Manhunter

Image from soundonsight.org

This 1986 cult classic by Michael Mann is one of the most stylish adaptations of the Thomas Harris novels. Based on his early thriller Red Dragon, the film focuses on Will Graham (William Peterson), a criminal profiler called out of early retirement to investigate a case. The subject is Francis Dollarhyde, a particularly nasty serial killer who wipes out entire families. To ‘recover the mindset’ of a killer, Graham visits Lecktor (Brian Cox), the killer whose case caused him to retire in the first place. While Lecktor is only a minor character his presence haunts the investigation, as Graham closes in on his quarry. The visuals and soundtrack are unique and stylish.

On the surface, Manhunter has some oddities: the malevolent Lecktor is treated as important yet does very little, the killer is suddenly given a romantic sub-plot halfway through the film and a line of communication between Lecktor and the killer is set up but results in nothing. However, I would argue that all these points tie into a deeper structure in the plot; The structure of semantics. The characters work as symbols. As symbols, the relationships between these characters form a coherent structure in the film’s argument’s about good  and evil.

The heart of the film is the relationship between the hunter and the hunted, and the blurred boundaries of that relationship. It is here that Lecktor comes into play. A slightly different version of the infamous Hannibal Lecter, Lecktor’s role is to symbolise pure evil. Graham is a symbol of humanity that is compromised by its connection with evil. The killer Dollarhyde is a symbol of crazed, confused evil mitigated by a scrap of humanity. The relationship these characters have to Lecktor is symbolic of their relationship to their own internal evil. Both try to utilise that relationship, and neither get precisely what they want out of it. Graham’s attempts to understand a killer’s mindset while staying detached do not quite work for him. The killer’s awkward attempt to bond with Lecktor through letters never truly comes to fruition. Lecktor is representative of an extreme.

As a symbol, the character of Hannibal Lecter can be used to make a statement on the nature of evil. In the Silence of the Lambs he is used to say that evil might have a superficial charm that disguises utter horror. In the NBC series Hannibal he is used to say that evil is attractive, destructive and destroys those it attracts. Manhunter’s statement on evil is that it is simply nasty. Brian Cox plays Lecktor as fast-talking, obnoxious, mean-spirited and petty. Manhunter has no interest whatsoever in the attraction of evil. It is humanity that is attractive.

A major element in the film’s exploration of its themes is the killer’s humanity. Dollarhyde, played by Tom Noonan, is a uniquely disturbing character. Everything about him is presented as ‘off’ in some way: The crabbed way he uses his hands, his confused, strained expression when he talks, even his overly loud clothing. Coupled with his terrible violence, he embodies eerie, unsettling and utterly dangerous psychosis. Unlike the novel, the film does not attempt to get at the root of his insanity. We are given hints at fantasies of power and masculinity, at some twisted idea of love, but these fantasies are not truly made clear. We are not meant to understand his insanity, but to be frightened of it. Having set up Dollarhyde in this way, the film then shows him falling in love. The romantic sub-plot, while a little rushed, serves a very deliberate purpose; It shows us a tragedy. Dollarhyde’s sudden romance with his blind girlfriend Reba (Joan Allen) provides him with love and acceptance. But he is too insane to process it. During his love scenes, the film’s striking visuals linger on Dollarhyde’s tortured face. He is emotionally overwhelmed, bewildered, powerless before the warmth and acceptance being offered him. Worse, romance is not sustainable for someone like this. At the first flash of jealously he reverts to violence. Love is not presented redemptive in this context; it is presented as part of the killers’ nature. It is an indelible, troubling and largely useless facet of his character that makes him both human and tragic.

