Release Date(s)1986 (May 24, 2016)
Studio(s)De Laurentiis Entertainment Group/MGM/20th Century Fox (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
Michael Mann’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel “Red Dragon” titled Manhunter is one of the first and best criminal profiling thrillers that you’re ever likely to see outside of a television. The film is mostly remembered for introducing Hannibal Lecter to the world prior to the success of The Silence of the Lambs, but many cinephiles consider it to be the superior film of the two. Although the film wasn’t a major success after its completion, it was very well-received critically and is still held in high regard today.
Manhunter tells the story of Will Graham, a retired criminal profiler for the F.B.I. who is brought on to help solve two murder cases after nearly losing both his life and his mind solving a previous one. Graham has the ability to think like a killer, get inside their mind, figure out what makes them tick, and hopefully, find a piece of missing information that will help lead the police to the killer. For this case, he goes after what the newspapers are calling The Tooth Fairy, a deadly psychotic who murders on a lunar cycle and believes that he is morphing into something greater than a mere man. In order to help get inside the mind of The Tooth Fairy, Graham must revisit the killer of his previous case, Hannibal Lecktor (changed from Lecter in the original novel), in order to recover the mindset of a killer. Graham eventually finds himself fighting against the clock in order to track down the The Tooth Fairy before he kills his next target.
Dino De Laurentiis had originally bought the film rights to make a movie out of “Red Dragon” in the early 1980’s. After having a box office flop with a similarly-titled film Year of the Dragon, Laurentiis decided to change the title to Manhunter to avoid confusion amongst the moviegoing public. Laurentiis also brought Michael Mann onto the project to write the screenplay and direct. The film was shot mostly in North Carolina and Florida by the great cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who also shot The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and L.A. Confidential (as well as the other Red Dragon film adaptation in 2002). Spinotti’s strong use of color gave many of the film’s scenes a distinctive look, something movies like it didn’t seem to have much of at the time. Various production setbacks, including most of the crew abandoning the shoot on the final days of filming, did not dissuade Michael Mann and what crew he had left from finishing the film. Mann’s strengths as a filmmaker, even on a smaller budget with less crew, still produced quality results.
Some will disagree with me, but in my opinion, Brett Ratner’s 2002 version of the story, Red Dragon, is by no means superior to Manhunter. It’s probably the best film Ratner has ever made, but it’s mainly due to the strength of the source material. Perhaps it’s just preference on my part, but I never really bought Edward Norton as Will Graham or Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dollarhyde. They seemed to be too handsome and too “Hollywood” for me to swallow their performances. William Petersen’s portrayal of Will Graham is the perfect incarnation of the character. Judging the three different versions of the character side-by-side, Petersen’s version feels more haunted and scarred by his experience. While I enjoyed Hugh Dancy’s portrayal very much, I felt that he took it a bit too far the more the Hannibal TV show went on. As far as which version of Francis Dollarhyde I prefer, there is no comparison. Tom Noonan IS The Tooth Fairy. He is so utterly creepy that your skin crawls just looking at him. It’s a testament to him as an actor too because having seen him in many other roles, including more sympathetic ones, it’s clear that he was doing something truly terrifying. From a character perspective, I never really wanted to sympathize with Dollarhyde in the first place. Manhunter’s version of the character never comes off as an attempt at having the audience relate to him in some way, as opposed to other adaptations. We know what he is and what he’s capable of, but we’re not meant to feel sorrow for him at all. Joan Allen’s character is the sympathetic one as she basically falls for someone who’s a monster underneath. Dollarhyde’s exterior is simply a facade, and not an inconspicuous one either.
