Tainted Love | Are The Silence Of The Lambs And Hannibal Valentines Movies?

As the interminable annual tradition of debating what is and isn’t a Christmas movie starts to recede from memory, perhaps it’s time to start into the next evolution of that argument; what is and isn’t a Valentine’s movie.

What could be some ironclad criteria? A career-driven young woman having to navigate a male-dominated world? Intense set-pieces of characters attempting extreme self-improvement and makeovers? Forbidden workplace romance? Well then, look no further than two films, both released on Valentine’s Day a decade apart; The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal.

“Hello, Clarice”. Surely somewhere in the top ten, if not top five of those infamously misremembered quotes. (For any pedants out there “Good evening, Clarice” is the closest line in the film to that quote, though an actual version of the quote does appear in the sequel.) But that people still often trot it out to signify something creepy is acknowledgment of the film’s still lingering impact on pop culture.

Yet for a film so blatantly influential in a general sense – while I don’t think you can give it singular credit, the film’s success and popularity has to be acknowledged as partially responsible for the unending slew of crime (and indeed sci-fi, such as ‘The X-Files’) procedural shows and movies that followed in Clarice’s (Foster) wake – it’s direction remains almost entirely still its own.

The late, great Jonathan Demme’s choice to frame much of the film’s dialogue in stark close-up with the main characters staring straight down the lens at the audience is one not often copied. Instrumental in giving the viewer a glimpse into how Clarice views the world – and more importantly how the men of this world look *at* her – this intimacy lends a quiet intensity to her conversations with the imprisoned Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Hopkins) in particular, before being subverted for the climax as the audience is forced to watch through the killer’s night-vision eyes as he toys with Clarice in his pitch black basement.

This very literal look of the film has also helped it retain a freshness that similarly influential films can sometimes lose to dilution by imitation. Especially on a big screen, these first person scenes mean the film has lost little of its tension since release. Yet that’s not the only aspect that has failed to age in any noticeable way.

While it does look a tad clumsy or heavy-handed by today’s standards, the film’s firmly feminist themes and constant positioning of Clarice – both narratively and physically in the frame – as a woman fighting for her place and survival in a thoroughly patriarchal world remain depressingly relevant. In an era where Hollywood is still producing films very overtly marketed around their position as post #MeToo stories, were this exact film released today it wouldn’t look particularly out of place.

(Unfortunately not everything in the film is quite so progressive. While it may be the case that the script and source novel – expressly in dialogue – attempt to clarify that the film’s villain, Ted Levine’s Jame Gumb, is not trans, the character/performance nonetheless inspired a wave of transphobic depictions of serial killers and left a deeply damaging image in the wider subconscious that trans people still find themselves having to battle. As anyone who’s rewatched Friends recently knows, this type of thing was depressingly common in the 90s and while the film’s transphobia – along with valid perceptions of homo and biphobia – may not have been one of intended malice, the damage was done nonetheless. For an excellent discussion of this topic, please see this long but very worthwhile thread by someone far more qualified than I to talk about the subject.)

Of course Lecter himself is everyone’s enduring memory of the film. Much like when Ian Fleming retconned in some Scottish ancestry to the Bond novels in light of Connery’s popularity, Hopkins’ portrayal of the good doctor had a lasting impact on not only the franchise’s image going forward (more on that later) but also on the books. Author Thomas Harris’s subsequent novels entirely played into Sir Tony’s sinister cheeky winks and sly grins.

Because remember, he was the second onscreen version of the character with Brian Cox getting there first in the initial adaptation of the book Red Dragon, Manhunter. While Cox presented an intelligent psychopath with a penchant for the finer things, Hopkins upgraded him to a near pantomime snob who savoured every sensory experience to an almost fetishistic degree, and thus marking him as a much more memorable version of the character.

Indeed, watching side-by-sides of the two actors tackle the same scene really demonstrates how Hopkins’ subtly more heightened character completely changes how much more intrigued we are about him. Of course locking him up in a thoroughly unrealistic gothic dungeon rather than a clean, modern facility helps.

