Triple Threat: The Hannibal Trilogy

These films made Anthony Hopkins the face of serial killers

Movies Features Anthony Hopkins
Triple Threat: The Hannibal Trilogy

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Maybe that’s why the trilogy is such a satisfying structure for so many epic series or curious corners of cinema history. This year in Triple Threat, Ken Lowe revisits another of cinema’s best trilogies each month, including some unofficial trilogies that have come to define a director, actor, or time in film history. You can follow the series here.

We must talk about “profiling,” that branch of police procedure which seeks to build a psychological profile of a criminal (usually one whose crimes are violent and seemingly random) to aid in catching them. Fiction is now full of brilliant detectives whose curse is that they get in the minds of the killers, and feel even closer to their evil quarry than they do their brother officers or the rest of us normal, non-serial-killer types who are seriously just trying to survive until we get our tax return back.

“He’s transforming,” the profiler, a cerebral but tortured detective type might say (and do, in two of the three movies I write about here). “He’s getting better, and he won’t stop!”

The trouble, as with all fictional hokum, is that profiling has pretty definitively been shown not to actually work. If you don’t believe me, there was a 2007 meta-study of it, which found “scant empirical evidence that [criminal profiling] is effective,” and went on to determine that while criminal profilers were more accurate than profiles of killers built by random folks off the street, they were barely more accurate. The current understanding among the scientific community is that this stuff is not worth the time.

It’s wrong to say that Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, based on Thomas Harris’ chilling novel, is solely at fault for perpetuating the mythical abilities of criminological profiling. In 1988, when Harris wrote the novel, America had been set up to be obsessed with this kind of subject matter. The Satanic Panic was in full swing, the Manson Family murders and the sensational trial in the wake of them was still fresh in the public’s memory, and the lurid careers of John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy had just come to an end. Growing up in this time, I remember that the fears around child safety were consumed by these kinds of boogeymen.

It was probably inevitable that some pop culture staple would revolve around serial killers, I think. But The Silence of the Lambs and its subsequent sequels completely rewrote how serial killers are portrayed in fiction, even as the science around the series’ central conceit has been basically debunked. We still have shows like Mindhunter, which revolve around the brilliant criminal profiler, and as with stuff like the various CSI shows, it’s probably actively harmful on some level for the TV-viewing public to be led to believe that any of this stuff is legitimate. Police and prosecutors make up enough stuff.

By virtue of their outsize influence, though, the Hannibal trilogy of films—an incredibly uneven but fun trilogy—are must-watches today, so long as you understand you are watching something akin to horror fantasy.

The Movies

Thomas Harris’ novels The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal both put the character Clarice Starling front and center. She is not just the protagonist and one of the most important perspective characters. The themes of the novels, the deeper conflicts that Harris is prosecuting about gender and society, who is “normal” or “good” and who is “weird” or “evil,” hinge on her character. Jodie Foster stepped into the role in the 1991 film, which was actually the second adaptation of Harris’ series—I’m less interested in visiting Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter, an adaptation of the novel Red Dragon and the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter (with his name spelled wrong, for some reason) in film.

What’s admirable is that The Silence of the Lambs solidly adopts Starling’s perspective. A young FBI trainee, Clarice is trying to outrun a traumatic past that saw her orphaned and then cast aside by extended family. It’s made explicit that she was raised a ward of the state, and that she feels some duty to that state, as she does to her father, a police officer slain in the line of duty. We watch as the men in the male-dominated spaces she moves through all leer at or underestimate her. Foster, a former child actor with a slight build, is perfect in the role.

Starling is tapped by her superior at the Bureau, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to try to enlist the help of incarcerated serial killer and brilliant psychologist Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in reviewing a new psychological evaluation the Bureau plans to use on captured serial killers. It’s a pretext, though: Crawford really wants to entice Lecter to help them capture a serial killer who’s currently on the loose: “Buffalo Bill,” who has been kidnapping and skinning women all over the country.

The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t read as a sequel to Manhunter, with its recast Lecter and director Jonathan Demme’s trademark, paranoia-inducing style. Demme loves to have his characters look directly into the camera, forcing us into the perspective of their interlocutor. In the initial scene where the two main characters meet—Lecter behind his glass cell and Clarice nervously sitting beyond it—you can see Clarice lose control of the situation with each interchange, until Lecter finally and brutally tears her down. It’s one of the more fascinating extended dialogues in film history. Hopkins, who is better at conveying the emotions and thoughts swirling beneath the surface of his characters’ facades than almost any other living actor, plays off of Foster’s bravery and insecurity perfectly.

