Sure, Silence of the Lambs is a great movie. But you're reading my words right now, so I want you to know that Manhunter is a way better movie. In fact, it's nearly a perfect film, one whose perfect union of light, color, tone and sound nearly moves me to tears.
Dino De Laurentiis was involved in this, changing the title from Red Dragon, and being his usual hamfisted self, but Michael Mann was coming in hot from TV's Miami Vice (he'd previously directed Thief and The Keep before that show caught fire).
William Petersen (who would go on to star in CSI) is phenomenal as Will Graham, a former FBI profiler who has to come out of retirement to help solve a murder. Working on his character with the Chicago and FBI Violent Crimes Units, he learned that profilers often had to compartmentalize their personal lives, because it was near impossible to turn off the things they'd seen. In fact, at the conclusion of the film, Petersen found it near impossible to shake the character.
Tom Noonan (Frankenstein's Monster in The Monster Squad) researched serial killers, but found himself sickened by what he learned. Instead, he tried to become a man who saw that he was doing good for his victims instead of harming them. He was doing it out of love. Improvising during his audition, he noticed that he was frightening one of the casting agents, so he pushed hard to frighten her even more. He claims that this is what secured the role for him.
But the real star of the show is Michael Mann's eye and his work with director of photography Dante Spinotti. There are color tints throughout the film, ala Bava, with cool blue representing love and green with purple and magenta to denote the violent moments. Petersen has said that Mann wanted a visual aura for the film, so the story could work on an emotional level.
Even the framing of the shots - watch how close Petersen is with other characters in the film, particularly how Dennis Farina (whose acting career began in Mann's Thief) nearly collapses before coming near him at the end of the film, where once they could sit side by side.
Let's get into the story: Will Graham (Petersen) is a retired FBI profiler who had a mental breakdown after being attacked by the serial killer Dr. Hannical Lecktor (yes, that's the correct spelling and Brian Cox (Zodiac) is commanding in this role). His old boss Jack Crawford (Farina) needs him to come back and enter the mind of the Tooth Fairy (Noonan), a killer who preys on families. Graham and Crawford both promise his family - Molly (Kim Greist, C.H.U.D.) and Kevin - that he will only look at the evidence and not get involved.
What follows is a cat and mouse game of trying to find the Tooth Fairy while Graham must return to confront the man who nearly cost him his life and sanity, Dr. Lecktor. Everything the police try backfires, including using a tabloid journalist to draw out the killer, which puts Graham's family in direct danger when Lecktor gives the killer their home address.
There's a great scene here where Graham and his son shop. In what would be a throw away scene in any other film, the true humanity of Mann's work, in contrast to his meticulous editing and color theory, shine through. You can tell that Kevin has been forced to grow up and become the man of the house while his father was destroyed by Lecktor. And now, his father has to prove that he can protect his family again.
Meanwhile, the Tooth Fairy has found love with Reba (Joan Allen, Room), a blind co-worker. She cannot see his hairlip. She isn't aware that he's watching his victims while they enjoy a romantic dinner. His love for her and her acceptance has suppressed his bloodlust. Yet just as Graham's profile discovers just how important that acceptance is, he sees her go home with another employee. It's simply a ride home, but the killer goes wild, killing the man and abducting Reba. She calls him by his name and he replies, "Frances is gone. Forever."
What follows is my favorite scene in the film, where we visually see how Graham's mind works, as he figures out the connection between the murders where families were killed and their eyes replaced with mirrors. He figures out that all of the films came from the same lab. As he looks out the window, sure that he is right and ready to be confirmed, even when the lab says they have different labels, he confidently looks out the window and asks them to peel the label back. His hand against the window, the moon bright, he is proved correct and the chase is on.
As they determine the Tooth Fairy's identity on the plane, leaving police cars barely enough time to meet them as they land, you know that Graham will not wait for backup. He is back, in his element, no longer a beaten man. As they make their way to the Kansas City riverfront (a bravurra scene with a house that was made just for the film), Graham and Crawford race through the woods as teh Tooth Fairy begins shotgunning cops.
During the final encounter, Mann shot multiple speeds, so that cameras were recording the same scene at 24, 36, 72 and 90 frames per second. This gives the shootout a feel that Spinotti said was off tempo and staccato. I found it disconcerting, the violence, not Hollywood glamour but messy real life.
Even more intriguing is that the climax was shot after principal photography and when the union crew had run out of hours. There wasn't even an effects crew on hand, so the skeleton crew that remained blew ketchup across the set through hoses to simulate blood spray.
The home of the Tooth Fairy is an otherworldly place, blasting Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Via," lunar landscapes blocking rooms, before Graham busts through the window, breaking the Tooth Fairy's carefully created world. Despite this act of heroism, the killer simply drops him to the floor and continues killing cops. yet Graham rises and defeats the man and confronts his victim. When he asks him who he is, he replies, "Graham. Will Graham." He has left the other demons in his mind behind. He is himself again, ready to leave this world behind and return to his family.
So how is this film a giallo? Simple. Where it has no connection to the fashion and female protagonist that are hallmarks of the genre, the color choices, driven hero and psychosexual motives of the killer are pure giallo. So is the devotion to symetry in the shots, echoing the work of Argento. However, this is a film stripped of the camp that is at the heart of so much giallo. Yet there it is, inside the DNA of this film.