Manhunter (1986)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: William Petersen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina

While Michael Mann had previously directed the films ’The Keep’ and ’Thief, ’ it was not until the release of ’Manhunter’ in 1986 that he began to garner much critical and public attention. The reason for this increased focus on his work was simple: ’Miami Vice.’ As the creative force behind this top television program, Michael Mann had ushered in a new look and feel for prime time TV, replacing the typically staid cop drama with a flashy new show full of style, color, and vibrancy. When ’Manhunter’ hit the scene an eager public was waiting to see just how well Mann’s flair for small screen action translated into big screen success.

While ’Manhunter’ certainly carried over much of the ’Miami Vice’ feel – complete with the Caribbean color palette, skewed camera angles, and driving musical beat – the extremely dark nature of the story and the straightforward performances by the cast seemed to confuse people and the film didn’t do all that well at the box office.

Viewing it now – with a few years’ hindsight and the images of ’Miami Vice’ but a fading memory – it’s possible to see ’Manhunter’ as a stand-alone piece of work and evaluate it as such. Based on Thomas Harris’s bestselling novel, ’Red Dragon,’ the film tells the story of a serial killer on the loose who the press and police have dubbed ’The Tooth Fairy’ after the particularly strange bite marks he leaves on his victims. Former FBI manhunter Will Graham (William Petersen) is called in to help solve this case, which has everyone else stumped.

Graham is a ’former’ FBI agent because he was left physically and mentally scarred by a previous serial killer he tracked down and captured – one Hannibal Lecktor, played to chilling perfection by Brian Cox (the spelling would be changed back to the original ’Lecter’ in the subsequent film ’Silence of the Lambs’). Reluctant to return to work, Graham is finally swayed after his former FBI boss, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), asks him to look at photos of some of the families that had been murdered.

As he begins to be drawn ever deeper into this series of terrible crimes, Graham begins to realize that the only man who can help him begin to get into the mind of the killer is none other than Dr. Lecktor himself. What follows is a very tense drama that doesn’t pander to the audience or try to replace real, unsettling, terror with simple gore.

While much of the strength of ’Manhunter’ can be attributed to Michael Mann’s typically strong direction and sense of style, it’s really the performances of the actors that make the story work. William Petersen portrays Graham as a tortured soul who is afraid of his work precisely because he is so good at it. He wonders what exactly separates him from a killer whose motivations, desires, and methods he understands so clearly. And Tom Noonan’s turn as Francis Dolarhyde, ’The Tooth Fairy,’ is almost frighteningly subdued – he imbues the character with a great deal of menace but refrains from making him into a cookie-cutter, Hollywood, serial killer.

Finally, we come to Hannibal Lecktor. While Anthony Hopkins may have snagged the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of the psychiatrist turned serial killer, Brian Cox was the first to portray him on film and his version of the good doctor is much closer to the one presented in the original book. Eschewing the over-the-top dramatic flair and unusual peccadilloes of Hopkins’s Lecter, Cox instead portrays him as a very intense, highly intelligent, figure who is almost frighteningly normal in appearance and manners. But, once he begins poking around in Graham’s head, we begin to see just why this character has become one of the best-loved movie villains of our time. Just as an aside, if you happened to catch the TV miniseries ’Nuremberg’ (which is now available on DVD) then you saw Brian Cox portraying Hermann Göring in much the same way as he did Hannibal Lecktor. From the refined manners and sense of detachment to the matter-of-fact way in which he relates even the most horrifying of facts I was sure that I was watching Cox’s Lecktor dressed up as a Nazi.

Anchor Bay Entertainment is releasing ’Manhunter’ on DVD in two separate versions. One is a single disc that features the theatrical cut of the movie and most of the extras. The second is a limited edition that includes the first disc and a second disc featuring Michael Mann’s preferred director’s cut of the movie with three extra minutes of footage — focusing mainly on further character development of Will Graham. Fans of Michael Mann know that he likes to revisit his films and ’Manhunter’ is just the latest of his works to be given a new, director-approved, edit.

