Dr Hannibal Lecter is without doubt the most terrifying villain ever to grace the big screen. FACT. The AFI has voted him the Number One villain of the last 100 years, out-villaining even the murderous loner Norman Bates, and everyone’s favourite evil space dad, Darth Vader.
Specifically, the AFI refers to the Lecter seen in The Silence of the Lambs, where he is played by Sir Anthony Hopkins. In this film, an adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel of the same name, Lecter is tasked with assisting rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster in her second Oscar-winning performance) in catching serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). The two characters only share four scenes together, but they’re four of the most powerful, intriguing scenes in the whole two-hour running time.
As wonderful as Foster’s performance is, it is Hopkins who steals the film (and the odd face… ). In preparation for the role, he studied serial killers and visited prisons. He also took inspiration from reptiles – who only blink when they want to – and based his voice on a mixture of Truman Capote and Katharine Hepburn. That cold, unblinking gaze of Lecter’s, and his curious high voice, stay with the viewer – lingering, still unnerving – long after the film has ended. It’s downright chilling.
Our first glimpse of Dr Lecter is through Agent Starling’s eyes (quite literally, as director Jonathan Demme decided that characters would talk directly to camera when addressing Starling so the audience would relate to her better). She walks slowly down that corridor of cells until she is confronted with the once-brilliant psychiatrist, standing with his arms at his sides, impeccable posture. ‘Good morning,’ he says, how you might imagine a fox says good morning to a chicken. It’s a brilliant introduction, which morphs into a fascinating two-hander as agent and sociopath begin to size each other up. Hopkins is able to communicate arrogance, anger, glee, and a perverse sort of paternal admiration with the smallest movement of his eyes and lips.
We see this more noticeably in a later scene in the film. Lecter has been moved from Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and is now in Memphis, Tennessee. It is in this scene – successfully parodied in The Simpsons and elsewhere – where Lecter is strapped to an upright gurney in a straitjacket and muzzle to speak with Senator Ruth Martin, whose daughter has been kidnapped by Buffalo Bill. Lecter is courteous towards the senator (whilst giving her fake information) until a police officer interrupts him. You see the flash of anger in his eyes – it’s subtle, but it’s there – and he changes his tone to crass and offensive.
It is possible to go through every one of Sir Anthony’s scenes with a fine-toothed comb and a beginner’s guide to psychology, but we would be here for days. The point that needs to be emphasised is that Hopkins gives a unique and utterly convincing performance. The moment he gently rubs Clarice’s finger as he passes her the case files, his emotionless face as he calmly bludgeons a guard to death then looks around his cell for a cutthroat razor, the fast slurping sound he makes; as a viewer you are simultaneously nauseated and compelled. We must watch, but we don’t want to.
A pleasant surprise is how Sir Anthony Hopkins once described the audience’s reaction to his most famous role. He put our fascination with the cannibal down to the fact that, really, we all like to be scared. He has a point.
Famously Hannibal Lecter is only on screen in The Silence of the Lambs for a little over 16 minutes, making Hopkins’ win for Best Actor at the Oscars in 1992 one of the shortest Oscar-winning performances in history. How many among us can say we have ever achieved anything nearly as impressive as that in 16 minutes? Put your hand down at the back, you’re lying.
It’s a quiet tour de force; a performance that captures the marvellous greyness of human nature, and the subtleties of evil. So here’s to 25 years of never being able to drink a glass of Chianti without doing a bad impression. Here’s to Sir Anthony Hopkins, that scene-stealing titan of acting. And here’s to Dr Hannibal Lecter, everyone’s favourite cannibalistic serial killer.
Now I do wish I could write more, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.