"DO YOU SEE?": ZEN PULP, PART 4; composition and psychology in Michael Mann's MANHUNTER

by Matthew Seitz
August 15, 2011 8:30 AM
2 Comments
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By Matt Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas
Press Play contributors

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of two Press Play pieces commemorating the 25th anniversary of Manhunter, which was released August 15, 1986. It was originally commissioned as part of a series of five video essays published by Moving Image Source in the summer of 2009. This chapter dealt with Mann's analytical use of close-ups, which reveal psychology and power relationships by the placement of characters' heads in the frame, and the patterns that those placements create when the director cuts from one shot to another during a conversation. The climax of the video essay is a detailed analysis of the final sequence in Manhunter, a police raid on serial killer Francis Dollarhyde's house set to Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida". To read the other article in this package of pieces, Aaron Aradillas' epic analysis of the Manhunter soundtrack, click here.

Manhunter (1986), written and directed by Michael Mann, is best known for introducing Hannibal Lecter, author Thomas Harris's most famous creation, to movie audiences, and for its then unusual choice of hero, an FBI profiler who catches killers by imagining his way into their psyches. But it's also notable for how it distills one of Mann's fascinations: the notion of commonality, meaning the ways in which seemingly distinct people can reflect each other, blur into each other, replicate one another's stories or problems and otherwise show themselves to be part of a continuum that they are not even aware of.

The movie's antagonist, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), considers himself a freak and nourishes a deep resentment of suburban nuclear families, which appear, through his eyes, to be living the idealized life he fears he can never have. After studying and consulting with the imprisoned butcher Lecter (Brian Cox), he refashions himself as a destroyer, a Grim Reaper figure who will spread fear through the world by murdering the representatives of so-called "normalcy"—husbands, wives, and children—in their own beds. The film's protagonist is FBI agent Will Graham (William L. Petersen), who catches serial killers by constructing a psychological profile of his quarry and then immersing himself in it, Method-actor-style—a technique that led Graham to capture Lecter but cost him his sanity. The film's two-sided-coin approach has many equivalents elsewhere in Mann's filmography. The director's work is rife with doppelgängers, doubles, and reflections, concepts that are established in the film's screenplays and defined by Mann's filmmaking.

To read the full transcript of the video essay's narration, click here.


San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television. Matt Zoller Seitz is the TV critic for Salon and the founder and publisher of Press Play. You can view his other Moving Image Source video essays -- including his many collaborations with Aaron -- by clicking here.

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2 Comments

  • Matthew Seitz | August 17, 2011 3:50 AMReply

    John, thanks for writing. I agree with everything you say, particularly Mann/Cox's portrayal of Lecter (Lektor in the movie for some reason). The movie does give a strong sense of him being defective despite his extraordinary intelligence. There is also a hint that he sees Dollarhyde not as a kindred spirit but as a means to an end, and as an inferior version of himself. The character is charismatic but not likable, very different from the Hopkins version. There is a lot more moral intelligence to this portrayal that what we saw in subsequent films featuring the character.

  • John Weddell | August 15, 2011 7:46 AMReply

    You make some really valid and intriguing points about a film that has always meant a lot to me. One thing I have always admired the film for is its uncommon (for the genre) empathy towards the victims of the killer (even those "undeserving" of viewer sympathy, such as the reporter), and towards those who tackle the crimes. Even Dollarhyde is given his moment of empathy, perhaps as an insight into what Graham experiences inside Dollarhyde's mind, seen for a time away from his killings, with Reba, up until the moment Mann brutally shocks us into confronting his true nature.
    Another way that the film subverts genre norms (before the serial killer film was even really established as a genre) is by depicting Lecter (prototype for all later "genius" killers) as being- despite his IQ and cunning- emotionally and morally beneath the regular characters, something which is mainly suggested by elements in Cox's performance: the character behaves as if superior, but carries that sense of being "damaged goods", a pathetic quality that real life serial killers seem to have (by virtue of being, at the end of the day, murderers of other humans). Compare this to Silence of The Lambs and other successive films, in which Lecter and his like are unquestioningly portrayed as rarefied quasi-supermen.

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