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

Press Play By Matthew Seitz | Press Play August 15, 2011 at 8:30AM

  By Matt Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas Press Play contributors
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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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