Tom Nonnan as Dolyharde. Image from moviepilot.com

While Dollarhyde represents a monster mitigated by humanity, Graham represents the other side of the coin. He is the embodiment of humanity, but a humanity that is compromised and troubled. The film is seen primarily through his eyes, the camerawork and visuals mirroring his internal processes. Initially, Graham is surrounded with images of the quiet, humble family life he leads before being taken out of retirement. This life is gently romanticised, the most beautiful cinematography in the film being devoted to Graham’s scenes with his wife. However, this idyllic life is corrupted and disturbed by the investigation. The choice to investigate puts strain on Graham’s marriage upsets his son and eventually puts the whole family in danger. These external problems reflect the internal problems going on in Grahams’ psyche. He cannot help being affected and damaged by the work he does. A psychological relationship with evil, as symbolised by Lecktor, is necessary to the way he works. This is a corrupting relationship. Because of the semantics of the film, a confrontation with the killer is inevitable. When this confrontation happens, Graham does not escape mentally or physically unscathed, in keeping with the film’s themes.

Graham’s problems stem from a dilemma. This is the dilemma that is presented by the existence of evil: do you deal with it and take inevitable damage? Or do you retreat and try to preserve your own innocence? The answer Manhunter presents us with is: Retreat is not really an option. Graham cannot turn away from the crimes he is presented with, because his humanity will not let him. There is a price to not turning away, because in the semantics of Manhunter, contact brings corruption.

In the end, Manhunter is about the spectrum of good and evil, and the tragedies inherent in that spectrum. Graham’s tragedy is the tragedy of compromised integrity. Dollarhyde’s tragedy is the tragedy of largely corrupted humanity, craving love but unable to sustain it. We are asked to consider both of these tragedies, and the way they relate to true evil. The conclusion of Manhunter’s exploration of its themes is: contact with evil is inevitable, damage is inevitable, but integrity can still be preserved. Graham emerges triumphant in the end, scarred but whole. The price of contact is not too high.

The cabinet of Doctor Caligari

http://graphics8.nytimes.com

There seems to be a fashion right now for silent films with a live accompaniment. With a series of rather dull-looking blockbusters lined up for the summer, these silents are possibly your best choice. If you go to the right venue, you can catch some of the most interesting, imaginative films ever made. The picturehouse cinema chain must be one of the best things to happen to London recently. In a dimly lit room, with a real club atmosphere, we watched The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari with a live score from “Minima”.

And it is a twisted jewel of a film. A study in mistrust, paranoia and madness, it is set largely in the tortured mind of the central character. The atmosphere is very Germanic, with a sort of macabre playfulness that calls to mind Tim Burton. There are some genuine chills, and a plot wrong-foots you at every turn-including (apparently) the first twist ending in cinema.

The hero and his friends encounter Caligari (Werner Krauss ), an evil showman, who has enslaved a sleepwalker. As the group get entangled in the mystery surrounding Caligari, a story of madness and murder follows.

The most striking feature is the films astonishing visuals. The scenery is a Burton-esque fantasy of sharp planes and angles. The main setting-a small German town-is a hallucinatory tangle of twisted streets, filled with menacing shadows. The action moves from one fantasy to another, from the bleak countryside to the halls of a mental hospital, but in every scene, the backdrop is a labyrinth. The actors fit right into these twisted surroundings. The exaggerated acting style and Gothic appearances help create a perfect fantasy world that hovers between comedy and menace.

Overall, a truly brilliant experience. The mainstream run of cinema has little to offer right now. Don’t waste your money on a so-so horror flick. Go to your nearest Picturehouse and book something truly brilliant.

The tour dates of “Minima” can be found at www.minimamusic.co.uk

Bastards Law

This is the first episode of a theoretical nine-part series worked out for a college assignment.  I collaborated with Tina Tamarakar in writing this, so Tina, no need to reach for a copyright lawyer. I dont have the slightest idea how a series like this could end, but if you have any suggestions, do let me know. Images from Bela Tarrs’ “Werkmiester harmnoies” and “Damnation”.

Scene 1.
 
It is a dark night, and rain is pouring down from the sky. There is a solitary street lamp, which illuminates nothing but its own little circle of pavement on the dark little London street.
Maria walks into view. Barely more than twenty, she is dressed in a raincoat rather too big for her, carrying an  A-Z and an umbrella as well as a small scrap of paper. She pauses under the street lamp and tries to examine the A-Z, fumbling with the umbrella.
 
