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The Once Terrifying Hannibal Lecter: Upping the Ante on the Anti-Hero…

I have the pleasure of catching a rather wonderful screening of The Silence of the Lambs last week. It was a fantastic evening, not least because I got a chance to finally see the film on the big screen for the first time. However, it occurred to me on watching it that Hannibal Lecter was much more compelling as a character here than he would eventually become. With the (very debatable) exception of Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, Lecter’s subsequent film appearances feel like they are missing some vital component. I like Hannibal more than most, but I think the character suffers when promoted to lead. The less said about Hannibal Rising, the better. I am more than a little wary about the upcoming television show, even if it does star Mads Mikkelsen. What happened? When did Lecter become so toothless?

I think there’s a valid argument to be made that it’s over-exposure. After all, Lecter only appeared for seventeen minutes during The Silence of the Lambs, making Anthony Hopkins the Best Actor Oscar-winner with the least screen time in history. Hannibal was pretty heavily focused on the character, and even tried to pull back the curtain on him and bit. Hannibal Rising reduced the character to a bunch of pop psychology clichés. I think that’s why Red Dragon worked the best of the follow-ups in the handling of Lecter’s character. It kept the monster firmly out of focus, allowing characters like Will Graham and Francis Dollarhyde room to breathe. (Although, I’d argue, not quite out of focus enough.)

However, I think there’s something more to it than that. Watching The Silence of the Lambs again, I was  actually struck by how incredibly sinister Lecter was. It seems a bit redundant to describe a serial killing cannibal as “sinister”, but I am not just referring to his brutal attack on his two guards. As portrayed by Hopkins, with all the skill and grace of a charming social climber, Lecter is repeatedly shown to be petty and vindictive. The wit and the manners belie a more petulant interior, and I suspect that it’s something that got lost in the sequels, as the audience (and the film-makers) get swept up in his charm, losing sight of the fact it’s just a cover.

When people think of Lecter as Hopkins, they hear the neutral and polite voice. They remember Clarice dismissing the idea that he’d come after her as “rude”, acknowledging that the character – for all his brutality and violence – has some measure of civility. “He only eats the rude,” we’re told at one point during Hannibal, as if that polite and charming exterior has become the sum total of Lecter’s character. Certainly, anything we see in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising supports that assumption. The problem is that The Silence of the Lambs (and Red Dragon) rather skilfully suggest that it’s a lie Lecter sells.

Don’t get me wrong, Lecter is quite brilliant. Throughout The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, he has an uncanny understanding of how human psychology works. He is most certainly not your typical movie serial killer. However, Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is very careful to make it clear that Lecter is more than just the outward appearance of civility. He is certainly smarter and more well-read than those around him, but that doesn’t mean the character is as emotionally mature as that might suggest. He is very clearly not an “anti-hero” here, as he would become in later films. He’s an outright villain.

Watching The Silence of the Lambs again, you can see it quite clearly, even early on. Although he grows interested in Starling, his initial interactions are very clearly focused on Jack Crawford. Crawford isn’t in the room, but Lecter is more preoccupied with making stinging attacks on one of the men who caught him than he is with dealing with the woman in front of him. “You’re one of Jack Crawford’s, aren’t you?” Lecter teases her. “Jack Crawford sent a trainee to me?” He’s dismissive of Crawford, treating Starling’s presence as an indication of how desperate Crawford must be. “Jack Crawford must be very busy indeed if he’s recruiting help from the student body.”

Even when he makes remarks about Starling being “not more than one generation from poor white trash”, he’s attacked Crawford by proxy – striking out at the messenger as a means of hurting Crawford. Lecter is repeatedly shown to be very petty about the men who helped to capture him. In Red Dragon, he feeds the address of Will Graham to a serial killer to exact revenge by proxy. Although he eventually comes to see Starling as her own entity, he needles her for a while of Crawford. While he brings up the issue of her colleagues and co-workers objectifying her, he only mentions Crawford by name. “Jack Crawford is helping your career,” he tells her in their second meeting. “Apparently he likes you and you like him.”

