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What is the Definitive 1980s Movie? Manhunter?

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The movies of the 1980s had their own flavor, too, and that is what I want to get at. What is the DEFINITIVE 1980s movie?  That might be an impossible question to answer, but over the next couple weeks I will take a look at some key contenders to the title.  But first, as always, some criteria to narrow the search.


1. There must be a 1980s song attached that defines it the movie when you see it. In other words, when you now hear this song, you must think of the movie before anything else.

2. I think the theme of “Triumph of the Underdog” must be present somewhere in the movie. This theme was almost as common as the overuse of the montage in 1980s movie.

3. Must contain a montage sequence.

4. The movie must have introduced us to an actor in a star-making performance.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it is the first movie the actor made, just their “star-making” performance

Today’s Contender:  Manhunter


The problem with arbitrary criteria like the one listed above is that once it’s established, you’re kind of stuck. But, you have to draw the line somewhere, I suppose. In the search for the “Definitive 1980s Movie” (whatever that means), the list would be endless unless there were some lines within which you must color.   Hence, the criteria.

But where does that leave the work of Michael Mann, a writer/director/producer whose work simply oozes the eighties in style, costumes, hair, music… His oeuvre rivals a John Hughes, for instance, in terms of iconographic 1980s images. Of course, his main contribution to 1980s pop culture was on television- Miami Vice (on which he was executive producer).

A pastel-coated take on undercover cops front-loaded with throbbing music by Jan Hammer, Glenn Frey, and Phil Collins?  America said, yes please, at least in 1984 when it premiered.


But Mann had also directed two films by that point: Thief (1981) and The Keep (1983).  Both films showed Mann’s prowess at combining atmospheric music, in this case with Tangerine Dream, with striking visuals. But he had not yet developed the visual style that peaked with Miami Vice one year after The Keep, that of an MTV video coupled with gritty drama.

In terms of his films, the best example of his “Vice Style” culminated with 1986’s Manhunter.


Based on Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon, Manhunter’s plot has FBI profiler Will Graham on the trail of vicious Tooth Fairy.  More importantly however, the book (and the film) introduced America to the character of Hannibal Lecter (or Lecktor, as it is spelled here).  But how does it fit into the arbitrary criteria as the “Definitive 1980s Movie?”

Well, it doesn’t really, but wow, Manhunter has the 1980s in every strand of its DNA.  While there is no defining song in the way that, say, Footloose had “Footloose”, but the music here is pure 80s:  keyboard driven, atmospheric, and throbbing; cocaine as music.  The theme was written by Michael Rubini, but could easily have been Tangerine Dream.   Although used here for serial killer film, the score would fit in just as easily while watching Crockett and Tubbs tooling around the Gulf of Mexico in Sonny’s boat.

While not exactly the stuff of chart-topping soundtracks in the vein of Dirty Dancing or Top Gun, I don’t think anyone could argue the chilly 80s mood this music creates.

As for the second bit of criteria, the character of Will Graham fits snugly into the concept of the “Triumph of the Underdog.” Here is a guy who finds the most notorious serial killers in the country by empathizing with them, by getting in their heads. This was working just dandy for him until he found himself being attacked by one Hannibal Lecter, landing him in critical condition.

Manhunter opens with his old boss, Jack, calling him back for “one last case.” Might there be reluctance by Will and his wife and kid to go back to the “old life”? Might there be some redemption to be found in his stopping the Tooth Fairy from killing again (symbolized somewhat clumsily in Graham and his boy saving sea turtles from crabs)? Oh yes, on both counts. Now, this isn’t exactly watching Daniel LaRusso crane kick his way to victory, but not bad for a movie about some of the most depraved human beings to walk the planet.

As far as the use of montage in Manhunter… yeah, not much. I suppose you could argue the entire movie is composed of montage in the sense that he directs scenes that are designed to be visually stunning first and serve the narrative second. Two characters having a simple discussion about work?  Mann sets it in front of a giant glass wall with a view of the crashing ocean. So if a montage tells a story with a series of images… I know, its stretch.  Like I said, some of these criteria just don’t work. But I wanted to write about Manhunter, so… Moving on.

The final bit of criteria for inclusion on the Definitive List is that it introduces an actor in a star-making performance. As important a show as CSI turned out to be, William Petersen is still not an A-list star.  Nor is Joan Allen or Dennis Farina, despite Academy Award nominations and a legendary turn as a gangster in Midnight Run, respectively. Still, while there is no break out actor, per se, one cannot argue that there is certainly a breakout character:  Hannibal Lecter.

What can you say about this character that hasn’t been said? Obviously, Anthony Hopkins gave the performance that sealed the character in the Pop Culture Hall of Fame. But its also important to remember, if he built the Lecter House, he also burned it to the ground in the sequels (Hannibal and Red Dragon, which was essentially a remake of Manhunter.  But not as good.  Not even close).  Essentially, everything that was great about Lecter in Silence of the Lambs was destroyed as he became a charming quipster, essentially following the sad fate of one Fred Krueger in the later Elm Street movies.

Hopkins deserves credit for all he did for the character, but that doesn’t mean that Brian Cox should go unsung.  In fact, much of the psychotic intelligence and reptilian charm was firmly in place with Cox’s performance as the good doctor. The scene where he tricks the phone operator into giving him Graham’s home address (“I’m sorry, I don’t have the use of my arms…”) is so creepy in its efficiency and calculation.

Manhunter is a different type of 1980s movie, but one that certainly deserves to be in the conversation of the quintessential films of that decade. Michael Mann went on to make Heat, The Insider, and Collateral (among others); all contain some of the same visual style of Manhunter. But he none of his later movies evoke a decade so well distinctly as this 1986 sleeper.

So what do you think?  Is Manhunter the definitive 1980s movie?