31 Things We Learned from Michael Mann’s ‘Manhunter’ Commentary

"This scene is suggested by Pillow Talk. I don't know who's Rock Hudson and who's Doris Day."
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Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.

This week marks the 32nd anniversary of Michael Mann‘s Manhunter, and while the Anthony Hopkins-starring trilogy captured the public’s imagination more completely this first introduction to Hannibal Lecter remains the best for many of us. It’s just a sensory delight anchored by style, intense performances, and Mann’s atypical approach to thriller pacing.

He cobbled together a director’s cut a year after its release in 1986, and Scream Factory released a solid Blu-ray in 2016 featuring both versions along with numerous extras. Among them? A rare Mann commentary track on his extended cut.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…

Manhunter (1986)

Commentator: Michael Mann (writer/director)

1. Mann grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood as William Petersen and Dennis Farina.

2. This was Mann’s first collaboration with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, and they went on to make The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), and Public Enemies (2009). Curiously, Spinotti also shot Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002).

3. He loves the opening beach-set scene as it drops viewers into the friendship between Will Graham (Petersen) and Jack Crawford (Farina) and leaves them to infer the state of their relationship.

4. The film was made before terms like “profiler” and even “serial killer” were truly part of the societal vocabulary.

5. One of the key things that drew him to Thomas Harris‘ novel Red Dragon was Graham’s path of self-destruction in the service of catching and stopping the killer. “It fascinated me so much it made this, to me, a totally unique detective story and one that had dynamics and complexities that I had never seen before.”

6. The beach-side house where Graham lives with his wife and son is located in Captiva, FL, and is owned by artist Robert Rauschenberg.

7. He added back the phone call scene between Graham in his hotel and Molly (Kim Greist) at their home to show what he’s having to hold at bay while he’s on the hunt.

8. Mann says there was an impulse during production to increase Hannibal Lecter’s (Brian Cox) screen-time, but he resisted the urge. “I wanted the audience to almost not quite get enough of him.” The first meeting between Graham and Lecter is extended for the director’s cut.

9. Brian Dennehy “very much wanted to play Hannibal Lecter,” but told Mann that despite his own interest in the role there was someone who would actually be better for it. He then directed Mann to go see a play in NYC called Rat in the Skull featuring a British actor named… Brian Cox.

10. His favorite beat of Cox’s is the actor’s delivery of the line “Well, zip that little pointer right on down to the letter G.”

11. They couldn’t afford a fake fuselage for the airplane scene where Graham falls asleep with his file open, and they didn’t get permission to simply shoot on a real plane, so they got a bit sneaky instead. Mann booked the crew — nearly a 100 people — onto a 4p flight from Chicago to Orlando, and mid-flight they assembled and loaded their cameras and shot the scene. “A couple stewardesses got upset, and the pilot got upset…”

12. Farina was a Chicago police detective when Mann met him in 1979, and he cast him in Thief (1981) shortly thereafter. The two would go on to work together in Miami Vice and Crime Story.

13. The sequence where the team rushes through examining the note found in Lecter’s cell sees Mann comment about his fascination with professionals working under stressful situations. He says it’s most visible in the way they talk calmly and succinctly while under that pressure.

14. Sometimes bits of dialogue catch on with the crew during production, and on Manhunter that bit was “You’re so sly, but so am I.” Mann says crew members were saying it “every time you turned around.”

15. He stuck with Harris’ book for most of the film, but his greatest change was in the character of Francis Dollarhyde aka the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan). The book was still the base, but Mann added elements from his own correspondence with a convicted murderer Dennis Wayne Wallace who he was introduced to while researching the script with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit.

16. Mann’s fascinated by Graham’s ability to simultaneously maintain two thoughts on Dollarhyde — he’s both a victim of horrible abuse as a child worthy of empathy *and* a perpetrator of heinous acts who he would shoot without hesitation. Traditional law enforcement doesn’t typically care about the former.

