The first Hannibal Lecter movie is sweetly simple, but the stars say it was creepy as hell.

Published March 1, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

" Manhunter"
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Tom Noonan
Anchor Bay Entertainment; anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: "Inside Manhunter" and "The Manhunter Look" featurettes, talent bios and trailer

"Manhunter" on DVD brings a sweet respite from its sequels "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Hannibal." There's barely enough gore to fill a few seconds of the latest exploits of Hannibal Lecter. As an early entry in a string of films about serial killers, it's simply a taut police procedural at the core. Directed by Michael Mann -- the creator of "Miami Vice" who followed this film with "The Last of the Mohicans," "Heat" and "The Insider" -- it's more about style and highly conflicted characters than creepy gore.

The settings are still very much a piece of the '80s, which almost make the movie a purely stylistic statement; pastel shirts, black on black suits and art deco buildings threaten to engulf the film's protagonist Will Graham (William Petersen) in a wave of '80s nostalgia. Still, Michael Mann has a bigger picture in mind. His characters, though not the most roundly drawn, perform a tight routine and his camera work is whip-smart.

The hard-nosed agent Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) lures Graham out of retirement. Graham has retired from the FBI because his last suspect, Hannibal Lecktor (spelled differently in this movie and played by Scott Brian Cox), nearly killed him. Now, a new killer, dubbed the "Tooth Fairy" by the media because he bites his victims, is on the loose.

"Manhunter" arrived early in the serial killer trend, after Ted Bundy but before films like "Seven" and "The Cell" romanticized smart sociopaths. Here the serial killer isn't a worthwhile nemesis. Francis Dollarhyde, aka the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan), is a man who kills because it's the only way he can find an inert audience for his personal spectacle. He thinks of himself as a dragon, a man far superior to the rest of humanity. It sounds trite, and it is: For Mann, serial killers are motivated by some pathological resolution of psychological inadequacies, most frequently not receiving nor knowing how to accept attention from others.

One of the extras, the featurette "Inside Manhunter," makes it clear that the on-screen tension came from how the film was made. William Petersen, who now stars in "C.S.I.," notes that he was so enmeshed in the character that when he returned to his home in Chicago he dyed his hair blond in order to shock himself out of the role. And Tom Noonan says that the cast and crew were required to call him Francis. The crew shot the movie in sequence to keep him away from the other cast members until they met him in the movie. It's creepy stuff.

But the ghost that hangs over both the actors' recollections from "Inside Manhunter" and the other main extra, a conversation with the cinematographer Dante Spinotti on "The Manhunter Look," is the absence of the director Michael Mann. "Manhunter" oozes tension because of the intricate framing and specialized color schemes but we never get to hear what the director was thinking.

Anchor Bay Entertainment simultaneously released two versions of "Manhunter" on DVD, the general release reviewed here and a limited edition of 100,000 copies. The two-disc limited edition gives you the theatrical cut shown in the general release and a director's cut, which is badly transferred and contains an additional three minutes of scenes primarily focused on Will Graham's character development. It also contains a collector's booklet tricked out like an FBI dossier that contains photos and a little extra background information on the film.

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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