Then he makes a rather transparent attempt to undermine her relationship with Crawford, a rather impotent attempt to strike out at his enemy. “Do you think Jack Crawford wants you, sexually? True, he is much older, but do you think he visualises scenarios, exchanges, fucking you?” (One might suggest that he’d have been more on-the-money referencing Chilton, who had tried to chat up Starling and had become bitter when she shot him down, but Lecter is always brilliantly dismissive of Chilton. In the novel Hannibal, Lecter doesn’t even pursue Chilton, letting the administrator live his days in constant fear.)

It’s hard to imagine the character in Hannibal or Hannibal Rising making such petty remarks. Indeed, Clarice herself calls him on it here. “That doesn’t interest me,” Clarice states, “and, frankly, it’s the sort of thing that Miggs would say.” By the time Hannibal has come around, the character seems to have overcome this pettiness. It seems that his calm and controlled exterior doesn’t mask an occasionally bitter and petulant interior, but instead encompasses his whole being.

If you watch The Silence of the Lambs, it’s interesting to note that the guards in Memphis are actually quite polite and courteous to Lecter. Lieutenant Boyle greets him, “We’ll treat you as good as you treat us. You be a gentleman, you’re gonna get three hots and a cot.” There’s no indication that they were rude to him in anyway. They even take the time to move his drawings before putting his dinner down, which is the kind of respect that Chilton would never show. If Lecter only ate the rude, it seems strange that his escape attempt would be so brutal.

(There’s a wonderful moment in the sequence, as Lecter brutally beats his guard with a stick. It’s the one moment where Anthony Hopkins allows the character’s veneer to slip completely, as he relishes the brutality, savouring every blow. In that moment, Demme and Hopkins dismiss the romantic fantasy that Lecter is anything resembling a gentleman, despite what he might try to convince people. It’s a shame that the follow-up films never manage to do anything quite like that – and instead embrace the romantic fantasy wholesale.)

Lecter even screws over Clarice towards the end – exacting the final details of her childhood on the promise of quid pro quo while refusing to live up to his end of the bargain. He knows exactly who Buffalo Bill is (given he tells the story of a former patient, only changing the name), but he stubbornly refuses to keep the agreement he made with her. Of course, given that telling Starling would have got him shipped home and prevented his escape, it makes sense – but it demonstrates that the character is far less an honest gentleman than he pretends to be.

Somebody going back and watching Red Dragon might find it strangely out of character for Lecter to be so petty towards Will Graham, even if the man beat him in a contest of wits. Similarly, his early fixation of Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs seems quite rude – especially given how he criticises Clarice’s conversational etiquette. “You were doing fine. You had been courteous and receptive to courtesy. You had established trust, with the embarrassing truth about Miggs. And now this ham-handed segue into your questionnaire?”

By the time we reach Hannibal, it seems that Lecter has been softened a great deal. While The Silence of the Lambs toyed with the idea that Lecter was nowhere near as brilliant as he pretended (after all, he’d literally met Buffalo Bill, so his insights weren’t as keen as they might have seemed), Hannibal embraces the myth of the character as a brilliant anti-hero almost completely. With the possible exception of the researcher he replaces, Lecter doesn’t kill anybody who doesn’t ‘deserve’ it. The most sympathetic on-screen victim is a pick-pocket who tried to rob him. The person trying to hunt Lecter down is a child molester. It’s hardly subtle.

(I always thought it might be interesting to have an innocent survivor hunt Lecter down. It would put us in the rare situation of sympathising with the very clear villain, in the form of Hannibal Lecter. Just like Hitchcock did with the “sinking swamp” sequence in Psycho or the search for the ring in Frenzy. It would have been a much more challenging emotional arc, and an interesting exploration of the audience’s relationship with Lecter. But I digress.)

Hannibal climaxes with Lecter repeatedly saving Clarice Starling. The novel ends with the two literally running away together. It transforms Lecter from a monster with a thin veneer of civility into a romantic lead. I think that’s at least part of the reason that Hannibal didn’t work quite as well as The Silence of the Lambs. It removed a lot of the nuance around the character, it simplified the contradictions in order to make the character fit a particular template. It tried too hard to make Lecter something more recognisable as “a good guy”, rather than “a bad guy with some engaging aspects.”

Lecter is much more fascinating when written by screenwriter Ted Tally. In fact, I’d argue that Tally does a better a job with the character than writer Thomas Harris did in the books. I think that Lecter is much more compelling and fascinating as a villain with a few endearing character quirks masking his more primal and disturbing urges than he is as an out-and-out anti-hero.

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