Michael Mann is indeed one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. Without him, I would not be the independent filmmaker that I am today dabbling in the neo noir world of crime thrillers. For Mann, his theatrical career began here with this sleek and stylish picture headed up by an incredible performance from James Caan. The cinematic visuals of Miami Vice were forged here, and the foundations of the thematic material that would be refined in Heat and Collateral were laid with Thief. While Mann had directed and co-written the television movie The Jericho Mile before this, featuring some very familiar traits, Thief was the start of every signature quality that Mann is best known for, and it is a film that should be given its proper due respect and recognition.
James Caan plays Frank, a professional jewel thief who wants to marry Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and settle down into a normal life. In order to achieve his dream of a family, Frank–who is used to working solo–has to align himself with a crime boss named Leo (Robert Prosky), who will help him gain the money he needs to begin his domestic life. Frank plans to retire after the heist, yet he finds himself indebted to Leo and he struggles to break free.
I was captivated all over again by Thief just from the beginning as it enveloped me in the sheen of its rain soaked Chicago nighttime world, and the sleek, stylish score by Tangerine Dream. This was the first film of Mann’s I ever saw, and I was blown away by it well over a decade ago. One of the most lasting impressions is indeed Mann’s neo noir cinematic style. Everything he does here really defined so much of the 80’s with the synthesizer score and the masterful visual storytelling. When you see the sleek and rock solid camera work in Thief, it’s sad to see how horribly Mann has embraced the incessant handheld camera work as seen in Public Enemies. The compositions here are dead-on-the-mark, and shots like pushing in through the drilled hole in the safe early on just show the enveloping visual brilliance of Mann. He knew how to suck you into this world, and keep you hooked in for the long haul. Thief was shot by first time cinematographer Donald Thorin who would go on to lens Purple Rain, The Golden Child, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman, to name a few. There was clearly no one better for him to be under the direction of than Michael Mann, and Thorin did a stunning job shooting Thief.
This is undeniably James Caan’s movie through and through. It is no mystery why this is Caan’s personal favorite performance of his. He is simply excellent, intense, and touchingly dimensional here. Frank is a man who’s had a lot of bad turns in his life spending a good chunk of it in prison, and is now struggling to reach a blissful goal of a happy home and family. He is a definite tough guy able to be a threatening presence, and has the charismatic bravado to back it all up. Frank’s not much of a subtle individual, but he’s a man who feels he has no time to dance around the subject. Every word he speaks is carefully selected and clearly conveyed which makes him appear well-spoken even if he’s not the best educated man. Caan injects the right amount of confidence into the role to mask Frank’s occasional naivety. Caan’s favorite scene is the highway oasis diner scene where Frank details his life, hardships, and dreams to Jessie. This scene shows the subtle emotional qualities of Frank to see the better man underneath all the bullheaded machismo, and this scene strips him down to bear his heart to her. Frank shows that he is charming, sweet, and very human. Despite the hardened criminal life he has had, all he wants is a simple, happy life, and that desire is much of what endears him to an audience. However, in the end, he must return to his base, primal convict mindset to survive.
Tuesday Weld holds up very strongly opposite Caan with both an enduring spirit and a gentle tenderness. Like Frank, Jessie is also a tough person who really now reveals in an ordinary life, and what begins as a very combative relationship soon warms up to very heartfelt levels. There’s a solidly genuine chemistry between Weld and Caan that brings a lot of heart and depth into this very gritty, hard edged crime thriller. Their final parting scene is powerful on so many heartbreaking levels, and shows, definitively, that Tuesday Weld was no lightweight acting talent.