17. There were no external directives responsible for the theatrical version meaning both cuts are essentially director’s cuts. For Mann, a director’s cut afford him the opportunity to “re-think and bring back a form of the film, and maybe a better form of the film.” He refers to this cut as “the director’s preferred version.”

18. The “Doc Lewis Fish Co” van at 59:18 is a nod to Mann’s father-in-law who’s a world-famous ichthyologist.

19. They went through 50-60 actors in their search for an actor to play Dollarhyde. but when Noonan came in to audition he told Mann he wanted to be excused from small talk and simply read his lines. Mann knew immediately that this was his Dollarhyde.

20. Noonan requested that he and Petersen not meet on set until they filmed the scene where Graham crashes through Dollarhyde’s window. It required some elaborate maneuvering and scheduling during production, but Mann thought it was a great idea. “I found out later that Noonan was acting in a very spooky way, kind of creeping around and spying on some actors almost as if he was stalking them.”

21. Mann used to work in a grocery store as a teen where he’d stock shelves and clean aisles, “so the idea of neatly stocked shelves in a supermarket seem to me the most bucolic of settings to have difficult questions Graham has to answer from his son.”

22. The film lab where Dollarhyde meets Reba (Joan Allen) is the actual film lab where the film negative was developed.

23. The cast and crew were hushed during the filming of the tiger scene. “It was extraordinary being around this animal.”

24. Mann wanted to keep the Red Dragon title, “and that’s the one part of this motion picture I was overruled by Dino De Laurentiis.” The legendary producer was worried it would be confused with Michael Cimino’s The Year of the Dragon or with “Hong Kong chop-socky movies.” They had several arguments over it.

25. He says one of the hardest things for an actor to do is to externalize an internal epiphany, so he gives Petersen high praise during the scene where Graham puts it together as to how Dollarhyde finds his target families.

26. Paranoid schizophrenics often look for messages in between the lines of signals, so that’s why Dollarhyde’s TV has the vertical hold out of sync. “It may be a completely meaningless detail to discover.”

27. Graham’s loading Glaser Safety Slugs into his revolver. They’re designed to flatten out on impact rather than penetrate and were often used by law enforcement on airplanes.

28. “Sometimes in the intensity of shooting a film, the actual conditions of making the film start to approximate what’s being dramatized in the scene you’re shooting,” he says regarding the sequence showing Graham and the others running through the foggy swamp, “and when those things get similar there’s a certain connection” between the crew members that puts them “almost” in the same zone or state of mind as the performers.

29. Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida” was chosen because it was the song of choice between Wallace and his imagined lover.

30. Mann added the scene at the end of Graham visiting the family that was next on Dollarhyde’s kill list as a way for him to return back to normal from the homicidal mind-state he was in to catch the killer. Seeing them safe corrects his mental health.

31. He’s of the belief that a film “is made in the editing room.” Everything that comes beforehand is simply accumulating the raw materials, he says, and goes on to spend the end credits discussing the idea in more detail. It’s the rare time where he speaks more abstractly about film-making, and he adds that “it’s a privilege to have found this profession.”

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“The closer Graham gets to the perpetrator of these heinous acts the more intense the imaginings Graham is experiencing.”

“We don’t wish to murder co-eds with linoleum knives.”

“Folks smarter than I are gonna have to figure out why we’re so entertained and attracted to this character of Hannibal Lecter.”

“This is a shameless bit of in-joke.”

“Ironically, the character who gets psychologically mugged in this scene is Dollarhyde.”

“He walked around with a hard hat on that had a sticker on it from Mad Magazine that said ‘Support mental illness or I’ll kill you.'”

“I tend to do a lot of rehearsals.”

“If you had talked about serial killers, people thought that was somebody who murders Frosty Flakes.”

Buy Manhunter on Blu-ray from Amazon.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mann’s commentary features both long gaps and incredibly dense thoughts on character motivation, story choices, and film details. It’s an engaging track when he’s speaking, though, and well worth a listen for fans as he doesn’t do these very often.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.