There is a subplot about the Tooth Fairy himself, a tortured soul named Francis Dollarhyde (Dolarhyde in the novel), played by Noonan, falling in love with a blind coworker named Reba McClane. This ecstatically novel experience for Dollarhyde temporarily quells his murderous urges. It is then through a simple tragic misunderstanding that his rage returns and he reverts to his old psychotic self. The tragedy here is brought out more fully in the novel when Graham tells Reba that she fell in love not with a freak but rather with an unfortunate man who happened to have a "freak on his back".
The movie has a distinctive 1980s, "Miami Vice" feel: There is heavy emphasis on washed-out pastels, the homes feature white minimalist decor, and the soundtrack features synthesizers as well as acoustic tracks. The director, Michael Mann, also produced the Miami Vice series. The song "Heartbeat," performed by Red 7, which plays over the closing credits, also features in an episode of Miami Vice that also featured star Kim Greist. The film is also famous for its use of Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," as well as contributions from Shriekback and The Prime Movers' "Strong As I Am."
The film was originally going to use the novel's title, Red Dragon. When Year of the Dragon (1985) bombed at the box office, writer/director Michael Mann decided to change the title. William Petersen has commented that the title was also changed to avoid being confused for a karate movie.
During principal photography, Tom Noonan asked that no one in the cast, either people who are after him or whom he is after, be allowed to see him. The first time Noonan met William Petersen was when they filmed the scene where Graham crashes through the window of Dollarhyde's home. Noonan admits that, because of his request, the atmosphere on set became so tense, people actually became afraid of him. Noonan was lying in the corn syrup used for blood at the end of the film for so long that he became stuck to the floor.
Because William Petersen's role was so emotionally exhausting, he did everything he could to rid himself of Will Graham after principal photography wrapped. Petersen shaved off his beard, cut his hair and dyed it blonde.
Frankie Faison, who appears as Lt. Fisk, is the only actor to appear in the first four Hannibal Lecter films. Faison later had a significant role as Barney, the orderly, in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal (2001), and Red Dragon (2002).
When the film was first broadcast on TV, the title was changed to Red Dragon: The Pursuit of Hannibal Lecter. This was done to capitalize on the success of The Silence of the Lambs; however, the changing of the title did not accurately reflect the movie's story, since when Manhunter begins, Lecter has already been captured and incarcerated.
After the film's completion, Dennis Farina, Bill Smitrovich, and Stephen Lang were all cast in Michael Mann's TV series Crime Story. That series also featured Ted Levine, who played serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Levine and Noonan also worked with Michael Mann again in the 1995 crime thriller Heat.
The Reds, along with Michel Rubini, provided the background score for Manhunter. Only two of their cues were included on the soundtrack album. A third, commonly referred to as "The Jogger" was omitted although the band promises its inclusion on an upcoming album. Other pieces in the film but not found on the limited soundtrack were by Kitaro and Klaus Schulze.
The soundtrack album was released in limited quantities on MCA records in 1986. However, the film's failure at the box office prevented a release on the then new compact disc format. Soon afterwards, the 12" record and audio cassette were deleted making them highly sought after by fans of the film.
Recently, a 2-CD set entitled, Music from the Films of Michael Mann was release that features four tracks from Manhunter - Prime Movers' "Strong As I Am", Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", Shriekback's "This Big Hush" and Red 7's "Heartbeat".
Manhunter was listed at #41 on Film 4's 50 Films To See Before You Die.