Interestingly enough, the role of Lecktor was being offered to both John Lithgow and Brian Dennehy, the latter of whom ended up recommending Brian Cox for the role. Choosing which incarnation of Hannibal is better than the other is nigh impossible for me. All of the various versions of the character have had their strengths and weaknesses, but due to Cox’s portrayal and lesser screen time than any of the others, he’s much-more reserved. He can be a bit playful, although a lot of that playfulness was not included in the final cut of the movie. He comes across as more pragmatic and less philosophical in nature. He’s also less like a caged tiger lying in wait for the captor to enter the cage. It’s not that it’s wrong, per se, it’s just a different take on it. Trying to sever Hannibal Lecter’s connections to pop culture is difficult to do if you’re thinking in terms of Brian Cox playing the character first. Sure he’s nothing like Anthony Hopkins or Mads Mikkelsen, but that’s a good thing. He has his own distinctive qualities, which is not the character we all learned about in the following films, but distinctive and good nonetheless.
At the end of the day, I still feel that Manhunter is the best adapted version of the original “Red Dragon” story overall. It has the most effective acting and cinematography without sacrificing the story for aesthetic, as it was done in later adaptations. Michael Mann would go on to make other great movies like Heat and Collateral, but during the early 1980’s, he seemed to be at the top of his game, running on all cylinders as a creator. Manhunter may be dated in a lot of ways, but its setting in its time and place are perfect for the film and its longevity, and for that reason (amongst many others), it never wavers in quality for me.
Since its original theatrical release, there have been many different versions of Manhunter over the years on all home video formats. All told, there are at least ten of them floating around, possibly more. The differences between them all are quite extensive and would take far too long to explain here... not to mention that I still don’t fully understand all of the differences. In short, previous releases that claimed to carry the original theatrical version may or may not have been accurate. I contacted Shout! Factory directly about the theatrical version they've utilized for this release and disc producer Cliff Macmillan replied: “I’ve been told it is [the original theatrical cut].” So when I popped in the first disc and it differed from what a Manhunter fan site claimed to be the theatrical version right off the bat, I knew that trying to make sense out of all of it would just be a nightmare. I have seen Manhunter many times over the years and I recall most, if not all, of the scenes from the different versions, without ever recording in my mind which version I was watching. So even though Michael Mann and home video companies have tinkered with the movie over and over again (changing the color of the opening titles, dropping lines, adding scenes, removing scenes, etc.), it just goes to show that the movie is so good that even minor differences can go by relatively unnoticed and the quality of the film shines through. But, if you want to do your own research about all of this, I suggest you check out the fan site manhunter1986.com, as well as IMDB for further information. Believe me, there’s plenty to read up on about it.
For Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition release, they’ve included two of those versions, simply presented as the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut. As far as my personal preference on which version I think is better, it’s the Theatrical Cut, hands down. I think it has better pacing with little to no filler, while the Director’s Cut just extends things, mostly with unnecessary character moments or beats. For the presentation of the Theatrical Cut on the first disc, it appears to be a port of the same transfer sourced for MGM’s Blu-ray release (but with a different encode, obviously). There’s a very organic appearance with sometimes heavy and sometimes refined grain levels. Facial and surface textures carry an enormous amount of fine detail with excellent depth. The robust color palette really pops with strong hues, both primary and secondary. Blacks are mostly deep, although lightened up by the grain from time to time, and there’s some nice shadow detail on display. Brightness and contrast are at virtually perfect levels, and there are no signs of artificial enhancement on display. There’s also some leftover film artifacts such as minor dirt and scratches, and also a bit of wobble in a couple of places. It should also be noted that the opening moments showing Dollarhyde’s P.O.V. in the Leeds’ house have been obviously degraded, perhaps to make them appear like a lesser film stock. This could have been in the original Theatrical Cut, but again, it wasn’t present on previous DVD editions - at least none that I can remember, so who knows. For the Director’s Cut on the second disc, the same MGM source is used, except for the extended scenes. They have been sourced from a standard definition version of the film (included in full separately as an extra for good measure) and plopped into the master source. The upgraded material is still quite strong, except for scenes that were sourced from Michael Mann’s personal VHS copy of the movie. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to recreate the Director’s Cut from scratch, but just having it documented at all is a good thing as some people do prefer it.
