11 June 2009


And now we come to an important moment indeed in the development of Michael Mann's directorial personality: his first experiment with film vocabulary. In this latter part of his career, he's become famous - infamous, in some circles - for being an arch-stylist, which is a simpler way of saying that he likes to bend the classic rules of storytelling and visual representation as far as possible, sometimes making something quite remarkable and sometimes breaking the movie in the process. And while there is the slightest tendency towards experimentation in The Keep, with its unusual reliance on unusually close medium shots, that's really not the kind of thing that I'm referring to.

"But what of Thief?" Ay, Thief is indeed not a normal movie at all, but it's not in any sense an "experiment". Poetically abstracted crime thrillers are rare, but hardly as new an innovation as 1981; at a minimum, Terrence Malick had gone to a very similar well eight years earlier in making Badlands, to say nothing of the French films that had mined the same territory since at least the 1930s. No, Thief may be extraordinary and unexpected in its visual elegance, but it is not at its heart an attempt to break any rules; it's just working in a very peculiar emotional register. (The odd mix of slow and fast motion might count, except that the director's cut featuring that oddness was years after the fact).

Thus come we to 1986 and Manhunter, adapted from Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon, and we find Mann was not interested in just making a procedural about the FBI agent tracking down a serial killer - although it works, sometimes tremendously well, on that level - he wanted to see what you could do with editing. Although to what end, I have absolutely no idea. For Manhunter isn't just the first true example of Mann going crazy with rule-bending, it's the first example of him doing so in a way that ultimately detracts from the film. But I'll get back to the editing.

The film's story follows a retired FBI profiler, Will Graham (William Petersen), who is called back into the line of duty by Director Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) to help track down a family-murdering psychopath nicknamed "The Tooth Fairy". This killer is a nasty piece of work, and Graham is finding it hard to allow himself to go into the dark mental place where he does his best profiling, so for aid - and, we're invited to assume, to help reacquaint himself with the notion of pure, insane evil - he visits the prison cell of his greatest capture and most psychologically debilitating case, the very case that drove him into retirement. That most wicked of killers is a psychiatrist who killed his young female patients, a certain Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox - and yes, "Lecktor" is thus spelt).

Post-1991, there's a big elephant in the room whenever anyone wants to talk about Manhunter, of course: Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, adapted from Harris's sequel to Red Dragon, and boasting an extremely similar plot: someone outside the FBI mainstream (retiree/trainee) is tasked to help find an unusually crafty serial killer, and refers to Dr. Lecktor/Lecter's unique insight to solve the case, while finding it much too difficult to keep the charismatic psycho from getting into his or her head. It's not a fair comparison to Manhunter at all, simply because the movies' aims aren't the same, and if Silence comes infinitely closer to batting 1.000, that's at least partially because it's facing much easier pitches( some would say that, at a minimum, Cox's approach to Lecktor is more successful than Anthony Hopkins's; these people are best ignored, although Cox undoubtedly gives a perfectly great performance). But, to be as frank as possible, Manhunter isn't nearly as good as Silence, and that's just that. Then again, post-2002, the better point to make is that Manhunter is lifetimes better than Brett Ratner's Red Dragon.

None of this matter back in 1986, and none of it will concern us any further now. Let us instead concern ourselves with Manhunter and Mann, and how the film represented both a tremendous leap back to his safety zone after the befuddling, ill-advised The Keep, and another bold step towards becoming one of America's most prominent art-action directors.

As a story, this is all right squarely in the director's wheelhouse. Graham is a quintessential Mann protagonist (though performed by Petersen without much distinction), torn between two duties: he knows on the one hand that he is uniquely qualified to stop the Tooth Fairy, but he also knows that returning to the FBI means risking his soul and sanity, and possibly endangering his wife Molly (Kim Greist, showing that her stilted and dull performance in Brazil in fact represented her best work) and son Kevin (David Seaman, showing that Mann is one of those filmmakers who just doesn't have a natural rapport with child actors). Perhaps Mann stacks the deck a bit more than he usually does; I give away nothing by stating that Graham chooses the FBI (there'd be no movie, elsewise), and it ultimately costs him very little, to judge from the warm and shiny closing scene that was probably necessary to make the movie at all marketable, but just flat-out doesn't fit the rest of the plot.