There is a startling turn that Robert Prosky achieves as Leo that solidifies him as one of the best mob figures in cinema for me. For so much of the film, he’s a fatherly figure giving Frank every means to achieve his goals, and being nothing but an agreeable, upbeat, friendly facilitator. He gives Frank high line scores, an adopted child, a home, and much more. The problem is that once Frank tries to sever ties with Leo, he’s given a very sobering reality check – everything Frank now has is essentially owned through Leo, and he can rip it all away. This scene is where Prosky transforms into a cold, heartless, ruthless man who will have Frank’s friends killed, prostitute his wife on the street, and put Frank completely into indefinite servitude. Prosky becomes flat out chilling in this scene as a man you utterly do not want to cross, but the price for having this comfortable life comes at too high a cost for Frank. So, he has no choice but to retaliate by burning it all down.
Michael Mann did a very clever thing in casting the supporting cops and criminals, and thus, made it very authentic to Chicago. All of the cops were cast with ex-convicts including John Santucci who was the basis for Frank, and all of the criminals were cast with actual Chicago police officers such as Dennis Farina in his first on-screen role. This way, we got very open and honest portrayals of the not-so-straight-and-narrow Chicago police of the time. This sort of close knit connection to the authenticity of these sides of the law carry over into the intricacies of the heists. None of the heists here are sensationalized or simplified. We see the complex and highly involved process that Frank and his crew have to go through to take a single score, and this is achieved with great skill. The depth of detail that Mann shows us allows for the audience to appreciate the triumph of the score. Furthermore, all of the equipment featured was accurate to how they were used in the film, and considering the film is based on a novel by a convicted thief, none of this should be too surprising. However, it demonstrates the intense attention to detail that Michael Mann consistently put into every project he took on, and that has always impressed me and has really set Mann’s work apart from all others. Lesser filmmakers would gloss over the details and sensationalize the story, but the grit is in the details.
There is also a good but small performance by Willie Nelson who portrays a mentor of Frank’s that is dying behind prison bars. Caan and Nelson have only one real scene together, but it really brings a lot of the life and philosophy of these criminal characters to the forefront. And Thief really is built so much on personal philosophies such as lie to no one, be the boss of your body, or live your life on your own terms. This all feeds into how Frank navigates this film. He divulges everything to Jessie because his previous marriage fell apart due to his lies. He is hesitant with going into business with Leo because he enjoys answering to no one and calling his own shots, and is ultimately why he makes the radical decisions he makes at the end of the film’s second act.
Frank’s actions in the third act might seem like those of a young man of heated passion, as they are somewhat impulsive and absolute, but they fit Frank’s “the boss of my own body” attitude. He will not allow the terms of his existence to be dictated by another, and if that is the cost of having all the things he desires, then he’d sooner see it all turned to ashes. Frank returns to that prison attitude of “nothing means nothing,” and it frees him to destroy it all and go after Leo without any attachments. This is clearly a precursor to the philosophy of Neil McCauley in Heat that, “Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.” All of this makes for one awesome, amazing finale that just certifies James Caan as a bad ass. How Frank’s stalking through Leo’s house unfolds, with almost dead silence, is perfectly executed. The quiet tension just unnerves you, and builds up that tingling anticipation until all hell breaks loose. From there, it’s all scored with this excellent track from Tangerine Dream that I love. And overall, their score is innovative and captivating. It all reflects Michael Mann’s signature vibe perfectly with sleekness and edge.
Thief is an intensely exciting movie with a very grounded feeling. Seeing Mann’s visual style unfold here is amazing, and James Caan puts on an excellent, versatile performance that enhances every compelling element of the movie. It’s stunning to see how quickly Mann evolved in his career where so many of the ideas and visual storytelling here would be refined and matured within three years for the launch of Miami Vice, and the major leap forward taken in 1986 with Manhunter. Whether you are a Mann or Caan fan, this is a film you cannot afford to overlook. No one makes crime thrillers quite like Mann did as he made sure every quality and acting talent was superb and pitch perfect while always delving into the humanity of the story. With Mann it’s always about the characters, and you see the depth of that care put into this movie. If you want an even further in-depth look at the films of Michael Mann, I immensely endorse the video essay Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann. It is remarkably insightful that really inspires me.
