W

hen Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs landed in theaters in 1991, and went on to become one of that year’s biggest hits and pick up a shovelful of Oscars, many in the audience didn’t realize that it was, in essence, a sequel. Hannibal Lecter, the cannibal serial killer who has become a somewhat troubling cultural touchstone, was introduced by writer Thomas Harris in his 1981 novel Red Dragon, which he followed up with The Silence of the Lambs in 1988. In between those books, in 1986, Red Dragon was adapted by Michael Mann into a film called Manhunter. By then Mann was deep into his day job as executive producer of Miami Vice, but that show’s success didn’t seem to help Manhunter: it failed at the box office, and reviews were not entirely kind. I, on the other hand, have always loved the film, which I first saw in the late ’80s on VHS. In fact, apart from a brief period of confusion when I labored under the delusion that The Silence of the Lambs was superior, I’ve long understood (note that I didn’t say “believed”) that Manhunter is the best Lecter film, and indeed the best thing to ever come out of the career of Thomas Harris. It achieves emotional and cinematic peaks with this material I’ve seen from no other film.

The plot of Manhunter is a lot like the plot of The Silence of the Lambs: an FBI agent sorta-kinda joins minds with an incarcerated Hannibal Lecter to catch an active and particularly brutal serial killer. Lecter couldn’t care less about innocent people being murdered, but his arrogance, and genius, and love of fucking with the minds of those who hope to understand and cage him, compels him to answer the questions the agents put to him. That’s the simple version of both stories. In Manhunter, the FBI agent is Will Graham (played by William L. Petersen), who when we meet him seems to be retired after several harrowing cases, including the one that brought down Lecter, during which Graham was nearly killed. Jack Crawford, played here by Dennis Farina, wants Graham to come back to stop a killer (Tom Noonan) dubbed The Tooth Fairy by the press because of the bite marks he leaves on some of his victims. The Tooth Fairy baffled the FBI in the course of killing entire families in their homes. Graham, of course, agrees to try to take down The Tooth Fairy.

Apart from Michael Mann’s considerable achievements here, about which more in a bit, it’s hard to imagine Manhunterbeing as bracing, troubling, and emotionally exciting if William Petersen hadn’t played Graham. In 1986, Petersen didn’t exactly get rave reviews for his performance; Dave Kehr wrote he’d been “saddled” with a “whispery monotone,” and the Los Angeles Times’s Sheila Benson suggested that “although he’s good enough in the role, Petersen is less than charismatic. The camera doesn’t much love him and neither, I fear, do we.” First of all, what’s this “we” jazz? Second, it seems to me that “charisma” is kind of beside the point when considering Will Graham, and Petersen’s performance. As Mann says in his commentary track for the director’s cut of Manhunter on the Scream Factory Blu-ray, “there is a killer inside Graham.” In other words, the reason Graham is so good at his job is because he has been suppressing his own violent urges, possibly his whole life. Lecter knows it, too. When Graham first visits him in prison, Lecter (an absolutely brilliant Bryan Cox, and we’re going to stick with Lecter despite Manhunter’s odd decision to brand him “Lecktor”), Lecter intuits that Graham doesn’t really care what he thinks about The Tooth Fairy: “You came here to get a look at me, to get the old scent back again, didn’t you? Would you like to leave me your home phone number? Do you know how you caught me? The reason you caught me, Will, is we’re just alike. Do you understand? Smell yourself.” It should be pointed out that while Lecter is saying all this, Graham is pounding furiously on the locked door to signal the guard that he wants to leave. There is a snake in Graham’s brain. It would be a mistake to play such a character with a spark, a twinkle. Petersen plays him as a sentient thundercloud, and that strikes me as exactly right.