Endings, though, are not what Mann is ever about: he is a director obsessed with process and rising action. On those counts, Manhunter is an unabashed triumph: the scenes following Graham and the other agents going about their FBI business are of the highest imaginable quality. The most thrilling sequence in the movie is about nothing more exotic than watching a group of men try to quickly analyze a letter that Lecktor received from the Tooth Fairy before the prisoner has a chance to discover what's going on. It's a tiny slice of race-against-the-clock perfection, showing all of the circa 1986 state of the art tools that the FBI had at its disposal, and it plays at the same peculiar confluence of documentary realism and visionary abstraction that made the heist scenes in Thief so phenomenal.

Unfortunately, and owing more I suspect to the original novel than to Mann's own inclinations, a hefty portion of the film's running time, particularly in the second half, is not spent with Graham and the FBI at all, but with Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), the reclusive loner with a fixation on William Blake's "Red Dragon" series of paintings, who we already know the first time we see him puttering around his apartment to be none other than the Tooth Fairy himself. Let me first say this: I do not agree with the sometimes-forwarded argument that Noonan was miscast. He's not much at all like the character is described in Harris's novel, but as far as movie killers go, he does a damn fine job. He's a bit slimy and creepy and altogether discomfiting to watch, and you can tell in every shift of his limbs or quick twitch of his eyes that this is a dude who has some serious issues. The problem is thus not in Noonan, but in the film itself and Mann's treatment of the Dollarhyde subplot that it's such a useless waste of running time. Simply put, this is not a film about the mind of a serial killer, but about the man who tries to dig his way into the mind of a serial killer - a small and terribly important distinction. The Dollarhyde scenes are just plain "wrong", not because they are inherently bad but because they don't function with the rest of the film.

However, they do provide Mann with the canvas for some wanton experimentation, and here's where I get back to the editing. Throughout the film, but most frequently in the Dollarhyde sequences, Mann does something strange: he snips out a couple of frames, so that the action flicker forward. It reads very much like there's a flaw in the movie, but it happens often enough that it cannot be anything but a deliberate choice. My best guess is that this was meant to make those scenes where it occurs more unsettling, but whatever the motivation, it turns out to be a terrible idea: it's distracting as hell, and pulls the viewer screaming out of the movie in a way that Mann ordinarily doesn't try for. The cutting throughout is really quite peculiar and, I'm tempted to say, bad: never as pushy as those little snips, but absolutely contrary to Hollywood conventions without having the glow of divine, mad inspiration found in a Godard film, nor any kind of apparent purpose at all. The contest between Graham and Dollarhyde at the end is a particular awful example of editing gone amok for no reason other than because the editor and director wanted to do something just to be different.

Closely related, especially to that scene, is the generally unsuccessful score with music by The Reds and Michael Rubini, and a healthy chunk of pre-existing music. Gone are the gorgeous Tangerine Dream synths that made Thief and The Keep sound so interesting; replaced by something similar but much worse, a bit bigger than an '80s cop show but subscribing to the same mentality. But the score is far better than the soundtrack, featuring too many pieces by a band called Shriekback, a sex scene with a moody '80s ballad that is humorously ill-advised, and an appearance by Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" that is positively awe-inspiring in its inspidity.

Far better for Mann when he just sticks to things that are simple and effective and well-done, such as the cinematography by Dante Spinotti before he became famous, in his first collaboration with the director: it's not as well-shot as Thief - nor even The Keep - but it's a fine-looking work, with great atmospheric night shots. Indeed, outside of the story structure and the bizarre editing, there's not much wrong with Manhunter at all; but those are some awfully big things. Generally speaking, Mann's later experiment with imagery would be more successfully than his botched attempt to play with editing patterns, but as it stands, Manhunter is at the very worst an intriguing misfire, and often much better than that, especially as a key step in the filmmaker's evolution.


dfantico said...