In my view, there are psychological thrillers, and then, there is Manhunter. I have never seen another movie that gets so deep inside the psyches of its protagonist and antagonist as Manhunter does. Every element of filmmaking is used to envelop you into the psychological state of its characters, and done so with amazing depth and beauty. Adapted from the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon by writer and director Michael Mann in 1986, this is the best film featuring Hannibal Lecter that I have seen. I never grasped what everyone was so enthusiastic about over The Silence of the Lambs, and that was my sentiment years before I ever watched Manhunter. I have never watched the Brett Ratner helmed re-adaptation Red Dragon, and so, you will not find any comparison between the two here. I have plenty to explore in Manhunter alone. This is my favorite film from Michael Mann, and I am going to tell you why.
F.B.I. Agent and criminal profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) is drawn out of retirement by friend and partner Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) to track down and capture a serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy.” He is named as such due to the peculiar bite marks taken off his slain victims. To reclaim the mindset needed to delve into the psyche of this new killer, who works on a lunar cycle, Graham must tap the mind of the psychopath he captured which led to his own retirement – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). Graham must come to see through the eyes of this enigmatic killer in order to anticipate his methods, motives, and actions. The psyches of both Graham and this killer, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), are eventually put into severe conflict even putting Graham’s wife and son into danger, but most importantly, Graham’s own sanity. If Will Graham can enter into the mind of a psychopath, can he ever come back?
This is a beautifully layered psychological film. It’s fascinating to see the process Michael Mann has Will Graham go through to absorb himself into the psyche of this killer. It’s a slow descent where Graham is trepidatious stepping back into this mindset, but once he’s delved in deep enough, it starts to influence his emotions and manipulate his actions. He’s gradually connecting with the psyche of Francis Dollarhyde, slowly putting more and more pieces of the puzzle together in his mind, and by the end, there is an obsessive impulse to destroy Dollarhyde so that Graham can simply be free of him. When Graham was hunting Hannibal Lecktor, he integrated Dr. Lecktor’s psyche so deep into his own that he had to be institutionalized to in order to be brought back to good mental health. It was a dark, terrible place for his thoughts to be that he is afraid to allow himself to go back there. However, in order to capture this new serial killer, he has no choice but to tap Lecktor’s mind to recapture that mindset.
Still, the real Will Graham remains beneath, but remains slightly detached from himself. Graham has heartfelt moments with his wife and son at various points in the film that allow the humanity to show through the darkness. These are brief reprieves from the troubling case at hand, but go a long way to show that Graham has not lost himself in this killer as he did with Lecktor. All of these fascinating facets of Will Graham are brilliantly brought to detailed, nuanced life by William Petersen. He deeply engulfed himself in this role so much that after production had wrapped, he couldn’t shake Will Graham from his head. He had to shave off his beard and dye his hair blonde just to shed the character fully. That’s an unsettling example of method acting. Petersen puts so much emotional and psychological intensity into this performance that it is mesmerizing and captivating. You can constantly see the emotional and intellectual gears moving in his head. Petersen’s rich facial nuances and intense eyes also perfectly display Will Graham’s conflict and development throughout the film. He leads this film with a wide breadth of weight and deep, amazing talent. He forges a finely detailed and dimensional character.
This might be a procedural crime thriller, but I find the psychological development of the plot to be richly exciting and fascinating. The physical evidence is an important cog in the process, and the detail and urgent context in which these procedures are displayed make them compelling. Michael Mann keeps them unfolding at a tight pace with sharp dialogue that quickly pushes the narrative forward. Of course, the investigation truly comes together through the psychological methods of Will Graham. Without Graham’s constant prodding and deconstruction of the mind of this serial killer, the pieces would never come together. While Lecktor is someone that Graham fears, he respects Lecktor’s intellect. Where someone else might discount or take offense to Lecktor’s manipulative or sickly unsettling perceptions, Graham understands the valuable insight. He knows there’s something more intuitive underneath Lecktor’s words. Still, how Graham reacts after his first meeting with Lecktor here, you see how disturbed he is allowing Lecktor into his mind at all.
