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The Crime of Forgetting Michael Mann’s Manhunter

By  · Published on August 4th, 2016

Junkfood Cinema

Plus, Junkfood Cinema celebrates its 100th episode!

Every week on this website, I cohost (along with screenwriter C. Robert Cargill ‐ go see Doctor Strange in November) a podcast called Junkfood Cinema that aims to do one of two things. We either discuss cult b-films as loaded with flaws as they are simmered in legitimate redeeming factors that make us genuinely love gorging on them. We then garnish that movie discussion with a junk food item that completes the indulgent experience of viewing.

The other class of JFC alums is comprised of those films that, through little fault of their own, have been woefully neglected or forgotten since their release. This category stretches our concept as these films are usually of exceedingly high quality and require no apologies for enjoyment. 1986’s Manhunter rests comfortably in the latter category.

This Michael Mann directed crime masterpiece is so under-regarded that even as the popularity of the NBC series Hannibal swelled like a bloated corpse discarded in a river, few conversations as the original adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon cropped up. In fact, most people would contest the idea of calling Silence of the Lambs an amazing sequel for lack of awareness that it even qualifies. Manhunter gave birth to a franchise whose shadow ironically retroactively obscured its progenitor.

This is a crime, and we’re here to report it. Manhunter is a marvel of a film; that rarest of perfect blends of style and substance. It is also a delicious paradigm of serendipity featuring the exact right director at the exact right time to, like many of the other films in our One Junky Summer podcast series, break molds and redefine genre expectations.

There is a reason we love Michael Mann so much around the Junkfood Cinema kitchen. He is a director absolutely obsessed with detail. He is near Aristotelian in the way he breaks down characters, story elements, and shot compositions to their smallest of components; polishing each and every one to smooth perfection. With his first film, Thief, he hired professional burglars to consult and provide actual tools of the trade with which he required his actors to become proficient. He also took ten years to bring his thriller Heat to the screen, pulling in much of his experience with the Chicago Police Department to base characters on real cops and criminals. In some cases, he didn’t even change the names to protect the innocent.

Manhunter is a different kind of serial killer movie because it was made shortly after America changed how serial crime investigation was implemented and deputized. The very first FBI serial killer profiler unit was established by Ronald Regan in 1984. For 1986’s Manhunter, Michael Mann, being as plugged into the world of law enforcement as he was plugged into Hollywood, sought out and consulted with the very first men tasked by the government to get inside the heads of monsters. Manhunter was shot at real FBI facilities using real FBI equipment, which gives the franchise originator a level of authenticity that not even Demme’s Oscar-winning followup could match.

For Mann, the devil is truly in the details. Therefore crafting a film in which they only way to catch the devil is to obsess over those details, as we watch Will Graham do in nearly every scene, is not only perfect synergy, but creates an inextricable link between filmmaker and protagonist. Even Mann’s Hannibal Lecter (spelled “Lecktor” for the one and only time as if Mann somehow knew his entry into the eventual franchise would defiantly stand apart) is more realistic, more grounded than the flashier, sexier, more superhuman iterations later created by Anthony Hopkins and Mads Mikkelsen.

Mann’s signature visual specificity also allows for Manhunter to be its own beast. Whereas Silence of the Lambs creates ironic juxtaposition in Lecter’s sophistication being the method and motive for his brutality, all through a grimy, almost sepia color palate, Manhunter does not seek the perversion of what should be beautiful. Instead Mann takes a very clinical approach to crime scene investigation and starkly honest explorations of psyches and lets his cinematography provide the only sense of beauty in the world he creates.

Manhunter looks different, feels different, and were it possible (appropriate for this show) would likely taste different than any other entry into this franchise. It’s also arguably the best entry, for these and more reasons dissected under the microscope of the Junkfood Cinema podcast. Enjoy!

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episode covering an additional movie from the summer of 1986! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.