William Petersen runs laps around Ed Norton, period. Manhunter is phenomenal, even considering Red Dragon had an A-list cast. Joan Allen as the blind woman.. what a perfect movie all around. Even the music sounds ok, dated and all.

J.D. said...

"The problem is thus not in Noonan, but in the film itself and Mann's treatment of the Dollarhyde subplot that it's such a useless waste of running time. Simply put, this is not a film about the mind of a serial killer, but about the man who tries to dig his way into the mind of a serial killer - a small and terribly important distinction. The Dollarhyde scenes are just plain "wrong", not because they are inherently bad but because they don't function with the rest of the film."

I have to disagree with you, here. Dollarhyde's scenes are crucial to the film because they provide insight into what Graham is chasing and what he is risking by trying to get into this guy's mind. Unlike SILENCE OF THE LAMBS who presents Buffalo Bill as a pretty one-dimensional killer, Dollarhyde is humanized somewhat. We see the side that wants to be loved and thinks he finds it with Reba and then when he imagines that she rejects him for another man, anything that was Dollarhyde is eradicated by his Red Dragon persona, which is masterfully captured in the scene where Dollarhyde thinks Reba is kissing a co-worker. There is also a wonderful moment after Dollarhyde and Reba make love where he lies in bed and puts her hand over his mouth and begins to cry. This scenes demonstrates what a mess this guy is. There is nothing in any of the other Lector films that even remotely approaches this humanization of a killer. The other ones just show the killing machine side while MANHUNTER shows both sides of this guy. And that's what makes it better than SILENCE.

Arctor said...

Well, this wasn't such a good review. It gets some important things wrong (Dolarhyde's arc is crucial to the story, Cox is as good a Lecter as Hopkins).

I've read a few reviews by Tim so far and he's smart but sloppy, he doesn't dig into the movies he's watching.
He makes bold comments at the start of a review and then doesn't really deliver the goods later on. This is a good example.

The most egregious error here is missing Dolarhyde's role.

This is a movie that is full of static, florid imagery. It is also about identity and selfhood - who am I? It is just NOT a movie about getting into the killer's mindset.

The fact that this was missed is a serious, glaring flaw in this reviewer's sloppiness.

Almost every Mann movie has a mirror-like obsession with duality. In Heat, we have cops and criminals struggling similarly with their competence vs their private lives. Work versus intimacy.

In Miami Vice, that obsession actually fused the two, so that the criminals actually become cops. But the perils of doing the job, of work, are definitive of his aesthetic.

Look at Thief - a lone wolf criminal who is fooled into complacency just long enough to buy into a master criminal's Daddy schtick. Again, the family versus work, for the criminal.

See a theme? see the almost montonous repetition? No, this review doesn't, clearly, because otherwise he couldn't write with such ignorance about Dolarhyde's presence in the film.

As always, Mann is showing the tension between work and family, and often, between cop & criminal.

It's the symmetry of the mirror - Graham is the FBI cop risking his family and his sanity by thinking into the criminal role, and Dolarhyde is the criminal trying to feel his way out of it. Get that?

Ugh. What an idiotic review.

Having said that, I fully agree that the jitter-edits are just a terrible, awful stylistic touch. For years I've just hated the moment when Graham shoots Noonan at the end and there is that stutter. My god! Tim is 100% right it takes you out of the film. I couldn't agree more.

The other massive flaw in this review is the lack of comprehension of the role of the senses.

Briefly, the movie is told from Noonan's viewpoint - it is a feast for the senses, full of lush sounds and images. What a preposterous image - Lecter's ultra-sterile jail cell and the whole damn building! (seen as Will races out in a panic attack)

Absurd! Glorious! Contrived, too. But it fits with great discipline into the theme of the movie and the rest of its look. I loved it.

