The cast is smaller than some spot-the-star epics and couldn't have been better chosen; what few people remember in amongst the always commanding Gregory Peck lead, the talented female duo of Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker, and the vivid feud-masters Burl Ives, Charles Bickford and Chuck Connors, is that Charlton Heston gave one of his best performances here.
Not to say that the visuals aren't striking here; the technical work stands up to and often surpasses the big Westerns of the era. Good news for fans and never-seens: the movie was recently announced for release in stereo and widescreen on DVD in the next couple of months: an overdue treat of a movie ready for discovery (or rediscovery.)
Brutal and vivid, great-looking, and among Elmore Leonard's earliest writing work in the medium. Check out this classic, as well as the other films of the star and director (also the similar, excellent Gary Cooper/Anthony Mann teaming in the following year's Man of the West.)
June Allyson on occasion was able to break free from her standard persona with the fortuitous help of the right co-star, director, script turn or moment in time. Here the noble suffering and Rossano Brazzi do not provide the right formula. The stars try (probably too hard) and the trappings are predictably pretty, but the whole affair is rather unfortunately empty.
The cast is uniformly good, with Cobb leading in one of his best performances. The blending of two directors' work here unusually doesn't detract from the impact of this one. Look for it on television, or the hard-to-find, out-of-print video, whenever possible.
William Petersen had just distinguished himself less than a year before with his starring debut in To Live and Die in L.A. playing another lawman with different shadings. His work here is notably intense without the hand-wringing histrionics that might have appealed to some of this great movie's detractors.
Speaking of this great movie's detractors: some of the previous comments have complained about the nerve that it took to change Thomas Harris' "great" novel ending. Long before this movie was ever thought of, I read and enjoyed Harris' work, but the ending of the book kind of struck me as a cheap horror movie ending. And after that, with the onslaught of slasher pics that had been on the screens for nearly a decade, perhaps Mann and company realized that on film, that ending would even look MORE like a cheap horror movie than it read years before. Whatever the reason, the ending of the film is well-shot and satisfying in the terms of a crime thriller (which after all is what this movie is...); better a typical crime movie ending than a typical Friday the 13th ending.
The atmosphere and production values are all top-grade, despite the predictable beefs that plague movies on here of every decade except NOW: the usual comments, stuck in present day, that complain: it's "too 80's", "looks too 80's", "terrible soundtrack..sounds too 80's." Guess what, folks, IT WAS MADE IN THE 80's! There is always backlash over what went before; maybe great numbers of people are embarrassed over what they were dressing in, listening to, watching, etc. ten or twenty years ago. But movies naturally exist, bad ones and good ones, as indicators of their era.
I'm not defending the experience of that era, truth is, most of the movies released in the '80s were not great, but then, most movies released in any given year see the mediocre to bad far outweigh the good and definitely overshadow the great. The point is, if you're happier being spoonfed the latest new releases, just because they carry a year-old or less release date, don't even venture back to the masterworks of yesteryear. Might be some fashions or electronic music that frighten you more than the killer!
Not every great movie from the past is going to be remade to capture the look and style of current day. Good thing, too, because they'd probably blow it. And even so, if this movie were remade with the equal brilliance and look of The Matrix, American Beauty, Fight Club (not a knock; I love them all) and other internet faves, chances are that in ten years, the same people would sit and write "it had a decent plot, but looked and sounded so lame and cheesy...SO 90'S."
Manhunter still stands today as a great film, not eclipsed at all by its famous followup The Silence of the Lambs, which was a huge success financially and critically. It's wonderful to remember that such a dark and un-Gandhi/Last Emperor/Driving Miss Daisy film won the Best Picture Oscar. And it was a fine film, though not without just a few faults. (Jodie Foster's wardrobe was so '91......just kidding). The obvious difference was the style in which Lecter was presented and played, but Brian Cox' work here is an admirable portrayal of Lecter at a different point, and it's actually a little more chilling to imagine his depraved crimes as he does not tip his hand at all with any frightening design to his work. [No slight to Hopkins' fantastic work; his more overtly frightening mannerisms depict Lecter in a different set of circumstances.]