Clarice is saved by another inmate’s rudeness. (I don’t want to describe what happens, but it is thematically right on the nose.) Lecter takes pity on her and starts feeding her hints at how she can catch Buffalo Bill.

It’s here that we actually meet “Bill” (Ted Levine) and have to bring up the other nonsense Lambs has burdened us with. Buffalo Bill is a psychopathic killer whose goal is to craft himself a suit made out of women’s skin. It’s lurid and nasty, recalling the horror of serial killer Ed Gein’s crimes—and it is a ridiculous, transphobic premise for a story.

Harris seems to have known this, because his 1988 novel goes out of its way to have multiple characters protest that Buffalo Bill isn’t a “real transsexual,” citing (accurate, it should be noted) studies saying that trans people have way lower rates of violent behavior than, say, cisgender men.

The problem with the film is that this is 1.) dispensed with in a throwaway line by Starling, and 2.) still traffics in exactly the kind of baseless accusations against trans women that are now mainstream and unavoidable. If this sounds like me imposing some 2024 sensibility on a 1991 film, well, tell it to the people who were arrested near the red carpet at the 1991 Oscars for protesting Lambs and what they argued were unflattering portrayals and/or erasure of LGBTQ characters in two other films that year, JFK and Fried Green Tomatoes.

Clarice spars with Lecter and follows the grim clues leading to Buffalo Bill, eventually unwittingly stumbling into his lair. The final confrontation, with Starling in a pitch-black basement while Buffalo Bill creeps on her with night vision goggles, is terrifying.

Despite all the baggage, The Silence of the Lambs was 1991’s showstopper: Sweeping the Oscars, netting performance awards for Foster and Hopkins, and essentially spawning memes back when they were called “jokes” or “references.” Its legacy—in cinema and beyond—made it seem inevitable that either Harris or Hollywood would bring Lecter out of retirement.

So, obviously, they did. Harris wrote Hannibal in 1999, and a Hollywood adaptation wasn’t far behind. Ridley Scott’s 2001 adaptation was an event, with an ad campaign that blanketed the surface of the Earth. It’s got Scott’s love for sweeping tableau and, dropping just a year after Gladiator, it continues to be a travelog for Italy.

Lecter has been in the wind for a decade, and Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, in this chapter) has seemingly failed to capitalize on her celebrated arrest of Buffalo Bill. (Starling is driving a Mustang that appears to be a ‘92 or thereabouts. I really think the implication is that she upgraded to a muscle car after she got her first FBI paycheck and hasn’t been able to afford another one since.) She’s still jumping out of SWAT vans, surrounded by jerk-ass cops who objectify and disrespect her.

After a raid under her command goes harrowingly wrong due to the incompetence of one such jerk-ass cop, Starling is sidelined, her career on the bubble. But, one of Lecter’s victims, the only one to have survived, sees an opportunity. Gary Oldman steps into the role of the disfigured, vengeful creep Mason Verger, whom Lecter fed drugs and convinced to rip off his own face. Oldman is unrecognizable under some gnarly makeup and prosthesis. Verger has dedicated the ensuing decades to gruesome revenge against Lecter, and decides to use Clarice as bait to draw the fugitive cannibal out of hiding.

Meanwhile, another disgraced lawman in Florence’s Questura, Inspector Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), believes that the urbane American serving as an interim curator at a museum might actually be Hannibal Lecter.

There is a lot going on in Hannibal and a lot of it is more eyebrow-raising than hair-raising: Ray Liotta is a crooked FBI apparatchik working with Verger and perving on Clarice, Verger’s plan is to feed Lecter to a bunch of giant warthogs, and there’s an entire sequence around the midpoint of the film where Lecter leads Clarice on a wild goose chase for, I guess, the purposes of just chatting with her on the phone. This sequence ends in him being captured, and it hinges upon him being able to just sneak into her house, which we know is being surveilled by G-men and mercenary creeps, because they follow her when she leaves. It’s a lot of flash that doesn’t make any sense if you think about it for two seconds, just as Lecter hiding out in a highly visible academic position where he clearly murdered his predecessor also doesn’t make sense. (In the novels, he at least had cosmetic alterations made to his face so that he didn’t look exactly like his wanted poster.)