Remember that scene with the tiger? The blind woman who 'sees' the man inside the monster? The blind woman who hears the heart of the tiger? (There are no real dragons, so a tiger is symbolically a substitute for a dragon, for her hearing Dolarhyde's anguish and dormant humanity. It's odd but touching that she listens to a great savage beast's heart - and this humanizes Dolarhyde. Marvelous complexity there, he's beautiful in his savagery, but inside it is a gentle, mysterious heart aching to see the light of day. Remember the light imagery that suffuses the film: "Do you see?" repeats Dolarhyde to the about to be killed reporter. The light that shines behind Joan Allen when Noonan's jealousy is distorting what is a very mundane moment between her and her coworker.

Of course, WIll's epiphany is to realize that perception itself is a clue to the killer's identity, hence the psychedelically vivid imagery.

For what it's worth, I love the soundtrack. YMMV. Especially regarding 80's synth. I love it. I will merely say the lyrics perfectly sync with the theme of the film.

There's a lot more here. None at all was picked up by the reviewer, incredibly. Very disappointing to see such a flat, uninformed opinion.

I could just keep going on, but it's too late. Time for sleep.

Zev Valancy said...

Arctor--you seem to be confusing a different conclusion or interpretation with being "wrong". You never mention any factual inaccuracies in the plot or anything else, just a disagreement on the focus of the film and the quality of Cox's performance relative to Hopkins'. Opinions aren't the same as facts, and stating yours in detail doesn't make Tim's invalid.

I haven't seen the film, but Tim's review gives me a strong idea of why he feels the way he does about it (which is still, on balance, positive). It's a clear and strongly stated argument. Disagreeing with his conclusions doesn't make them wrong.

Huh, and I did it all without using insults like like "sloppy", "egregious", "ignorance", or "idiotic".

Though I might recommend a little more proofreading, as I'm pretty sure the sentence "The fact that this was missed is a serious, glaring flaw in this reviewer's sloppiness" does not mean what you intend it to mean.

Arctor said...

Whoa, let's slow it down there a bit Zev.

1) The only true insult is 'idiotic,' the rest of those are pretty weak tea. Calling something egregious is hardly an assault on their being.

My comments ARE meant to criticize his overconfidence, though. I think the reviewer's name was Tim. I don't care what his name is, just the content of the review.

2) you seem to misunderstand the nature of 'wrong,' too.

An opinion can be wrong, and so can a fact.

Tim's sloppiness IS wrong, Zev. Getting 2+2 =4 is wrong in an objective way.

Unless you think that film criticism is purely subjective, why try and write about it? Zev, go back and reread Tim's reviews. He frequently makes little points to support his review's approach. That means TIM disagrees with you about what can or can't be wrong. He thinks, like me, that opinions can be wrong.

Notice, too, Zev - that some (but not all) of my own comments I think are too iffy to count as 'right.'

For example, I like the soundtrack to Manhunter, definitely a minority opinion and likely due to the synthesizers. Everyone thinks they're too cheezy. I leave that to personal preference. But the lyrical content of the songs definitely is in my corner. That part IS objective.

Or, the much bigger issue of Hopkins versus Cox. I personally like them both very much. But Cox's role is far smaller than in Silence, for Hopkins. Different narrative structure. But again, your mileage may vary.

The problem is, Zev, I don't think you thought through your comment very well, either. Everyone's got the right to express their opinion, but they also take a risk - both of you take the risk of being wrong, and you both are.

Go back and re-read my comment, and see just how incomplete and poor the review is. Tim just doesn't understand THE fundamental thematic of Mann's work. If you don't think that is sloppy and egregious, then I'm afraid we part ways, because it IS sloppy, sadly so.

If you think idiotic is too harsh, that's fine. I hereby apologise. I will not use that one or cross that sort of line. But, Tim probably realizes that his own stuff crossed a different line. He didn't put much effort into his reviews, and it shows.

Q-Pie said...

Arctor - I completely agree with your opinion of the review and the film. For what it's worth.

Ps. I also loved the soundtrack. "The Big Hush" playing over the intimate scene between Dolarhyde and Reba is simply glorious.