Two hoodies loom out of the shadows behind her. They grab her before she has time to think-only for Max to leap into the scene. He fends them off with some well-choreographed action and a knuckleduster.
 
The thugs run off, as Max stoops to help Maria to her feet.
Max: Well done. Its not even past midnight, and you did a good job of nearly getting killed just now. Who are you, walking around at this hour?
Maria: (Scrambling to the ground and searching desperately) The address…!
Max: Don’t mind me. (Watches in irritable bewilderment as she finds the paper and sighs with relief).
Maria: This could be my only chance of saving him.
Max: (With the air of someone who, having found a beetle in their salad, lifts the rest of the lettuce.)…Oh? (she turns to look at him. A strong-looking man in his mid thirties, Max is very much the policeman, apart from his clothes. Feeling awkward and grateful, she pushes her hair away from her face.)
Maria:…I forgot to thank you.
Max: Don’t worry, I never expect thanks. Now…I think its question time. (Tries to take the paper from her but she moves back.) I don’t mean you any harm. And you’re obviously in trouble. You can let me help you, or you can face this-whatever this is-on your own. (Takes the paper from her now unresisting hand. It has an address written on it in smudged pencil). What is this?
Maria: (On the edge of tears) I think it’s the place where they took him…
 
Scene 2. (Flashback)
 
Maria and her father, Doctor Smith are eating breakfast in their kitchen. He is middle-aged, mild, rather soft-looking, and does not deserve what is about to happen to him. Maria finishes her coffee at the table. He opens today’s post, dismissing the bills, and then stares in distaste at a letter from OMNICORPS. This sinister company-who primarily deal in nuclear weapons-has written AGAIN to offer him work.
 
Smith: (Over his shoulder) Will you look at this? Those disgusting people are really not giving up.
Maria: Another subtly menacing job offer? 
Smith: I think it’s a bit much, actually, if you can’t work in nuclear physics without getting job offers like this. Just listen to this! “Accepting our offer would see you enter an exiting and lucrative business with unlimited hopes for the future-”¬ yes, unlike the people they would drop the bombs on, whose future would be nonexistent! Its an insult, really, for them to expect you to accept jobs like that. The trouble with working in science now is that everywhere you turn you meet people who expect to buy and sell you. You’re young, you don’t know what its like, but being considered a commodity is…its…well, you don’t belong to yourself, that’s all I can say. Not to them. Even your thoughts-no, especially your thoughts-are company property. I went into science because I love it! And I wanted to serve humanity! Do these people give a damn about my reasons? If you have a mind and can be useful they see you as a thing. No rights, no will of your own. Like a computer…(Throws the letter on the table.) Now on top of it they’re making threats. 
Maria: What threats?
Smith: Oh, nothing very explicit. Everything that lot say is coded-its often like that with powerful companies-but basically they say that they could get very nasty if they don’t get what they want, and I should consider you.
Maria: (Alarmed)I don’t like the sound of that! What could they do?
Smith: Nothing! Oh, you mustn’t worry. I’ve got people backing me, there’s  not much they can do to hurt us. (Glances at the clock). You need to get going, go on, or you’ll be late. You’ll be back-when?
Maria: Around six.
Smith: Don’t come through the lab please, I’ll be working all day. (Kisses her cheek.) See you later.
(She leaves. The camera focuses on the discarded letter on the table. As Smith finishes his coffee in the background, the camera pans in on the letter, till first the white page, then the company logo, fill the screen. The logo gets bigger and bigger, a black circle in the centre gets wider, until the screen goes completely black.
 
Scene 3
 
The blackness remains for a moment then lightens. We are in a dark room. Matilda sits at a desk reading a letter from Smith. A ruthless non-human in allrespects, she advertises it in her appearance. A man, mostly hidden in the shadows, stands behind her.)