Clarice is ultimately caught between her sense of justice and duty, Verger’s self-destructive vengeance, and Lecter’s supernatural ability to render all those around him physically helpless. The movie stops short of the novel’s ending, however, and it’s a pretty gutless end. Spoiler for a 25-year-old airplane read: In the book, Lecter psychologically and chemically manipulates Clarice into becoming his dark bride, and the two jet around the world having sex and taking in opera, each having found the only other person who understands them. In the film, Lecter just slips through Clarice’s fingers.

The scene where Lecter serves Liotta’s character his own brains is, however, true to the book, and delightfully harrowing.

Red Dragon for some reason seems like it came out a longer amount of time from Hannibal than it did, but no, it’s true: They made this thing just a year later, and were in such a rush that they tapped Brett Ratner to direct.

A prequel based on Harris’ first Lecter novel, Red Dragon follows Will Graham (Edward Norton), an FBI special agent working under Crawford again (Harvey Keitel in this outing). Graham is the man who caught Lecter, nearly dying in the process, and retiring early from the FBI in the wake of the disastrous arrest. Crawford calls him back into action to pursue another serial killer, the “Tooth Fairy.” Ralph Fiennes steps into the role, and it’s pretty thankless: “D,” as he’s called by his blind, sainted co-worker/girlfriend Molly (Mary-Louise Parker), is transparently mentally unbalanced, and it is ridiculous to believe he isn’t caught the moment he starts his gruesome serial killing.

Red Dragon is inelegant, but for fans of Hopkins in the role, it’s fun at times. Graham may be afraid of Lecter, but he isn’t impressed by him, and it’s a tonic to watch him blithely threaten to walk when Lecter starts being withholding or hostile. Red Dragon’s problem, besides being directed by Ratner of course, is that it lacks the Grand Guignol sensibilities of the other films. There’s nothing in this movie as out-and-out horrifying or gross as in the previous two, no singular scene like Lecter’s gruesome escape from his captors in Lambs or the aforementioned brain-feeding scene to really stand out in the movie. It wasn’t weak enough to kill the series (I am not watching Hannibal Rising, even for money), but it didn’t live up to Hopkins’ first portrayal of Lecter, and he’s never stepped back into the role since.

Ultimately, Hopkins is what ties the Hannibal trilogy together, and while the movies may be of uneven quality, his performance, and the character’s seductive quality, is a constant throughout. It’s Hopkins’ performance more than anything else that makes this character one of cinema’s enduring ghouls.

Best Entry

No surprises here, I’m afraid: Hannibal is too in love with its custom opera soundtrack to worry about what the heck its chase scene is about and Red Dragon falls just short of squandering a stacked cast in service of a middling plot. Hopkins is great in all of these as his sneering, urbane madman, but The Silence of the Lambs is the essential watch, just for the compelling way Demme can frame a conversation as a blow-by-blow battle of wits.

Trilogy Trivia

I will rag on Ratner at every opportunity, and Red Dragon apparently gave his cast the chance to do the same. While everybody reportedly got a little annoyed with him, he and Norton in particular came into conflict a lot, with Ratner accusing Norton of trying to push for more directorial and rewriting influence. Norton also refused to incorporate a gesture or other easy-to-spot indicator that Graham, in his first meeting with Lecter, was afraid. (Norton is a good actor, and he certainly looks unsettled and disturbed, having to come face-to-face with the guy again.) The compromise, apparently, is the scene immediately after, when you can see sweat stains on Graham’s jacket. It’s not strictly necessary, but Ratner apparently had to hit the audience over the head with it.

Marathon Potential

Pretty good, especially if you and your friends decide to make a themed all-day cookout out of the event. I strongly recommend starting with Red Dragon for chronology and the fact you’ll be getting the weakest entry out of the way, followed by The Silence of the Lambs when you’re at your peak focus and Hannibal when you need something fun and pretty to have on while you’re serving that delightful, mysterious final meat course.

Join us next month for another Triple Threat, as we head south of the border for Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi Trilogy!

Kenneth Lowe is giving very serious thought to eating your wife. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky @illusiveken.bsky.social, and read more at his blog.

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