Weekend Film Recommendation: Manhunter

The October Hallowe’en season of RBC’s Weekend Movie Recommendations begins. Keith and I will be devoting this month to writing about terrific and ghoulish films. And what better ghoul is there to introduce the theme than the most horrific of them all, the notorious Dr. Hannibal Lecktor? It’s Michael Mann’s 1986 film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon: Manhunter.

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A brutal serial killer has a pattern of breaking into his victims’ homes and murdering the entire family as part of a series of grotesque and inexplicable rituals. In addition to shattering every mirror in the victims’ home and placing the fragments in the corpses’ eye sockets, he also leaves behind bite marks that have earned him the nickname ‘The Tooth Fairy.’ This strange M.O. has compelled FBI agent Crawford (played by the ever-impeccably mustachioed Dennis Farina) to lure retired criminal profiler Will Graham (played by William Petersen of CSI fame) back to help solve That One Case.

Graham’s the best at what he does, but his work comes at a price. His unusual capacity to inhabit the mind of the killers he hunts has brought him within harm’s way before, in the case that forced him into early retirement and that haunts him still. Indeed, the specter of one Hannibal Lecktor (played by Brian Cox) looms large, and when Graham is stumped in his search for the Tooth Fairy he is forced to consult Lecktor for advice on how the killer thinks. It is a strange and deeply affecting dynamic, wherein Graham empowers Lecktor to be both his own tutor, while at the same time (unbeknownst to Graham) Lecktor is guiding the Tooth Fairy as well.

This isn’t the first film I’ve reviewed by Mann here at RBC (see my review of Heat here), and this shares two important similarities with that later film: in addition to showing Mann’s idiosyncratic flair for (especially visual) style, both films play an unusual game with the audience’s sympathies. The conceit of that game is identical in both Heat and in Manhunter, as the villain and the antihero both complete one another in perfectly obvious ways. However, while the protagonists in Heat reach a rapprochement through their mutual admiration and dedication to one another’s craft, in Manhunter the relationship between Graham and Lecktor is unambiguously contemptuous: Graham freely tells Lecktor that he believes him to be insane, and in return Lecktor knowingly induces an acute panic attack that leaves Graham desperate for fresh air. And the symmetry between Graham and the Tooth Fairy is conspicuous, too: as Graham’s (willful) descent into the mind of a killer distances him further from his family, the Tooth Fairy’s (uncontrollable and reluctant) violence brings him closer to his first intimate connection with another human being. Therefore, while Graham and his prey are completely antagonistic towards one another, nonetheless they are manifestly incomplete without one another.

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Mann’s preoccupation with the characters’ duality shows up throughout the film in the vivid use of color and carefully considered camera-work that he obviously honed while working on Miami Vice. For some, Mann’s heavy reliance on over-saturated colors (and particularly his use of pastels) may be wearisome. But when compared to the visually drab interpretations of Harris’ sequel Silence of the Lambs by Jonathan Demme or Brett Ratner’s re-make of Manhunter using the original title Red Dragon (both stupendous films in their own right but for different reasons), Mann’s gimmicky style takes on particular value. After all, serial killers with fantastically gruesome rituals of the kind that appear in a Harris novel are hardly meant to be under-stated in the first place. In that vein, Mann’s stylization makes sense as a pretty good visual expression of the chaos of the world he’s constructing. Instead of showing you the killer at work, as do Demme and Ratner, Mann instead draws you into the production of death as though by way of a carefully constructed installation exhibit that you explore after the damage is already done.

Which brings me to the performances. Despite the fact that it appears Petersen showed up for work the day after having undergone a frontal lobotomy, he actually works surprisingly well in the tortured role of Will Graham. This, too, might be related to Mann’s stylization: Petersen’s vapid stares help to ensure that the viewer’s eyes aren’t over-loaded with stimuli on the screen, in much the same way I described Kevin Costner’s subdued delivery as oddly appropriate given the bombastic scenery in Dances with Wolves (review here). Brian Cox is a superb Lecktor, and that opinion stands even after having seen what Hopkins did with the role. He is frightening, compelling, and one can’t help but hope for more screen time with him to indulge the fascination he instills. For his part, Tom Noonan is a commanding Tooth Fairy. He reputedly refused even to introduce himself to other members of the cast until they shot scenes together, as he preferred instead to seclude himself privately and silently in his trailer, in the dark, between takes. Ghoulish indeed.