I absolutely love Brain Cox’s subtle and subversive performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. Where Anthony Hopkins would later be a little more obvious and deliberately creepy, Cox slowly gets in under your skin. He could be generally unassuming, but he can gradually deconstruct your mind right before your eyes. He’s immensely intelligent and intimidating by way of his psychological prowess. Yes, he is a psychopath, and certainly a sociopath. However, the scene where Lecktor calls the office of Dr. Bloom shows how naturally charming and charismatic he is, and that is very unsettling. Brian Cox based his performance on a real life serial killer. Such people are usually able to blend seamlessly into society, many as charming and unassuming individuals, and to see Cox bring that quality to this fascinating role adds further intriguing layers to Lecktor. While the character only has three scenes, he remains involved in the plot, and maintains a strong presence through much of the runtime. Overall, I believe the magnificently talented Brian Cox put in a masterful performance that chillingly supports the intelligence of this film.
The performance of Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde makes just as major of an impact as Petersen and Cox. His is a chilling portrayal of a fascinating and intimidating character. His generally soft spoken voice creates an unsettling presence. You know he is a frighteningly violent and lethal individual, and this restrained, subtle manner makes you fear for when that violent impulse is ultimately unleashed. Michael Mann chose to leave out aspects of the character from Thomas Harris’ novel such as the Red Dragon tattoo on his torso, of which scenes were filmed with it, and much of his back story. For Manhunter, this seems to truly work for the best. Instead, the first half of the film is used to build him up as an anonymous threat through Graham’s investigation and psychological profiling. When the film directly delves us into who Dollarhyde is, Noonan brings an incredible depth of emotion and internal pain to the role. Where Lecktor is a sociopath devoid of compassion, Dollarhyde has a wealth of emotional turmoil stemming from his distorted self-perception. Noonan’s performance reflects shame as Dollarhyde masks his face with his hands or sunglasses, and won’t allow the blind Reba to touch his face. He’s absorbed himself into this mangled self-identity that he resents those who he perceives as having the idealized life, such as the suburban nuclear family. This fuels his obsession as a serial killer. Tom Noonan brings such immense power to the emotional core of this sympathetic monster, and probably more than anyone else, makes this movie as powerful and effective as it is.
Chicago native actor Dennis Farina puts in a great and strong performance as Jack Crawford. It’s great to see how he showcases Crawford’s trust of Graham. He rarely questions any of what Graham says or believes, but when he does, it has a purpose. Crawford can’t fully understand the process that Will has to go through to do what he does, but he entirely respects it and understands the danger of him doing so. He essentially goes to Will Graham as a last resort. It’s also great seeing that Farina is able to keep up with Petersen’s intensity at times. Late in the film when time, as well as patience, has run short, both Crawford and Graham are jumping down each other’s throats. Crawford’s accepting defeat this time out, but Graham’s gone too far to accept that at all. Still, you see the loyalty and faith return in Farina’s performance as Graham begins to puts the final pieces together. I like the compassion and concern in his performance as Crawford tries to hold to his word of keeping Will as far away from danger as possible up until the last minute. He wants this case closed and this killer captured, but not at the expense of his friend’s safety and sanity.
Stephen Lang does an excellent job as the sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. He’s a great antagonist for Graham since Lounds only cares about his headlines. He’s despicably charismatic, and a great character you’d love to hate. However, the terror Lang puts into his performance when confronted and abducted by Dollarhyde perfectly sells the imposing and unsettling presence of Dollarhyde. This once egotistical, arrogant grand standing man is reduced to a small man drowning in fear. That is both the culmination of the film’s build up to Francis Dollarhyde, and the impactful introduction of the character in the flesh. In my opinion, it couldn’t have been any more perfectly executed.