It’s a testament Lambs’ production design that the outrageous cell he’s in fits seamlessly with the rest of the film’s depiction of a rusting, decaying, forgotten part of America. So much so that when Clarice finds herself in a modern looking apartment near the end, that’s the location that feels out of place aesthetically; a brief reminder that the modern civilisation we ourselves know does still exist somewhere away from all these dirty small towns and bleak ill-equipped institutions.

As such, while Lambs could definitely be described as a sort of prestige pulp, Hannibal is some deliciously high-class trash. And if Lambs is patient zero for a whole trend that we can still see playing out even now, Hannibal’s legacy is a bit more specific and character focused. For all the fond recollections people have of the Dr Lecter MD from the 1991 classic, you have to remember that ultimately he has less than twenty minutes of screen time in it. A case can definitely be made that Hannibal had a far greater influence in solidifying the version of Lecter that seeped into wider pop culture and directly influenced every subsequent interpretation of the character and his world.

At the time the recasting of Clarice with Julianne Moore (after Foster decided against returning) was a major issue. However the film itself is arguably much more Hannibal’s story with Clarice pushing the plot forward; a reverse of their dynamic from Lambs. As such, Moore’s – quite solid – homage of Foster’s performance is far less intrusive to film than you’d expect. But if we’re talking casting, Gary Oldman as Mason Verger is easily the most memorable.

Buried in prosthetics and with a ridiculous and irresistibly imitable accent (going ‘full Bane’ as it were), Oldman didn’t even want to be credited for the role, but to simply vanish into the monster. It’s telling how singular his performance is that when it came time for the character to appear in the Hannibal TV show, both actors who played him are blatantly copying Oldman’s version.

Indeed, the Hannibal TV show is likely the greatest champion – inadvertently or not – of this often overlooked sequel’s legacy. On top of Mason, even Mads Mikkelsen’s take on Lecter feels in continuum with Hopkins’ version from this film moreseo than Lambs. Seeing Hannibal out in the wild in this film, swanning around Florence in a big hat, drinking expensive wines and being comically unsubtle with his “I am absolutely a cannibal” puns to everyone; is the only live action blueprint for the show’s depiction.

The sophisticated but knowingly performative snob of this film is the version we keep returning to; be it the second film adaptation of Red Dragon that followed, the very strange prequel novel or indeed the aforementioned TV show. The highly educated, calculating psychopath from Lambs (who displayed some flair) is largely only present in that film. The much more over-the-top, murder-flaneur of this film is the one who has continued to reappear from the shadows with a wry smirk, a groaner of a pun and probably a linoleum knife.

And what of the film itself? From a modern perspective it is odd to remember there was a time when Hollywood would release a gory, big budget, horror like this (Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo likely being one of the last true examples). It’s rather lurid yet luscious, it’s undeniably indulgent and it’s more than a little silly. But it’s quite enjoyable. And it’s an admirable attempt at adapting a somewhat unadaptable book.

The film’s slightly anticlimactic return to a conspicuously sequel-friendly status quo at its climax, is about the best you could salvage from the novel’s fascinatingly bold denouement that would never have made it out of a test screening had they even attempted to shoot it. Interestingly the TV show did end in a somewhat similar place to that novel but only after three seasons of steady and careful build-up. To say it would have been an abrupt ending to a film would be putting it lightly.

When it comes to classic horror films, it can sometimes be difficult to go back and appreciate them in their fullest as their influence has rendered them less unique. The likes of Halloween or The Blair Witch Project can feel a little light nowadays when your brain can only focus on how familiar the aesthetics are or how many times you’ve seen their once revolutionary shots copied, parodied and built off of. So it speaks to The Silence of the Lambs’ lasting impact that it’s still relatively unique direction and slightly uncommon level of thematic depth in this kind of film, allows it to still resonate today with little of its tense and chilling effect lost.

And that it won Best Picture (along with a slew of other accolades) only becomes more unbelievable every time a Green Book wins. Hannibal meanwhile has not left anywhere near the same kind of mark in a broader sense but it is interesting to chart the evolution of the franchise and how this often forgotten or dismissed sequel has proven to be an oddly important ground zero for the direction of subsequent Lecter stories.

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