Infused with the cool-neon stylings of Thief (1981) and Miami Vice (TV, 1984-1990), Manhunter (1986) is filmmaker Michael Mann’s neo-noir adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon (1981). Though Jonathan Demme infused his film of Harris’ subsequent book The Silence of the Lambs with gothic horror, Mann adapts Red Dragon as a straight, albeit ultra stylish, police procedural / thriller.

The story is this: FBI Behavioural Science head Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) pulls investigator Will Graham (William Petersen), traumatized from an encounter with serial murderer Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), back into service to track down a vile killer of entire families known as the Tooth Fairy. Unbeknownst to them, said killer is Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), who works at a photographic company, and who is about to get romantically involved with blind co-worker Reba McClane (Joan Allen).

Before the film kicks into its tense finale, there is a masterful scene that leads investigator Graham to the clue that identifies the slayer. Composed entirely of simple shots of one or two actors, with superbly written and tensely delivered dialogue, and a perfectly-timed synth music cue, this scene for me has more power to raise serious chills than cinematic moments that are far more intricate.

Cut to: Interior. Office. Will Graham in the foreground. Jack Crawford behind, out of focus, leaning against a wall.  

Crawford: “So what are we doing?”

They’re hunting a serial murderer who slaughters families on a lunar cycle. It’s the night of the full moon, the killing moon. Time has almost run out, and Graham is missing the clue that tells him how the killer, Dolarhyde, is selecting his victims, which could in turn lead the FBI to him. So they sit in an office with case files, monitors, and VHS players their only companions.

Graham: “The dream. He dreams about being wanted and desired. So he changes people into beings who want and desire him.”

The shot switches to a reverse on Graham as he appears to empathize with the killer: “This started from an abused kid. A battered infant. There’s something terrible about…”

This horrifies Crawford, who asks “Are you sympathizing with this guy?” As a child, yes, answers Graham: “Someone took a child and manufactured a monster.” But beyond that, no: “As an adult someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks.”

This apparent contradiction lays bare the gift and the curse that sits in Graham’s head. He empathizes; he has to, so he can build feelings inside his mind like the killer has, to ultimately hunt and destroy a monster. Empathy and destruction.

A shot with Graham mid-frame sitting in front of the black shape of a TV monitor that fills the left side of the picture hints at the solution to the question of how the killer hones in on his victims. “He picked these women, there’s selection and design in his choices,” Graham says.

Crawford seems ready to pack it in, noting that an entire FBI team is poised to take on a fresh murder scene as soon as it is known. Graham, however, is not quitting: “It’s not over yet.” Apparently angry at Graham’s stubbornness, Crawford barks at him to “give it up.”

Graham, again sitting in the foreground of the shot, his clothes a matte and unyielding black against the stark white of the office wall: “I gave it up! Until you showed up with pictures of two dead families, knowing goddamn well that I’d imagine families three, four, five, and six, right?”

Then, exploding at Crawford: “But don’t tell me about late, pal! I’ll tell YOU when it’s too fucking late! Until then, we go as late as I wanna take it!”

The shot then moves back to Graham, right, and the TV monitor, left. He’s watching a VHS tape of home movies of one of the slaughtered families, when he notices something. A padlock on a door. “That’s why the bolt cutter.” But the padlock was gone when Dolarhyde went to break into the house.

Graham starts another home movie on a second monitor. A pretty woman slides open a patio door. Dolarhyde was ready with a glass cutter, yet the patio door wasn’t visible from the vantage point from which the killer scoped the family home.

It’s at this point that the film’s score makes its presence felt, subtly building its synth notes. Underscoring and emphasizing the revelation that Graham is talking himself through, the music has a restrained but real undertone of triumph.

As terrific as Petersen is in these moments, Farina’s role in the scene cannot go unnoticed. At the beginning of the film, Crawford slides photographs of the victims across to Graham, knowing that the investigator is traumatized but also needing to pull him onto the case. Crawford knows that showing the pictures of the slaughtered families while they were alive will connect with Graham, who has a wife and child of his own and possesses a strong moral core. He does it deliberately, knowing what the consequences of the work on Graham’s mental state has been. And so Crawford has already been set up as someone who has no bones about exploiting Graham’s talents in spite of what the effects on his psyche might be. In the scene under discussion, Farina has Crawford subtly draw out what he needs from Will Graham. When he lays out that there is no hope of stopping the night’s inevitable murder, Farina almost imperceptibly hints that Crawford is baiting Graham, knowing that this will push him to engage his unique perceptions.

And when this succeeds, there’s a shot of Graham’s back as he sits facing the monitors, working his thoughts out—then a brief cut to Crawford as he realizes Graham may be onto something. Crawford, spellbound, stands up from the table he was sitting at. Farina projects both a sense of awe and fear at watching Graham’s process in the flesh. It is noted earlier in the film that Graham has a special gift (and curse) of being able to build a murderer’s thoughts in his own mind so he can catch them. Watching Graham use this gift clearly instills a measure of dread in Crawford, embodied with great finesse by Farina.

Next we see Graham in close up, right side of the frame, entranced with his thought processes, speaking to the monitors. He looks down as he notes that the killer’s primary sense is visual.

Beat. And we focus on Graham as it hits him like a ton of bricks: “You’ve seen these films.”

At this point the electronic pulse of the music has acquired a driving beat. Graham stands up as he realizes he’s found the key.

While Crawford is talking on the phone, trying to confirm the investigator’s revelation, the shot cuts to Graham looking out the office window. The night outside the glass and Graham himself are black, framed on either by the stark white and blues of the wall and pillar. The camera pushes slowly onto Graham as he calmly talks to Crawford. It stays there, continuously, emphasizing Graham’s confidence. Then Graham places the palm of his right hand on the window pane, as if to sense the presence of the killer lurking out there in the night. He says to Crawford that the name of the photo lab on the label on one of the home movie film canisters will match the other labels. Silence. Graham: “It does, doesn’t it?” Beat.

Cinematographer Dante Spinotti recalls that Mann did over 40 takes of Petersen leaning against the window. The director wanted to strip away any obvious artifice of acting and have Graham project truthfulness through pure fatigue. Petersen nails the intensity and driving force behind Graham, laying bare the investigator as needing to bring down Dolarhyde not only to save an innocent family, but also to allow him to exorcise the psychopath’s thought patterns from his head.

Then we cut, finally, to Crawford. No words are needed. The scene concludes with Crawford ordering a chopper. The hunt is near its end and Manhunter moves on to its final act.

Visually the scene is defined by its blunt tonal contrast between deep matte blacks (Graham’s clothes; tv monitors; the night outside the window) and crisp, though sometimes muddy whites and pale blues (walls; a bank of filing cabinet drawers; a pillar and window frame in two cerulean tones; Crawford’s shirt). This has the effect of silhouetting the investigator and giving his shape a hard outline, emphasizing contour and separating him from the rest of the frame while adding the suggestion of depth of field.

When the film came out in 1986, a common criticism was that Michael Mann’s stylish visual aesthetic combined with the intense, pulsating music soundtrack gave the movie a gloss that was inappropriate to the grim subject matter. Back then, William Petersen’s response in a television interview was that Mann’s approach was to make the film visually and aurally engaging so the audience would be pulled up from the theatre and into the movie, at which point the story, characters, and themes would quietly, almost subliminally, engage them. It’s a bold stylistic choice for Manhunter, and it would not function at all without performers with serious acting chops backed by dialogue with substance. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scene I’ve just discussed. In a thriller peppered with striking moments, this straightforward, low-frills scene manages to be an emotional, goosebump-raising highlight.