Kim Griest does a very solid job as Molly Graham, playing opposite William Petersen vey well. She puts in just the right amount of compassion and concern for Molly’s husband. She fears for his safety, and clearly wishes that Jack Crawford had never asked for Will’s help. It’s not a comfortable position for her to be in knowing what Lecktor had done to him previously. However, probably the least standout performance is Joan Allen as Reba, the blind woman who stimulates Dollarhyde’s affections. She does a decent job, but it feels like the character with the least substance and depth. She is given some strong scenes which intensify Dollarhyde’s character, such as with the sedated tiger, but there’s not much done with Reba to flesh her out like the richly dimensional characters around her. This is likely due to a factor of time, and that the film is focused on Dollarhyde in these instances.
Now, without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is one of the best cinematographers around, and he brought a great amount of beauty, intelligence, and grace to Manhunter. He creates some gorgeous, vibrant visuals that are awe inspiring. Also, scenes are composed and staged very smartly. It’s rarely just standard shots. Every shot seems to be handled with a purpose to symbolize a character’s mindset, relationship with someone else, or to establish mood and tone. In Graham and Lecktor’s first scene together, Mann and Spinotti compose it to where as Graham and Lecktor’s psyches begin to overlap and align, so do the shots of them. The scene begins with a regular composition with Graham on the left side of frame and Lecktor on the right, but eventually they are dead center in the frame looking dead-on towards the camera by the end. Both men reflect one another in this moment. The visuals of the film have numerous mirroring aspects, and evolving motifs which visualize the psychological states and connections of characters. There are a series of shots of Will Graham looking into mirrors, and each successive shot is more and more obscured until there is eventually no reflection seen to the audience. This shows Graham’s journey in finding and ultimately detaching from Dollarhyde’s psyche. Dollarhyde himself cannot even look at himself in a mirror due to his perception of how grossly disfigured he is. Graham can confront the monster within himself, but Dollarhyde cannot.
The use of steadicam is greatly on display here giving us a film of very fluid motion, reflecting the intensely focused mindsets of Graham and Dollarhyde. It’s very gorgeous cinematography. Yet, in the film’s climax, as Dollarhyde destabilizes, the film also becomes chaotic with jump cuts and a surreal frenetic style. This works amazingly well delving our protagonist and antagonist into an explosive conflict which will either destroy or free their respective psyches.
The use of color is also integral to the moods and emotions of the film. Blue tones reflect safety as the love scene between Will and Molly demonstrates. However, green punctuates a feeling of discovery as with Graham’s early wardrobe, or a subversive quality such as in the dark room scene with Reba and Dollarhyde. There are even splashes of green lighting in Dollarhyde’s home at times. In my own independent films, I have used color washes heavily to evoke certain moods and atmosphere, but it’s never been used with such deliberate purpose as in Manhunter.
In the process of writing this review, I ecstatically discovered the complete Manhunter soundtrack album on iTunes. I purchased it without a doubt, even though I already had a few of the songs from the film. No other film have I ever seen makes as impactful, integral use of its soundtrack as Manhunter. It’s all very atmospheric, ambient music from amazing, lesser known 1980s artists such as Shriekback, The Prime Movers, and Red 7. The Shriekback tracks are the most enveloping in the film’s deep haunting mood. “This Big Hush” punctuates the seductive and quietly powerful love scene between Reba and Francis. It’s the deepest insight into Francis’ soul that we get, and this song made the scene what it is. The score was composed by Michel Rubini and The Reds. It’s very synthesizer based which might seem typical of the 1980s, but it sets an overall ominous, mesmerizing, and dangerous tone that absorbs itself into every fiber of the film. Michael Mann employed Tangerine Dream to score Thief five years earlier which created a very sleek and beautiful soundscape of that noir crime thriller. Here, the atmospheric synth music is very much in the forefront creating a bold and intense experience. The soundtrack truly does follow in the style Mann had perfected on Miami Vice at the time using popular music along with striking visuals to tell an emotional and exciting story. However, I feel Manhunter takes it a to higher level due to the overall tone and deep psychological aspects of the story. The music takes the audience deep inside the emotions and psyches of the characters. I love the cue of “Graham’s Theme” which accompanies and accentuates Will Graham’s slow revelation of the final pieces of the puzzle. It is a brilliantly executed sequence. Furthermore, the film brilliantly uses Iron Butterfly’s psychedelic classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to orchestrate the entire climax of the movie. It’s entirely edited and constructed around the various dramatic beats in that seventeen minute long jam. The organ section of the song creates a haunting Phantom of the Opera style mood until it and Will Graham crash back into full blown action. This is a score and soundtrack that simply blows my mind in how well executed and finely weaved into the fabric of the film.