Unlike Mann’s other films, the denouement of Manhunter isn’t as high-octane as is his wont (as in, for example, Last of the Mohicans or The Kingdom). But the fun in this film is to be had elsewhere, as the main payoff is in the taut chase scenes – even something as banal as a handwritten letter becomes the focus of a superbly-executed mind-game pitting Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy against Graham and the FBI.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Heat

This month’s reviews of great movie remakes draws to a close with the film that finally brought Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together, face to face. It’s Michael Mann’s remake of his own TV Movie LA Takedown, which six years later became Heat (1995).

A heist organized by a slick team of gangsters goes wrong. An impetuous last-minute recruit kills the three guards without authorization from the gang’s leader Neil McCauley (played by Robert De Niro) to cover up the gang’s tracks. The gang departs the crime scene, leaving the investigating cop Vincent Hanna (played by Al Pacino) with little more than the certainty that he’s up against a team with as much dedication to their craft as he to his.

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At the most superficial level, this is a film about cops, robbers, and heists. Hanna is trying to catch McCauley, while McCauley tries to settle the score with the renegade gang-member who screwed up the heist in the opening scene. But just below the surface, there are multiple plotlines that make the movie’s three hours pass by surprisingly quickly. The dénouement of the film isn’t the big shoot-‘em-up that would usually book-end a high-budget film from the same genre; instead, the final scenes are intimate affairs, designed to show how both of the lead characters are shaped by one another.

Mann makes the symmetries and inversions between the two main characters abundantly clear. McCauley lives by a code of detachment, whereby he makes himself free to disappear as soon as he notices the eponymous ‘heat’ around the corner. Nonetheless, he finds himself inexorably drawn toward the charming ingénue Eady (played with admirable sophistication by Amy Brenneman). On the other hand, Hanna can’t seem to muster affection for the people around him even if he wanted to: his third marriage is looking to be about as successful as his previous two, and he barely notices that his stepdaughter is spiraling into a self-destructive pattern of fear and isolation. The parallel is present in their professional lives, too: McCauley commands an air of cool, calculated, precision in just about everything he does – he senses when he’s on the precipice of being made by the cops and correctly orders a strategic withdrawal. Hanna, however, is so bellicose that he alienates his colleagues with his irate and wanton pursuit of McCauley.

Whatever subtleties about the characters’ similarities and differences might have been obscured until the half-way point in the film are explicitly brought to the fore in one of the finest scenes in recent movie history. Hanna, upon realizing that McCauley is aware of his pursuit, invites the latter for a cup of coffee. The two frostily discuss their respective approaches to their work, and reach a common understanding about the obligations of their positions should they encounter one another in less propitious circumstances. Despite the spare choice of wording and the tense shifting in their seats, Hanna and McCauley share the expression that they’ve finally met someone who understands them in a way that others can’t. It’s magnificent.

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Years working on the aesthetic in shows like Miami Vice and Crime Story honed Mann’s stylistic flair. Heat is seriously slick. The clothes, the panache, and the tightly rehearsed action shots make this film cooler to look at than your first iPhone. Even the sounds of the assault rifles have an unusual percussive resonance that brings out your basest I-like-fast-cars-and-big-guns impulse. This is all the more impressive considering that although Heat is nominally a heist film, it’s the most character-driven heist film of which I’m aware. Each member of the long list of secondary characters, played by heavy hitters including Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Val Kilmer, Dennis Haysbert, and Natalie Portman, has a distinctive and identifiable backstory.

Trivia time! My choices for remake films definitely overlooked some worthwhile contenders. Name some of your favorite remake films that you think deserve an honorable mention! Who’s going to suggest Sex and the City, that superb remake of Tenko? Anyone? No, no-one?

Farina Walks Along

Dennis Farina was brilliant in Michael Mann’s “Crime Story”

Aw crap, Dennis Farina is dead. The ex-cop was fantastic as a mob boss in one of my favorite road movies, Midnight Run. Michael Mann was critical to Farina’s launch as an actor. He gave him a small part in his terrific Thief, which got edited down to essentially Dennis getting shot to death as an anonymous thug. However, Mann gave him the starring role he deserved and was made for in the retro TV series Crime Story.

No one walks down a dark street to Del Shannon like Farina, 1950s-style cool to the hilt.