Both versions are presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and preserve the 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the original film. That, however, is where the similarities end. The theatrical cut offers a very good video transfer in which colors are strong (particularly important for this film) and sharpness is fairly solid. Black levels, on the other hand, aren’t as deep as I would have liked and there is a fair amount of film grain evident throughout. But, having seen ’Manhunter’ on opening day in the theater, I can say that these imperfections aren’t new to the DVD release and that the colors actually appear stronger on the DVD than I remember them being on the big screen. All in all, the theatrical cut offers up a fine picture for a low-budget movie that is now going on 15 years old.

The director’s cut is, unfortunately, a whole other story. Grain is much more evident and the colors that were so strong in the other version are now muted and bleeding into each other. Black levels are even worse than before and it almost feels as though you’re watching a bad copy of the movie on late night cable. To top it off, the picture has a very jittery quality and appears to be badly out of focus. I can only assume that Anchor Bay had very little to work with here and, since this version is almost unwatchable, the theatrical cut is a much better representation of the movie.

For the theatrical cut, a new <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 track has been prepared as well. The remastered soundtrack is quite limited in range and, as a result, sounds fairly flat throughout. Surround use is surprisingly frequent and adds some nice spatiality to the mix. Deep bass is pretty much non-existent but does kick in for the musical score in a few places. Dialogue has a tendency to trail of into hushed whispers so be prepared to turn the volume up a few notches beyond your usual listening level.

The director’s cut features a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track that sounds an awful lot like the <$5.1,5.1 mix> on the other version. Surrounds are a bit more muffled and the mix has a more subdued sound overall. In both cases the soundtrack is more than adequate.

As for extras, both versions of ’Manhunter’ offer pretty much the same spare, but quite good, bonus features. First up is the featurette ’The Manhunter Look’ which is a short conversation with cinematographer Dante Spinotti. He’s been working with Michael Mann for quite some time and his skills have been put to good use on later collaborations such as ’The Last of the Mohicans,’ ’Heat,’ and ’The Insider.’ His discussion of this first film the two made together offers some nice insight into their working relationship and reveals a fair amount of technical information.

Next up is the featurette ’Inside Manhunter’ which features recent interviews with William Petersen, Brian Cox, and others involved in the film. Interspersed with scenes from the movie, their discussion of their characters really helps to flesh out the film and their affection for director Michael Mann is quite obvious. Speaking of Michael Mann, as has been the case for most of his previous DVD releases, the director doesn’t care for extra features and rarely participates in their creation – let alone authorizes them for inclusion on DVD – so we should be happy we have what little we do for this release.

Both versions of the DVD also feature the film’s original theatrical trailer in non-<$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> along with a few in-depth cast and crew bios and filmographies. The limited edition two disc set also includes a collectible booklet that adds more production notes and behind-the-scenes photos – all dressed up like an FBI dossier complete with mini manila folder.

’Manhunter’ is a very effective thriller that stands up surprisingly well given how much of its look and feel reeks of early-80s influences. Michael Mann was just beginning to hit his stride as a director and it’s interesting to watch this movie that in many ways acted as a bridge between his television and feature film work. Featuring sterling performances from a very talented, and highly underrated, cast, ’Manhunter’ remains just as chilling as I remember it being in 1986.

The decision by Anchor Bay Entertainment to release ’Manhunter’ in two separate DVD packages has more to do with the collector mentality than any practical considerations. Everyone loves to get their hands on limited edition DVDs and no one puts them out with more frequency than Anchor Bay. Fans of the film will probably want to splurge for the two disc set but the single disc release features all of the same extras, minus the booklet, and the vastly superior video transfer so those with only a casual interest in the film will likely be more than happy with just the theatrical cut on DVD. Either way, it’s nice to have this eagerly awaited film on DVD and, coming from Anchor Bay, you can rest assured that they’ve done the best they could with the provided elements in creating both versions – it’s just too bad that the director’s cut couldn’t have been transferred from better source materials.