This is undoubtedly one of Michael Mann’s absolute best films. It is very tightly crafted with a taut, suspenseful atmosphere. Manhunter is a deeply enveloping film utilizing all its aspects of sight and sound to create a thoroughly absorbing experience. The investigative aspects are given a rarely implemented psychological focus built upon some solid and sharp procedural elements. We are treated to a wealth of rich performances and fascinating characters. There’s a depth of detail to everything which comes out in those performances, and they are presented in very intriguing ways to keep an audience riveted with every moment.
Manhunter has been a curiosity on DVD. Four different cuts exist from both Anchor Bay and MGM. The original theatrical version was actually the last one to be released, and that was from MGM which they also put out on Blu Ray Disc. Anchor Bay released a two-disc set with both a video tape sourced director’s cut and a THX certified version billed as the theatrical cut, but contains some additional scenes and a few bits and pieces cutout. A “restored director’s cut” was later released by them which features a vast improvement in quality, but leaves out one scene from the first director’s cut between Will Graham and Dr. Chilton. It was likely cutout due to it not being shot very well. There’s no one version I wholly prefer over another since they all add in or leave out something I like from another cut, but as far as quality is concerned, the THX certified DVD from Anchor Bay has the best transfer. All other transfers have desaturated colors, are darker prints, and lack some sharpness. I did personally assemble what I called the “Definitive Cut” adding in almost all footage from various cuts of the film into one amalgamation for a complete experience. It’s just something for my own complete satisfaction of the film which I love so very much.
As I said, this is my favorite Michael Mann movie. Although, I do consider The Insider to be the best film he has ever made for very distinctly different but immensely admirable reasons. Manhunter really has been a major influence on me as a filmmaker. It was the main influence on my psychological noir thriller Dead of Night. I wanted to explore what would happen if a criminal profiler similar to Will Graham lost himself in his psychologically twisted work and went off the deep end by hunting down serial killers. There was a similarly themed episode of Miami Vice titled “Shadow in the Dark” that had Sonny Crockett delving into the disturbed mind of a crazed home invader that I also really love. However, nothing is as rich or as layered as Manhunter. Where The Silence of the Lambs seemed more focused on regular investigative work to lead to the capture of its serial killer, Manhunter is all about the psychological construction and deconstruction as the main cog in tracking down the killer. That is far more fascinating to me. Not to mention, Will Graham is a vastly more intriguing character to explore, in my eyes, than Clarice Starling. Graham is someone that’s been to some terrifyingly dark places, and has the capabilities to contend with Hannibal Lecter. He is the one who captured the cannibalistic doctor to begin with, even if it was at a troubling price. Simply everything in Manhunter appeals to my imagination, and I love that time has given the film the respect and praise it deserves. It wasn’t a successful release in 1986 for many reasons, and thus, is why The Silence of the Lambs was never handled as an actual sequel. I’m sure there are people who would be put off by the 1980s neon and pastel aesthetics of Manhunter today, but that’s no bother to me. I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Michael Mann showcased a very powerful vision with this film, more so than any other film I’ve seen from him. While his last two films – Miami Vice and Public Enemies – have shown a sharp decline in overall quality, his general body of work maintains him as one of my favorite and most influential filmmakers of all time.