Study Guide

The Silence of the Lambs Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins)

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Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins)

He Likes His Meat Rare

Thinking of cannibals usually conjures up one image: a racist caricature of a tribal native with sharp teeth and a bone (from his last human meal) through his nose.

Serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter is not that image.

He's solitary, not part of a tribe. He wears tidy, pressed clothes. And he probably brushes and flosses after every meal, even if that meal did involve a nurse's tongue served extra rare. He's brilliant and sophisticated and knows it. Roger Ebert's description nails it: "His speaking voice has the precision of a man so arrogant he can barely be bothered to address the sloppy intelligence of the ordinary person" (source). Anthony Hopkins said he modeled his character after the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey—brilliant, logical, and unemotional. Check out the vocal resemblance—it's uncanny.

The image of Lecter standing alone in a cell, or with his iconic face mask, seems to dominate the movie, even though he's only in the film for 16 minutes. Most of what we know about Lecter—he ate a census-taker's liver with some fava beans and wine, he bit a nurse's tongue out—is all told to us. It took place before the movie even started. At the end, we do see Lecter brutally murder two cops and use one of their skinned faces as a mask, in one of the film's more horrific sequences. So there's that.

But before the possibility of escape, what does Lecter want? He wants a window. That's about it.

LECTER: What I want is a view. I want a window where I can see a tree, or even water.

It's almost quaint. But Dr. Lecter is a cultured man who appreciates the art and beauty in life, even if he does eat people. The drawings on his wall are of views from his memory. "Memory, Agent Starling, is what I have instead of a view," he tells Clarice. He's being punished for his crimes by having these views taken away; by helping Clarice catch Buffalo Bill, he'll be rewarded.

Lecter is so smart and so deadly, that even though he's locked up in a cage with guns pointed at him from every direction and a mask at the ready of he gets hungry, we just know he's going to escape somehow and there will be blood. He notices everything, and all it takes is someone to carelessly leave a pen on the table, and Lecter's ten steps ahead of everyone else. That makes the film unbearably suspenseful.

Quite an Introduction

A big part of our fascination with Lecter is the way Demme stages his first appearance. 

Dr. Chilton leads Starling down some stairs into what appears to be a medieval dungeon, describing all the awful things Lecter has done. We never see the picture of the nurse he mutilated—or the like—which lets our mind fill in the hideous details. Then we see a guard station with enough guns to storm the beach at Normandy, followed by a long walk down a row of cells containing the most hideous monstrosities we can imagine. 

At the end is the monster we've just spent five minutes hearing about...neatly groomed, standing politely, and greeting us with an understated "good morning." 

Now that's how you introduce a villain.

A View to a Thrill

Lecter gets an unexpected view when trying to get his transfer: a view into the mind of Clarice Starling. While feeding her clues to Buffalo Bill's identity, he wants to figure her out. The idea of it is a turn-on.

LECTER: Quid pro quo. I tell you things, you tell me things. […] Quid pro quo. Yes or no?

He does this to get inside her head without cutting off her skull and eating her brain (he saves that for the sequel). Anyway, he's a psychiatrist; he's trained to draw people out and probe deeply into their past. And he's very, very good at it. He figures Clarice out within minutes of their first meeting:

LECTER: You're so ambitious, aren't you? You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition has given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Officer Starling? That accent you're so desperately trying to shed—pure West Virginia. […] you could only dream of getting out, getting anywhere, yes? Getting all the way to the F…B…I.

Strangely, he seems to care about Clarice. He's concerned for her well-being, and he wants to see her succeed. He even gets one of her prison tormentors to kill himself. ( sweet is that?) Is it because she's the first woman he's seen in almost a decade? One of his clues regarding Buffalo Bill, "We covet what we see every day," could apply to Lecter too. The more he sees Clarice, the more he covets her. He wants to take care of her.

After he escapes to a tropical island, giving him a better view than he ever dreamed of, he calls her to congratulate her on her training academy graduation. Even more sweet! "Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?" he asks, which is his creepy serial-killer way of serving as a surrogate father figure looking after his not-daughter's well-being. He assures her he won't kill her, saying, "I have no plans to call on you, Clarice. The world's more interesting with you in it."

Evidently, the world's not a more interesting place with Dr. Chilton in it. Lecter's traveled to a spot where the smarmy shrink has just stepped off a plane for a lovely vacation. As he watches Chilton arrive, Lecter tells Clarice, in one of the film's most famous lines:

LECTER: I do wish we could chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner.

Nobody's All Bad

You know that movie trope, the cannibalistic serial killer with the heart of gold?

Oh, right. That's because it's not a thing.

But film critic Michael Henley thinks the film works so well because, among other reasons, Lecter is such a complex character:

"[…] the secret of The Silence of the Lambs […] is that Hannibal Lecter is not a bad man. Certainly he is an evil man: capable of it, willing to do it. But "bad" indicates he is without positive qualities, which is inaccurate. In addition to his intelligence and manners, he has a streak of compassion that is endearing. There's something almost perversely chivalric about the way he retaliates against Miggs's attack by convincing the inmate to swallow his own tongue in shame. Nasty, yes, but such is the life of a civilized killer. The relationship between Clarice and Hannibal, which becomes deeply intimate and semi-paternal, […] subverts our expectations for how a serial killer would behave […]." (Source)

A civilized killer? What weird dynamic accounts for the fact that we feel confident as the movie ends that Clarice is totally safe from Lecter? And where does the weirdest relationship in serial-killer history go from here?

You'd have to watch the sequel to find out.

Serial Killers: They're Just Like Us

Don't lie.

At the end of the movie, you totally got a thrill in knowing that Lecter was going to eat Dr. Chilton. Dude's a creep, after all, so why wouldn't you want him to get what's coming to him?

That there is Lecter expressing some forbidden audience desires for us.


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