Twenty years ago, the listicle-addicted American Film Institute named Anthony Hopkins’ cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter the greatest villain in American cinema, on a list including Norman Bates, Darth Vader, and the Wicked Witch of the West as runners up. That’s a highly disputable claim (Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, anyone?) and it predates Heath Ledger’s Joker, whom many might vote for today.
But after The Silence Of The Lambs won the Oscar for Best Picture, Lecter became a cottage industry, whose onscreen “kill count” is substantially higher than Freddy Krueger’s, if you count their respective TV series. What sickness explains such fascination with a character who gourmet-cooks humans, and how did Hopkins tap into those fascinations considering he was only in the movie for 16 minutes?
First and foremost, Anthony Hopkins is a great actor—a point so obvious it’s tempting to park it there, without even exploring the specifics of his versatility in Lambs. But his performance works so well because it’s simultaneously over the top and subtle as hell. His inspiration was the HAL 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—Hal’s blank politeness, coupled with an undercurrent of slow-growing psychosis. It’s an astute choice, because the audience can tell Hopkins is underplaying, and they know a fuse is lit inside Lecter where they can’t see it, until he finally explodes and overwhelms the movie, all in a little over a quarter-hour.
Throughout the film he reeks of intellect, and positively salivates tropes that pop culture associates with malicious genius. He knows his wines and has a weakness for piano concertos. He’s a grotesque parody of a gourmand. He greets the officers he’s about to kill by saying, “Good evening gentlemen,” in the softest tones. He’s playing on a thousand mental levels at once, where even the best of the puny humans surrounding him, specifically FBI trainee Clarice Starling, is maybe playing on five.
Starling can get overlooked in villain-centric conversations about The Silence Of The Lambs. But Foster’s performance is detailed and intricate, and director Jonathan Demme is great at visualizing the psychological reality of a talented woman in a milieu of men. Check out Clarice’s interactions with her seemingly straight arrow boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). Nothing inappropriate is ever said. But Crawford’s hands linger too long at every point of contact, and his eyes are so hooded they feel as though they could be devouring Clarice. Foster performs these scenes with an overlay of caution, as if Clarice is aware of other agendas.
In this context, Clarice’s visitations with Hannibal become a weird courtship. There is mutual respect, immediate fascination, and a sparring of intellects worthy of a 1930s rom-com. The frisson between them is in no way romantic, but they ravish each other in more interesting ways. And while Hopkins’ Lecter attempts to dominate Clarice and make her feel small, when Lecter figures out he can’t, he becomes the only male character in the movie who sees Clarice as an equal.
Foster’s excellence makes Hopkins more fascinating. For proof, watch the Silence Of The Lambs sequel Hannibal, where Clarice is played by Julianne Moore, and Hopkins is playing Bela Lugosi most of the time. Not to take away from Hopkins’ canny Lambs performance, but Lecter’s status as an iconic serial killer matters a lot to the Lecter legacy. Serial killers are the superstars of contemporary detective (and horror) media, and if they didn’t exist, screenwriters might have invented them. Statistically, they practically did.
According to Scientific American, the high estimate each year is a maximum of 50 active serial killers operating in the U.S. who commit 150 murders. That’s less than 1 percent of murders overall; as a real world threat, serial killers hardly warrant their screen dominance. But think for a moment of a serial killer as a human embodiment of what screenwriting guru Syd Field called a “rising action” scenario. They kill, predictably but at random, so the stakes increase across time. There’s a pattern, but it requires escalating police work to uncover it, on the way to a confrontation resolved by capture or death. You don’t need a chatbot to see the screenwriting possibilities, and that’s why far more serial murders occur in movies and on TV than in the actual world.
Any discussion of serial killing in The Silence of the Lambs has to include the nominal “villain” and actual subject of the manhunt FBI trainee Clarice Starling is engaged in, because for most of the film Lecter functions as one of the good guys. Clarice isn’t searching for the already imprisoned Hannibal the Cannibal. She’s using him as a subject matter expert to track serial killer Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, one of the most disgraceful characters ever embedded in a Best Picture Oscar-winning movie.
Gumb’s goal is to change his gender by creating a “skin suit” made up of female body parts as a psychotic transitioning mechanism. There’s even a notorious “penis tuck” scene, where actor Ted Levine covers his male genitals with his legs to create the appearance of a vagina, and then raises his arms ecstatically, as if wearing wings.
There’s a lot of special pleading about “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, both in Thomas Harris’ source novel and in the movie, to the effect Gumb’s not trans but “only thinks he is”—the exact argument transphobes deploy against the trans community today. But Gumb’s function is to be a worse monster so we can accept Lecter’s atrocities. We are supposed to feel revulsed by Gumb at all times, and the very ideas of gender dysphoria and transition are sourced for this “horror.”
Sadly, with transphobia lurking in Lecter’s shadow, Hopkins’ Lecter owes some measure of his enduring screen villain status to Harris’ manipulation of audience bigotries.
From comic books to movies to every other form of modern narrative media, it’s one of the great and most consoling ideas of popular fiction: that intellect is a disordering of nature, and to cultivate the mind is to harvest evil. Those smart kids, who aced everything, corrected the teacher’s algebra errors to his face, and called the high school science professor by her first name? They must have been up to something other than making everyone else’s life miserable on the daily. Turns out they were, and it involved fava beans and Chianti.