The rest of the cast performs very well, with Noonan a frightening and enigmatic killer, Farina a dependable and sardonic Jack Crawford and Joan Allen in one of her earliest roles. Only Kim Griest's role seems undernourished, but not much time is spent on the Graham's domestic life. (Further down in the cast, it's quite interesting to see funnyman Chris Elliott in a straight role behind a law enforcement desk.)
The production design is a nice mix of dark foreboding and crisp brightness. Michael Mann did create Miami Vice (another thing everyone has to say was "cheesy" to be properly entrenched in modern thinking) and this film did come out right in the middle of its successful run. Do they share some common design appearances? Yes, and the movie's look is all the better for it, just as the show was changing the look of TV crime thrillers from Cannon and Barnaby Jones to something a little more striking. With Thief, Manhunter and Heat, Michael Mann created three of the very best crime dramas of the last quarter century. As decent and noble as The Insider was (and Ali will probably be), his fans would certainly agree that it's time for him to take another walk down the dark criminal alley again.
Steiger gives a good interpretation of Fields, though unable to channel the unique comic gifts that he possessed. It was always good to see Perrine onscreen in her too-few roles, and Jack Cassidy was effective in one of his last roles prior to his untimely death. The design and technical work result in a great look, unfortunately panned and scanned in the TV version that is seen today (when it's seen at all.)
Interestingly, the Fields portrayal can be traced back to the memorable serial killer Steiger portrayed in 1968's No Way To Treat A Lady, adapting several disguises and voices, one of which evoked Fields. Universal has been pretty good about releasing older films of theirs to DVD at a good price; how about a couple of widescreen editions of these flawed but interesting biopics?
A good cast surrounds him, most of whom play some part in the intrigue. It's not classic mystery or classic Bronson, but is easy to enjoy even for non-fans. Check out the late stuntman-extraodinaire Dar Robinson in one of his few acting appearances and a pre-Freddy Robert Englund (who had one of his best roles that same year in Stay Hungry).
Susan Tyrell rejoins him here after her acclaimed Fat City turn, with many terrific character actors throughout the cast. Technical work is top-drawer with the William Fraker photography as good as ever.
One of the first budget DVD's released, (naturally unletterboxed) the Panavision cries out for a redo. Sadly, the small resurgence in Thompson adaptations in the early 90s ended rather quickly; still plenty of great material there for dedicated crime filmmakers.
Overall, Jim Brown fared a bit better in westerns than Williamson, who made a few more; this was Kelly's sole venture into the genre. And with Van Cleef around, one wishes that one of the better directors (Leone, Sollima) who guided his top efforts was on hand to spark this one. A disappointment; couldn't be a total loss with that cast, but they deserve better.
Newman looks great and is as effortlessly effective as ever as he prowls Cajun Country, at the behest of onetime flame Joanne Woodward, in search of a blackmail source that quickly turns into much more. Filmed all over South Louisiana, including a mansion shot here in Baton Rouge, it gets the local flavor down pretty well.
Dismissed as draggy even in its day, and certainly so in the age raised on the newspaper ad quote "A Thrill Ride!!!", it's a thoughtful, well acted addition to the private eye genre, with Melanie Griffith coming out the gate full force as a troublesome nymphet (an interesting predatory flip-side to the victimized variation seen later the same year in the superb Night Moves.)
Hopefully a widescreen DVD will one day soon afford its excellent Panavision photography to be seen for the first time in 25 years.
The earliest directorial effort from Walter Hill stands among the best of his career (it would make a fine double bill with his classic THE DRIVER), and also among the best of the rich era of 1970's crime dramas. It was released by United Artists and the rights-holders would do us a favor to release it for sale. It has some class-A action scenes and two terrific central performances. Hopefully will soon see the light of day again and gain some of the reputation it so deserves.