Thirty years tracking Hannibal Lecter

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Imagine a world in which Hannibal Lecter was unknown.  It existed until 1981, when Thomas Harris published the novel ‘Red Dragon’.  My own relationship with the Hannibal Lecter myth now spans three decades and takes in unimaginable changes in the world as well as in myself, which is to be expected in the span of almost half a life.  That relationship began when I was an undergraduate student, still naïve and inexperienced in the ways of the world with which I coincided.  That’s why I think of it as a personal experience.  A journey that has significance to me because of the way I experienced it, not as an impersonal series of film reviews.  A journey that did not come about as unaffected by changes in the real world, and the fictional ones I traversed.

Manhunter (1986)

In 1987 or ‘88, at a time when I was a regular customer of the then exploding video rental market, I included in one weekly haul the film Manhunter.

It was a very different time.  VHS and Betamax tapes. Big, heavy, metal encased video players. Flickery CRT televisions. No high definition. But still more freedom than anything that had come before, which was mostly limited to super eight projector set-ups.

I did not go to the cinema often for the unpoliced and uniformly atrocious behaviour of the patrons.  There was no unbiquitous internet access.  There were only crude prototype PCs, and I didn’t own one, let alone play games on it.  TV was even crappier than it is today.

I was a journalism undergraduate, and my partner was a theatre arts student; one of the things we had in common was a love for film.  Video rentals were relatively cheap.  It was a reliably distracting way to pass an evening not spent clubbing, pubbing, or typing up assignments on my Adler Tippa portable typewriter. Most of the vailable films were pretty crappy, hastily released-for video productions. It was often touch and go what would turn up.

Manhunter’s starkly 1980s neon-chique video jacket told me only that William Petersen was the star and Michael Mann was the director and writer.  I knew nothing about Thomas Harris or Hannibal Lecter.  I had seen William Petersen as a minor character in the impressive Michael Mann film Thief, starring Jamess Caan and Jim Belushi.  Thief was probably Michael Mann’s obsession for more than a decade: he re-made it into the even more impressive Heat.  Petersen also impressed me in the much underrated To Live and Die in LA opposite Willem Dafoe.  And, of course, Michael Mann was known to me for the 1980s Zeitgeist Miami Vice TV show, with its celebration of yuppie kitsch and fetish violence.  Mann struck me even then as an aspiring Peckinpah, exploring and idolising American machismo, usually involving carefully observed gunplay.

Manhunter mesmerised me.  I remember thinking that I’d never seen anything like it.  To an extent the film has never really been surpassed, sitting in a category all of its own, like the television series Hannibal in the 2010s.

Brian Cox may not have been a better Lecter than Anthony Hopkins or Mads Mikkelsen, but he was powerfully malignant in his quite small, pivotal rôle, pared down even from the marginal presence of Lecter in Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel ‘Red Dragon’, which was the inspiration for the film.  Cox injected the character more with animal cunning and malevolence than cultured sociopathy.  In the credits he was listed as ‘Dr. Lecktor’, not ‘Lecter’, as in the novel.  He was clearly not regarded as a central element of the film.

The screen is dominated by Petersen’s monologues, reconstructing the ‘Tooth Fairy’ crimes committed by Francis Dolarhyde (‘Dollarhyde’ in the credits); you could appreciate how this submersion into the killer’s mind animated, repulsed, and excited him, carrying the risk of the mental illness that was hinted at in the film’s set-up and execution.

Mann also showed us the obverse of the unhealthy ability to sink into the killer’s mind: there are some sequences shot at Will Graham’s home, apparently somewhere in Florida.  Breath-taking vistas of blue sky, glistening silvery ocean, and white sand beaches.  The wholesomeness of Graham’s family, especially as symbolised by the unaffected sensuality of his wife, Molly, played by Kim Greist, who oozed feminine desirability without being reduced to a sex symbol of the kind so prevalent in American culture of the time (think the early Madonna).  There’s a long close-up of Graham just staring at her, captivated by everything that is good about his life with her, to remind us just how bad it is for Graham to dive again into the mind of a psychopath.