Matilda: He won’t accept the offer.
(She leans back and sighs.)
Man: Are you sure, Ma’am?
Matilda: Completely. I sent him that final offer purely as a sort of…sop. A last chance. Now I know it was a waste of paper. He’s refused so often, he won’t accept now, he’s not that type. (She lays the letter down carefully, takes out a small hand-mirror, and redoes her lipstick.) You know, I won’t even wait for a reply. Why bother? Just take him. (Pouts in the mirror.) Grab him. I’m tired of playing polite. He was given a chance. Many chances.
Man: What about the girl Ma’am?
Matilda: What about her?
Man: Yes Ma’am. 
 
He moves away. Scene darkens.
 
Scene 4
The camera peeks between some leaves outside a laboratory window. Through the window, Smith is working at a table, feverishly writing notes.
In another part of the house, a window is quietly prised open.
Smith completely fails to hear several pairs of feet on the stairway, and down the hall. He fails to hear a door quietly open behind him. Return to the shot through the window. Dark shapes surround Smith from behind, and one of them throws a hood over his head…
 
Scene darkens.
 
Return to the street with Maria and Max
 
Maria: I went home that night and the house was dark and empty. I searched and searched. The next morning I phoned all his friends. In the end I went to the police.
Max: And? What happened? What did the police do?
Maria: Well you can imagine. There was a search like you get when anyone goes missing-but then …it was just knocked down. No one explained. There were “orders from head office” apparently. But no one explained-why?
Max: Did anyone say who in head office?
Maria: No-one told me anything.
Max: (Shoves his hands deep in his pockets and paces a bit. Stops with his back to her.) You said your father was a scientist.
Maria: Yes?
Max: And someone, a very reticent someone, ordered that a search be dropped. A search for a scientist, and a missing scientist, is always an official worry. If you’ll excuse the term, its valuable national property gone missing. You need to look after it.
Maria: (Annoyed) That’s my father, don’t talk like that about him! Do you even have a point?
Max: My point is, they dropped the case for a reason, and reasons like that are always a lead! It comes back to power, and people-this person in head office. They cut you dead when it came to getting answers. They had something to hide. (Turns on her suddenly) But that wasn’t the end was it? What happened?
 
Scene 5
Flashback 
 
Marias sitting room. She is crying on a sofa, her face hidden in her hands. Her mobile phone is on a table beside her. She glances at it and reaches out but then withdraws her hand. Camera cuts to a shot of the letter box in the front door. A hand enters the shot and pushes a slip of paper through the slot. In the sitting room Maria hears the noise. Looking tearful but now curious she goes to the front door. The piece of paper is lying on the door mat. End flashback.
 
Return to the street
 
Maria: The address was the only clue I have ever had. And I have to find it.
Max: Well good luck there. You are out on your own, in the dead of night, and you haven’t even brought something to defend yourself with. I assume you didn’t tell the police.
Maria: I don’t think they would have helped. I told you about the strange way the case was knocked down. You clearly think I’m silly-but I think I would have gotten no help.
Max: That’s broadly true I think, after what you’ve told me. You wouldn’t be allowed help. Lucky you ran into me. (Holds out his hand). Give me that A-Z. I have nothing better to do tonight.
 
Scene 6
 
The two stand in front of a dark East End warehouse. It seems to be in complete disrepair. The rain is pouring down now and they stand together under her umbrella. A single street light illuminates the open front door.
Max: Are you sure about this? It would be easy now to turn around and go home. I can tell you from experience, things like this are often harder to get out of than you’d like.
Maria: Are you joking? I have to find my father.
Max: Just checking.
 
The two go in, Max leading, Maria following behind. Max produces a torch from somewhere in his coat. the beam illuminates a dark, cavernous room, and broken furniture. Suddenly he turns the torch beam onto something white on the floor.
Max: I don’t think he is here …but someone gave themselves away.
 
He holds up a small business card. The OMNICORPS logo is visible in the torch light.