your home phone number
(I wrote this years before seeing Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter in the TV series Hannibal. Mikkelsen is tremendous but, for me, Brian Cox still edges him out.)
I wonder whether Anthony Hopkins would have won an Oscar for his role as Hannibal Lecter if The Silence of the Lambs had been a financial flop. Somehow, I doubt it. The Oscars usually reward financial success and it's a rare year indeed when one of the Big 4 (Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress) goes to a film that tanked at the box office. The reason I mention this is that I think Hopkins - an actor I admire enormously, by the way - took home his award because he’d appeared in a hit film. If it hadn't been a hit, I think a lot more people would have seen his performance for the bundle of clichés it really is.
Hopkins went to great lengths to play Lecter as an urbane villain capable of extreme violence. But I’m afraid that all I see is a professional doing a job of work, right down to Lecter’s histrionic pause in the murder of his two guards so he can conduct the classical music playing in the background. And before he pauses, he takes slow, languid swipes with the nightstick at the skull of the guard at his feet. Ah, you think: classical music; slow, languid swipes; He must be a sadistic psychopath! But there's nothing in Hopkins' performance to suggest the cold-blooded practicality of Lecter in the original novel, as shown in this sentence:
"Boyle tried to get under the table, but blinded by the Mace he crawled the wrong way and it was easy, with five judicious blows, to beat him to death."
It's the use of the word 'judicious' that really brings Lecter's cruelty to light. This is a man intent on escaping from prison and he isn't going to waste time conducting classical music or relishing the blows that kill a guard. But that's what movie psychos do: they pause to enjoy themselves, to indulge in time-wasting demonstrations of their deranged thinking. They let us know that they're psychos.
Now contrast all this with Brian Cox playing the same character in manhunter, Michael Mann's film of the novel in which Lecter first appeared: Red Dragon. Every word and every gesture is calculated for maximum impact. Whether it's dismissing academics who come to study him - 'Second-raters, the lot of them' - or observing that his visitor's after-shave is something a child might buy - 'It has a ship on the bottle, doesn't it?' - Lecter is always analysing, searching for ways to belittle, upset and just plain frighten. 'Would you like to leave me your home phone number?' he asks one visitor, and there’s so much casual, innocent menace in the question you want to run and hide in a bomb shelter.
Watch the way – when permitted a phone call to his lawyer – that he removes the fascia of the telephone with a pen cap and redirects himself to the operator, whom he then tells that he doesn't have the use of his arms and could she please dial another number for him. Then listen to him cajole, ever so smoothly, ever so sympathetically, the secretary at the office he's reached into finding the address he wants in her colleague's desk - 'I'll bet she has a call caddy right next to her phone. Well, just zip that little pointer right on down to the letter G.' What he’s after is the home of the policeman who arrested him, an address he intends to pass on to another killer after the same policeman. Then watch the look on his face – in the photo on the left - as he hangs up, puts the phone back and waits for the guard to collect it, all the while chewing his gum, dead eyes fixed on a spot in a corner so dark only he can see into it.
And then remember that he's contemplating the murder of a man and his family the way you or I think about scraping leftover food off a plate. No conducting of classical music. No slow, languid flourishes. This is an evil that doesn't need to advertise itself with tics and traits. It’s just waiting – for the chance to get out and have some fun.
© Nick Garlick 2017