Almost as captivating as Petersen is Tom Noonan as the serial killer Francis Dolarhyde.  Noonan’s physical attributes and quiet understatement were scary then, and remain much more menacing today than any number of splatter film killers.  I wonder whether many people recognised and connected the wings of blood in the final scenes with William Blake’s ‘The Great Red Dragon’, which featured much more prominently in the novel, and the Manhunter re-make in 2002 as The Red Dragon, than they did in Mann’s script.  I think he expected his audience to know of William Blake, and to pick up on the passing references without the emphasis novelist Thomas Harris and Red Dragon director Brett Ratner gave it.  It is another way in which the world was different then.  Audiences were expected to bring an educated subjectivity to the spectacle.  And that is a theme that ties together my own thoughts about the Hannibal Lecter mythos.

In Manhunter I liked Dennis Farina as Jack Crawford, but I think it’s pretty obvious that Laurence Fishburne came to own that character through his outstanding performance in the television show, eclipsing even Scott Glenn’s tightly packaged sexual tension with Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

I remember that I watched Manhunter three times in the week I had it as a rental.  There was something about the care Michael Mann took in staging his principal sets.  The vivid blues he used to highlight safety.  The clinical white that served as the backdrop to inexplicable terror.  The electronic ‘mood’ music that has remained a Mann signature since the Miami Vice television series, including especially Michael Rubini’s ‘Graham’s Theme’ and Kitarō’s ‘Seiun + Hikari No Sono’, but also several tracks by The Reds.

The story of a retired FBI investigator – what we would now call a ‘profiler’ – unwillingly pulled back into solving serial killings after having suffered hideous physical and psychological scars from tracking down another serial killer, Dr Hannibal Lecter, was probably the first example I had seen of what are now generically called ‘police procedurals’, and that became so enormously popular later on with the various CSIs and similar television shows.  It isn’t entirely an accident that William Peterson became one of the stars of the first CSI show as Gil Grissom, who had a lot in common with the Will Graham character.

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When I came to read the novel ‘Red Dragon’ in the early 1990s, I did not take any great care, and used it as an episodic night-time bed-side read.  To put me to sleep.  It did not leave much of an impression me at the time, possibly because I was deeply involved in professional endeavours that demanded a great deal of reading and writing from me.  I suspect these demands dulled my appreciation of other people’s writing, and of the capacity to switch from an empirically analytical frame of mind to a less literal and aesthetic one.  The kind necessary to enjoy literature.

What I did note was that Mann, who wrote script himself, had omitted from Manhunter almost the entire Dolarhyde psychosis, featuring an obsession with William Blake’s Red Dragon paintings and the almost schizophrenic, persistent presence of a deceased but still menacing grandmother.  Perhaps Mann did so because it was too reminiscent of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1962).  Maybe he did not want to channel the then extant stereotypes of homicidal psychopaths, which were definitely Bates, and Jack Nicholson’s manic Jack Torrance from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).

I didn’t return to the whole series of Harris novels featuring Lecter until the Christmas/New Year break of 2015-2016.  Thomas Harris had by then prefaced ‘Red Dragon’ with some evocative commentary about his writing process:

… I could see the investigator Will Graham in the home of the victim family, in the house where they all died, watching the dead family’s home movies. I did not know at the time who was committing the crimes. I pushed to find out, to see what came before and what came after. I went through the home, the crime scene, in the dark with Will and could see no more and no less than he could see.

Sometimes at night I would leave the lights on in my little house [in the Mississippi Delta in 1979] and walk across the flat fields. When I looked back from a distance, the house looked like a boat at sea, and all around me the vast Delta night.

I soon became acquainted with the semi-feral dogs who roamed free across the fields in what was more or less a pack.  Some of them had casual arrangements with the families of farm workers, but much of the time they had to forage for themselves.  In the hard winter months with the ground frozen and dry, I started giving them dog food and soon they were going through fifty pounds of dog food a week.  They followed me around, and they were a lot of company—tall dogs, short ones, relatively friendly dogs and big rough dogs you could not touch.  They walked with me in the fields at night and when I couldn’t see them, I could hear them all around me, breathing and snuffling along in the dark.  When I was working in the cabin, they waited on the front porch, and when the moon was full they would sing.

Standing baffled in the vast fields outside my cabin in the heart of the night, the sound of breathing all around me, my vision still clouded with the desk lamp, I tried to see what had happened at the crime scene. All that came to my dim sight were loomings, intimations, the occasional glow when a retina not human reflected the moon.  There was no question that something had happened. You must understand that when you are writing a novel you are not making anything up. It’s all there and you just have to find it.

Will Graham had to ask somebody, he needed some help and he knew it. He knew where he had to go, long before he let himself think about it. I knew Graham had been severely damaged in a previous case. I knew he was terribly reluctant to consult the best source he had.  At the time, I myself was accruing painful memories every day, and in my evening’s work I felt for Graham.