As for the audio selection, both versions come with English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD tracks. You can pick and choose your favorite with these selections, as both tracks have their pros and cons. The 5.1 track offers mostly clear dialogue but is drowned out a bit by the music and score at times. Sound effects and LFE are much stronger on the 5.1 track as well. The 2.0 track, however, is a more balanced track with the music fitting in with the rest of the soundtrack more snuggly, but without as much boost. The 5.1 track also has some nice activity in the surround speakers, but I wouldn’t consider it an overly spatial presentation. Some of the music and effects also sound a little bit more dated in quality than they perhaps should. Overall though, both tracks have something to offer but are not created equal. Personally, I prefer the simple nature of the 2.0 track as it sounds less crowded - that and the purist in me has been hearing it only one or two audio channels most of my life anyways. There are also subtitles in English SDH for those who might need them.
As for the extras, you may want to retire all of those various Anchor Bay DVD releases if you wish (read the following paragraph before deciding to do so though). Nearly all of the extras from those releases have been carried over, plus some great new ones. Unfortunately, none of the new stuff has been created with the participation of the director, as he declined to do so. I would have loved a new discussion with him about the movie, perhaps on a new commentary, but them’s the breaks. On disc one, there’s a set of The Making of Manhunter interviews (The Mind of Madness with actor William Petersen, Courting a Killer with actor Joan Allen, Francis is Gone Forever with actor Tom Noonan, and The Eye of the Storm with director of photography Dante Spinotti); The Music of Manhunter featurette, which includes interviews with composer Michel Rubini, Barry Andrews of Shriekback, Gary Putnam of The Prime Movers, Rick Shaffer of The Reds, and Gene Stashuk of Red 7; The First Lecktor, an interview with Brian Cox; the film’s original theatrical trailer; and a single still gallery. On disc two, you get a vintage audio commentary on the Director’s Cut with Michael Mann (better than nothing); the aforementioned separate presentation of the Director’s Cut in standard definition; The Manhunter Look: A Conversation with Director of Photography Dante Spinotti interview; and the Inside Manhunter featurette with Petersen, Allen, Cox, and Noonan.
Supplement-wise, very little has been leftover from the previous releases. While the MGM Blu-ray was bare bones, Anchor Bay’s Limited Edition DVD release came with a file folder insert and 24 pages of reproductions of crime scene analysis files, still photos, and an essay on the film by Andy Black. Anchor Bay’s Restored Director’s Cut Divimax DVD release came with a separate deleted and alternate scenes still gallery, as well as the film’s original screenplay accessible via DVD-ROM. It’s also worth noting that the stills presented in the still gallery on this Blu-ray release aren’t quite the same as those from previous releases. Some are better and worse in quality, some are new stills mixed with old ones, and some are not present at all. Next to the now defunct changes made to the previous releases of the film (including the noticeably absent scene between Dr. Chilton and Will Graham, which is not present in either version of the film included in this set), hanging onto those previous DVD releases might not be a bad idea if you want to archive absolutely everything.
Manhunter, despite being dated and tinkered with over the years repeatedly for home video releases and cable airings, still remains one of my top favorite films. It’s a cliché, but the old saying is true: they simply don’t make movies like this anymore. They certainly wouldn’t leave Hannibal Lecter with very few scenes and dialogue, that’s for sure. But again, Lecter wasn’t a pop culture icon at this point. He was simply a character in the story and hadn’t broken out yet. It’s part of the reason why Manhunter is, to me at least, so pure. It doesn’t have the weight of public anticipation, box office draw, or pop culture ramifications upon it. It’s simply one of the best thrillers ever made. Scream Factory’s release of the movie, while not absolutely perfect, is still a very fine package with a great transfer and some excellent supplemental material. Highly recommended (as if I really need to).
- Tim Salmons