Back in 1991 I told Anthony Hopkins I thought he was a shoo-in for the Oscar for best supporting actor. “Best supporting actor?” he said, disappointedly. Well, I said, his was a comparatively small role, not on screen all that much and…
And I was quite wrong, of course. As the psychopathic, cannibalistic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter he walked away with the best actor gong and thoroughly deserved it. Present or not, his character, in all its cool, sophisticated evil, dominates the film.
Jonathan Demme’s movie, adapted from Thomas Harris’s novel, is a seamless blend of crime and horror — the crime, or its aftermath, pretty visible, the horror less seen and existing largely in the imagination of the viewer. Even so, if you’re at all squeamish, beware, for this is not one for the faint-hearted.
The leading player is Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee charged by her superiors with interviewing Lecter, a convicted serial killer, in the hope that he might help her track down another serial killer, known as Buffalo Bill, who has the charming habit of skinning his female victims.
Thus begins a cat and mouse game of quid pro quo, with Lecter offering insights into Buffalo Bill’s personality in exchange for details of Starling’s life and a transfer from an asylum for the criminally insane to another prison. In transit he murders his guards and escapes. Meanwhile, Starling is hot on the trail of Buffalo Bill. She discovers who he is, what he does for a living, the motive for his crimes and where he lives and sets off to nab him.
But this is a thriller, not just a whodunnit, and you know that before everything can be satisfactorily resolved our heroine is going to face deadly danger, maybe from the fugitive Lecter, more likely from Buffalo Bill. And so it transpires.
The film won all the top five Oscars — best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay writer (Ted Tally) and later the American Film Institute named Lecter as the number one film villain of all time. This is some accolade for Hopkins when you consider that he was on screen for little more than 16 minutes in a two-hour movie. Of course, the best this and the best that are always open to debate but it’s hard to argue with the AFI’s assessment.
This is a remarkable film with remarkable performances and a neat little twist at the end. I give nothing away when I say that Lecter remains at large because, as we know, there was a sequel.
But in the closing moments do watch closely for a couple of surprise appearances, a cameo from Demme and a familiar face as the “friend” that the suave cannibal plans to have for dinner — probably with fava beans and a nice Chianti.