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By Dave Beuscher | January 31, 2001

Michæl Mann’s “Manhunter” is one of the most overlooked films of the 1980s. The film did such mediocre business ($8.6 million) when it was released in 1986 that when author Thomas Harris wrote a sequel two years later, producer Dino DeLaurentis gladly agreed to loan Orion Pictures the rights to adapt it as a feature. The resulting film was “Silence of the Lambs” which went on to gross $130 million in U.S. theaters, collect 5 Academy Awards and stir up a tidal wave of “tracking the serial killer” films. Few of the people who went to see “Silence of the Lambs” had even heard of “Manhunter,” but with recent television airings, the film has developed a wider cult following.
As with all of Mann’s films, “Manhunter” is an intense experience. All of the actors, including even legendary goofball Chris Elliott, give brooding, serious performances. Critics and audiences dismissed or ignored “Manhunter” during its theatrical release because it had a colorful, slick look and a synthesizer-dominated soundtrack that made it resemble an episode of Mann’s television series, “Miami Vice.” Unfortunately, because of this, one of the best modern crime-thrillers passed by audiences unnoticed. With the release of Anchor Bay’s excellent “Manhunter” 2-Disc Limited Edition DVD, people will finally have the opportunity to view “Manhunter” the way it looked when it was first released.
The story of “Manhunter” focuses on a former FBI agent’s attempt to track down a maniac who has been ritualistically slaughtering entire families. Investigators are left without any clues; in fact the only link the FBI has to go on is that the killer is operating on a “lunar cycle,” meaning he waits to strike until the next full moon. With no other way of stopping this lunatic from killing again, FBI serial profiler Jack Crawford turns to Will Graham, the man who nabbed the infamous serial killer Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecktor. His experience tracking down and encountering Lecktor had left him so psychologically traumatized that he found himself thinking like a serial killer. When Graham reluctantly accepts Crawford’s offer to catch “The Tooth Fairy,” as he is called by the press, he attempts to achieve the same mindset that he had fought so hard to repress after capturing Lecktor. When Graham begins examining The Tooth Fairy’s evidence through the eyes of a killer, the pieces to the puzzle begin to fit together and mysterious clues develop new meanings.
Dino DeLaurentis acquired the rights to Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel, “Red Dragon” and hired Mann to adapt the novel and direct. Mann, a former Chicago native, cast his production with several unknown Chicago actors in key roles. William Petersen (Will Graham) and ex-Chicago Police Detective Dennis Farina (Jack Crawford) had both had bit parts in Mann’s first theatrical feature, “Thief” (1981). Mann gave the role of Reba McClane, Dollarhyde’s blind girlfriend, to a founding member of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theater named Joan Allen.
For the pivotal role of Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (spelled “Lecter” in “Red Dragon”), Mann cast Scottish actor Brian Cox, who gave an unforgettable performance that is every bit the equal of Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning portrayal of the same character in “Silence of the Lambs.” Though he has a somewhat small role, like Hopkins, Cox’s Lecktor has a presence that lingers over the rest of the film. Unfortunately, while the Lecktor role took Hopkins’ film career into the stratosphere, with subsequent roles in “Nixon,” “Remains of the Day,” and “Amistad,” Cox’s name remained largely unknown to audiences following the release of “Manhunter.”
Anchor Bay has released “Manhunter” on two different DVD editions. The first is a single disc version (retail $24.95) that contains the theatrical cut, two extra scenes, the trailer as well as cast and crew bios. It has received THX certification and the film’s soundtrack has been remixed to Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The disc contains a number of outstanding animated menus as well as a “THX Optimode” feature that consists of a series of test charts and reference tone for viewers to properly calibrate their television sets. In addition to all of the above material on the first disc, the Limited Edition (retail $39.95) contains a second disc that features a 124-minute director’s cut, 2 interview featurettes and a collectible booklet. Both versions of “Manhunter” feature an anamorphic widescreen transfer in the Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