Of course, Peterson could light up the screen like no actor before him, but it wouldn’t make any difference if Michael Mann didn’t also step up to the plate. Again, at the time Mann was steeped in Miami Vice (though strictly speaking, it wasn’t his show; he didn’t create it, and he’s not credited with directing a single episode), and his aesthetic as a filmmaker has long been compared to that show, both favorably and unfavorably. As far as I’m concerned, it pays off swimmingly in Manhunter. Look at Petersen’s Graham: thundercloud though he may be, his clothes could not be more fashionable, his facial hair any more finely trimmed. This suggests not the blind following of a pre-selected aesthetic, but rather a precision in the mind of the character. Look at the all-white, brutalist prison housing Lecter, or the aggressive, even unnatural blue of Graham’s sanctuary, the beach home he shares with his wife (Kim Greist) and son. Blue is probably Mann’s defining color; it practically envelops Heat and The Insider, bathing each, and Manhunter as well, in an oceanic wash that can feel, depending on the film, cold and isolating or, counterintuitively, warm and welcoming. Mann is able to twist colors to his will.

Part of Manhunter’s power derives from how it comes off as both of the 1980s and against the 1980s. The scenes with Graham and Crawford working with their task force in a blindingly lit conference room seem to exist in a world that could have never imagined Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon or Die Hard. They are plain in a deliberate sense, stark, conversational, professional, in a way that reflects Mann’s deep understanding of his subject.

Where Michael Mann is perhaps most distinguished, however, in the sense that his talents in this area become almost alchemical in nature, is in his use of incidental pop music. I’m not alone among fans of this director’s work in thinking that, not infrequently, Mann will use a song in one of his films that I would never listen to under any other circumstance, but which in the context of a particular Mann film absolutely soars. This is all in the ear of the beholder, of course, but consider “Heartbeat” by Red 7, which closes out Manhunter. I can’t imagine reaching a point in my life when I would actively choose to listen to this song, yet Michael Mann, because of the mood and vibe he has meticulously constructed, makes it seem, if not quite triumphant, than at least a signal of positive transition.

See also “Strong as I Am” by the Prime Movers, played here in the moment that The Tooth Fairy — real name Francis Dolarhyde (a character name so perfect you can’t even explain why, and full credit to Thomas Harris) — mistakenly decides that his blind girlfriend Reba (Joan Allen) has been unfaithful. Francis’s mind, which had possibly been repairing itself in the wake of Reba’s sincere affection, snaps anew, resulting in a new spasm of violence. It’s a big song, all breathlessly operatic vocals and blamming drums that somehow drown out the demurely screeching guitars, but it comes off like a recording of Dolarhyde’s psyche in that moment — his ability to murder gives him strength over everybody. Listening to the song just now, it didn’t do a hell of a lot for me. But I can’t imagine Manhunter without it.

Then again, musically speaking, it’s not always so complicated with Mann. Most obviously, the original score to 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman is world-class, one of the great film scores period; and then also, more relevantly, his application of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” at Manhunter’s climax, which cannot be described, but only experienced. But the most powerful use of music, at least of incidental rock music, in a Michael Mann film may well be Shriekback’s “This Big Hush.” More even than “Strong as I Am,” this is Francis Dolarhyde’s song. As played by the great Tom Noonan, in a towering performance, Dolarhyde is one of the most terrifying human beings ever put on screen. We’ve seen him inflict pure horror on another person (specifically Lounds, the tabloid asshole, played by Stephen Lang who is twitchy, sweaty, awful, great) in a scene that is almost cosmic in its psychotic grandeur (“Here I … am.”). And we will hear Graham sum up his position on men like Dolarhyde in a way that I, at least, find it difficult to argue with: “My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he's irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks.”

But crucially, Mann shows you that the monster was manufactured. After his first night with Reba, the painfully self-conscious Dolarhyde lies awake in bed, Reba asleep beside him, and he pulls her hand over his mouth and sets it there, and he begins to weep. This is a man who has probably been happy only one time in his entire life, and that was last night. Now he’s already beginning to disbelieve it, as Shriekback plays: “The ashes and the fire/Turning this night inside/And the light from you.” This is the power and humanity of Manhunter. If this is style over substance, I’ll take it.

Bill Ryan writes about movies and books at The Kind of Face You Hate.