitz puts the next moment brilliantly, as Graham crashes through Dollarhyde’s window: “for the first time, the two characters—both emblems and individuals, spectators and participants—inhabit the same space, the same frame. The movie isn’t big enough for the both of them. Dollarhyde grabs the intruder—his opposite, double, doppelgänger—slashes his face with a mirror shard, and hurls him out of frame. Then comes a flurry of repetitive, disorienting jump cuts of Graham falling, rolling, settling, one of many such volleys; there are more jump cuts in the climax of Manhunter than in the rest of the movie put together. Combined with sudden changes in film speed (fast, regular, and slow-motion) and screen direction (left to right, right to left), the disruptive cuts make it seem as though the film is disintegrating before our eyes, shredding in the projector. This movie is having a nervous breakdown.”

Graham comes out the other side victorious, inner demon and literal one vanquished. Manhunter’s last image shows Graham looking at the ocean, reunited with Molly and their son Kevin, as they secure a nesting place for the turtles. “Most of them made it,” he tells his son in a layered reassurance. “The whole film was about horror implied, as opposed to horror explained,” Cox recalled. “And that’s Michael’s strength.”

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »


Screenwriter must-read: Michael Mann’s screenplay for Manhunter [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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“A fascinating interview with Dante Spinotti, famed for his cinematography and collaboration with Michael Mann. This interview, just 10 minutes long, gives some extremely important insights into how the two men worked closely together to produce not just a stylised look associated with Mann, but a web of visual structure and clues that are forensically built up to evoke specific emotional reactions, as well as intellectual perspective, and of course to tell the story. Of all the interviews I have seen, this one perhaps explains Mann’s obsession with detail most concisely, and is fascinating to hear of Mann’s involvement with the tiniest prop details, all of which are purposed for composition and story. Also riveting is the insight into lighting Dollarhyde’s house, and how natural light played such a powerful part of lightning those scenes. The interview is beautifully illustrated with scenes from Manhunter, and reminds the viewer just how exceptional this film is. Manhunter, possibly, is Mann’s purest work.” —Michael-Mann.net

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An interview with Dante Spinotti, AIC, ASC about the making of Manhunter.


Michael Mann at the Egyptian Theater. Q&A after the 25th anniversary screening of Manhunter.

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Robert Rodriguez talks to Michael Mann about his career as a director.



“An excellent documentary of key scenes with Michael Mann and actors. For as long as these videos are available online, you can treat yourself to some old but powerful Michael Mann interviews with some of our best loved Michael Mann scenes. This is wonderful footage, including actor interviews about the Tiger scene from Manhunter and that extraordinarily charged cliff scene in Last of the Mohicans. It includes scenes from Heat, and also The Insider. Actors speak about who they feel Michael Mann is, with some superb quotes to take away that sum up our favourite director. Get Michael Mann’s inside story. Essential viewing, enjoy.” —Michael-Mann.net



How does Michael Mann make films? And what are his influences in that approach? What does making films mean to him?



Michael Mann is a master of the modern urban noir, with a unique brand of pulp poetry that is pure cinephiliac pleasure. He defined cool in the 1980s, directed some of the most highly regarded thrillers of the 1990s, and pioneered digital filmmaking in the 2000s. BAMcinématek presents this career retrospective showcasing the visionary auteur’s intelligent, stylish, and intensely entertaining films, which mark an uncompromising commitment to aesthetic perfection and an almost obsessive exploration of his key archetype: the renegade antihero who plays by his own rules. Watch the entire conversation between director Michael Mann and Village Voice film critic Bilge Ebiri from February 11, 2016 event, part of the full-career retrospective Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann.


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Photographed by Gusmano Cesaretti © De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG), Red Dragon Productions S.A. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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