The video quality of the theatrical version is generally excellent. There are no signs of compression artifacting and only minor glimpses of film grain noticible in many of the darker scenes. Most importantly, the colors are vibrant and the transfer is especially sharp.
The theatrical version of “Manhunter” also features a remastered soundtrack (courtesy of Anchor Bay and Chace Studios) that has been mixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 channel surround. Not surprisingly for a film 15 years old, the soundtrack has a much more limited dynamic range than modern-day releases. The dialogue (much of it spoken in a near-whisper) is sometimes hard to understand when it blends together with the music and sound effects. The disc’s 5.1 channel surround audio is front-heavy with most information directed towards the center channel and front speakers.
The eagerly anticipated 124-minute director’s cut featured on the second disc is a letdown in terms of video quality. The source material was provided from Michæl Mann’s personal collection and appears to be transferred from half-inch videotape resulting in scenes that are fuzzy and overly dark. Apparently Anchor Bay did not have any other options and were forced to rely on a low-resolution video transfer. While video quality is abysmal, viewers can finally get a chance to view a cut with all of the key restored scenes.
The second disc in the Limited Edition also contains two featurettes. The first is a 10-minute interview called “The Manhunter Look, a conversation with Cinematographer Dante Spinotti.” Mann’s director of photography discusses the various approaches he took in order to achieve “Manhunter’s” unique look. This interview contains a fair amount of technical information and will be of great interest to those who are interested in learning about cinematography. The second is an 18-minute featurette called “Inside Manhunter” which features recent interviews with actors William Petersen, Brian Cox, Tom Noonan and Joan Allen. All of the actors make note of the high regard they still hold for Michæl Mann. Of particular interest is Tom Noonan’ s account of how he became completely enveloped into the role of Francis Dollarhyde during production.
The Limited Edition discs are housed in an extra-wide Amaray case similar to the one used for the “Independence Day” Special Edition. Also included in the Limited Edition is a 24-page FBI dossier, featuring production notes and behind-the-scenes photos. It is packaged into a miniature loose-leaf file folder similar in design to the one Will Graham carries with him in the film.
A commentary track featuring director Michæl Mann would have made the DVD more essential to fans. His commentary with James Caan on the “Thief” DVD is superb, however he has refrained from doing commentary tracks on later discs like “Last of the Mohicans,” “Heat” and “The Insider.”
Anchor Bay deserves high praise for releasing the best-looking home video incarnation of “Manhunter” to date. It’s a shame that video quality is so abysmal on the director’s cut as it is the superior version of the film. Undoubtedly, the team at Anchor Bay did not have access to any original elements containing this new material or it would have been recut into the theatrical version. Despite the atrocious video quality, it is a pleasure to have the option of viewing a restored cut of the film.
With a $15.00 difference in price, the “Manhunter” Limited Edition 2 DVD Set is recommended mostly to fanatics who are willing to suffer through borderline unwatchable video quality to get a glimpse of Mann’s original cut of the film. The single-disc theatrical version should be sufficient for viewers with a more casual interest. The “Manhunter” Limited Edition will be available on January 30, 2001. Anchor Bay will be stopping production of the 2-Disc Limited Edition after 100,000 copies have been pressed.
Additionally, in November 2000, Dino DeLaurentis announced that he had teamed with Universal to produce a second adaptation of Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon” in 2001, barring a prolonged actor’s strike. “Silence of the Lambs” screenwriter Ted Tally has been hired to write the script. There is no word yet on what actor has been cast as Hannibal.

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  1. Jack Sommersby says:

    While the film did indeed bomb with its less-than-stellar box-office take, it received mostly positive reviews from critics: Siskel&Ebert, Mike Clark (USA Today), Phillip Wuntch (Dallas Morning News), Jeff Leydon (Houston Post), Jeffrey Lyons, Bruce Williamson (Playboy), Gary Franklin (KCOP-L.A.), David Ansen (Newsweek), Richard Corliss (Time), David Denby (New York), Owen Glieberman (Boston Herald). But there were dissenters: Rex Reed loved Thomas Harris’s book but hated the film, and Sheila Benson thought it was style-over-substance.

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