The first take on Thomas Harris' novel dwells on emotional drama


Directed by Michael Mann

Playing at the Charles Theatre Jan. 9 as part of Gunky's Basement screening series

The man who caught Hannibal Lector wheels a grocery cart down a supermarket aisle, his son by his side. The young boy says he's read in newspapers that his father was in a "special hospital," that the hospitalization had to do with a Dr. Lector. Among boxes of Total and bags of Nestle chocolate chips, Lector's captor, the father, explains his crime-solving methodology to his son: "I tried to build feelings in my imagination like the killer had, so I would know why he did what he did." But then, the mindset he adopted to apprehend Lector took hold of his head; he cut himself off from others, trapped in a secondhand psyche. "And the way you thought felt that bad?" his son asks. "Kevin, they're the ugliest thoughts in the world."

Such is the experience of Will Graham, the retired, psychologically scarred FBI profiler called upon to sniff out another serial killer, in Manhunter, the 1986 film featuring the story line of Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon and the Hannibal Lector character's first appearance on the silver screen (in this movie, it's spelled "Lecktor").

When Manhunter begins, by the Florida seaside, Will (William Petersen) perches on a piece of sun-bleached driftwood with a man in a suit. Deeply tanned, face scruffy, clothed in a sleeveless T-shirt and short-shorts, Will lights up a cigarette as FBI agent Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) petitions him to assist in the puzzling case of the so-named Tooth Fairy, a sharp-toothed murderer who executes whole families in one go, striking first in Alabama, then Georgia. Crawford gives Will a hard-and-fast deadline, for the Tooth Fairy kills with the phases of the moon. Then he shows Will photos of the two happy, smiling families that were slaughtered. As he does so, Will's own happy, smiling family meanders up the beach-golden-haired Kevin and Molly, Will's wife, her head covered in springy blond ringlets. Later, Molly and Will discuss the decision to essentially risk Will's hard-won sanity in their bedroom, bathed in blue light from the moon's reflection on the sea, shimmering just outside. Molly acquiesces, and Vangelis-esque music plays as they embrace in bed.

This decidedly '80s soundtrack, heavy on synthesized sounds and wailing electric guitar, marks the first hour of Manhunter. It's near-constant. It detracts from the weight of the moment when Will examines the first crime scene. (Director Michael Mann trains his camera mostly on Petersen-a handful of shots briefly flashing to blood-smeared bedroom walls-making Will the de facto center of our attention.) It dates the movie more than the VCR on which Will watches the slain families' home videos.

But the music's cheesiness feels right for this interpretation of Will Graham's character: As he views the videos, psychoanalyzing the killer, he processes out loud, working himself into a frenzied pitch, shouting at the TV screen when he has a revelation. ("You watched the children and passed the time whittling and dreaming. . . . DIDN'T YOU, YOU SON OF A BITCH! YOU WATCHED THEM ALL GODDAMN DAY LONG!") He inspects the victims' houses alone, at night, leaving the lights mostly off, as if casing the place himself. At one point in the movie, he grabs an infernal tabloid reporter by the lapels, flips him over, and slams him down on the hood of a car, smashing its windshield.

Petersen pulls off the intense, slightly disturbed, loose-cannon quality Mann (who also adapted Harris' novel) obviously aims for, but the character seems a touch exaggerated. Will's overt battle to preserve his own sanity while channeling the killer's mentality tamps down the thrill of cracking the case. He is the focus, often more than the crime. Throughout the movie, people prod at Will's instability. Crawford does it when he coaxes Will to join the investigation; the tabloid reporter (Stephen Lang) does it when he pesters Will for a scoop, prompting the windshield-smashing assault; Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox, who isn't a tenth as creepy as Anthony Hopkins) does it when Will visits him in his prison cell, seeking advice on the Tooth Fairy's mental state. Ultimately, Will doesn't protect himself enough to prevent people from gaming his emotions.

Mann doesn't portray Will's psychological struggle with quite the same finesse as Jonathan Demme does Clarice's in The Silence of the Lambs, and the movie drags slightly as a result. Some might pine for Edward Norton's relatively collected Will Graham in 2002's Red Dragon, which explored the killer's mental mangling more fully. Manhunter eventually incorporates the narrative of the Tooth Fairy, or Francis Dollarhyde (played by the towering Tom Noonan), and once it weaves in this thread, the pace picks up considerably.

Dollarhyde's character, really, fascinates more than Will's. Though clearly insane, his affection for Reba (Joan Allen), a blind woman, elicits our sympathy. He falls for her within five minutes of meeting her, takes her to pet a sedated tiger in one odd yet visually striking scene, brings her to his home, and mixes her a gin and tonic. He's co-mingling his fantasies about her and the woman he's selected to kill next when she jumps him. During their sex scene, Dollarhyde's eyes shine with wonder. After Reba falls asleep, he takes her hand, places it across his face, and cries into her palm. It's the movie's most touching sequence-if you can get past the synthpop.

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