So it was with some trepidation that I accompanied him to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and there, maddeningly, before we could get down to business, we encountered the kind of fool you know from conducting your own daily business, Dr. Frederick Chilton, who delayed us for two or three interminable days.

I found that I could leave Chilton in the cabin with the lights on and look back at him from the dark, surrounded by my friends the dogs. I was invisible then, out there in the dark, the way I am invisible to my characters when I’m in a room with them and they are deciding their fates with little or no help from me.

Finished with the tedious Chilton at last, Graham and I went on to the Violent Ward and the steel door slammed shut behind us with a terrific noise.

Will Graham and I, approaching Dr. Lecter’s cell. Graham was tense and I could smell fear on him. I thought Dr. Lecter was asleep and I jumped when he recognized Will Graham by scent without opening his eyes.

I was enjoying my usual immunity while working, my invisibility to Chilton and Graham and the staff, but I was not comfortable in the presence of Dr. Lecter, not sure at all that the doctor could not see me.

Like Graham, I found, and find, the scrutiny of Dr. Lecter uncomfortable, intrusive, like the humming in your thoughts when they X-ray your head. Graham’s interview with Dr. Lecter went quickly, in real time at the speed of swordplay, me following it, my frantic notes spilling into the margin and over whatever surface was uppermost on my table. I was worn out when it was over—the incidental clashes and howls of an asylum rang on in my head, and on the front porch of my cabin in Rich thirteen dogs were singing, seated with their eyes closed, faces upturned to the full moon. Most of them crooned their single vowel between O and U, a few just hummed along.

I had to revisit Graham’s interview with Dr. Lecter a hundred times to understand it and to get rid of the superfluous static, the jail noises, the screaming of the damned that had made some of the words hard to hear.

I still didn’t know who was committing the crimes, but I knew for the first time that we would find out, and that we would arrive at him. I also knew the knowledge would be terribly, perhaps tragically, expensive to others in the book. And so it turned out.

For me these words are more powerful than anything which followed in the novels.  I got a real sense of the primordial and eternal human instinct to fear the unknown, the way it might have been on the African plains a million years ago.  Predators sensed and heard at night, but unseen, and doing things only the daylight evidence will later reveal.  So long as you weren’t one of the overnight prey.

I don’t suppose Harris was conscious that he was creating one of the most notorious villains of all time back there, in the late 1970s Mississippi township of Rich, on the Carter Bayou, but his words explain quite eloquently for me how it came about.  I think I have sensed that feeling of being watched by unseen eyes late at night in remote locations.  And that’s why it works.  I think we are all still subject to the vestigial genetic memories of crouching together at night, afraid of the noises in the dark, more because only our imaginations told us what was out there in the black, making always more fearsome images for ourselves than we could explain rationally.

Hannibal Lecter is out there somewhere, in the perpetual darkness of everything that drives fear.  His deeds made worse by not quite knowing how we will encounter him, and what will become of us if we do.  And definitely made worse by Lecter’s knowledge of what he would do, hinted at by Lecter’s line, so perfectly inflected by Brian Cox in Manhunter: ‘Because, my dear Will, if this Pilgrim imagines he has a relationship with the full moon, he might go outside and look at it.  Have you seen blood in moonlight, Will?  It appears quite black.  If one were nude, it would be better to have outdoor privacy for this sort of thing.’

There’s an addendum to the making of the Manhunter film. In the 1980s Michael Mann was executive producer of the cop show Miami Vice, which included an episode, ‘Shadow in the Dark’ (season three, episode six) aired on 31 October 1986, which was essentially a version of the Manhunter story adapted for the show’s cast.

A detective is driven insane by trying to get into the mind-set of a psycho killer, and Sonny Crocket (Don Johnson) heads down the same path to insanity in order to catch the killer.

It seems Michael Mann was working through the ideas behind the story even after Manhunter was released in August 1986. Perhaps as obsessed with the mind of a psucho killer as his fictional detectives.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The early 1990s had quite a different feel from the 1980s, especially in the West Australian capital, Perth, where I lived and worked.  Things came to us late from Los Angeles, New York, and London, but they were also different because Australia had a counter-cyclical Labor government while the rest of the West was swept with Reaganomics and Thatcherism, creating social norms based on an arrogant, assertive, and often self-destructive yuppie ethic.  It was a political economy re-made into an aggressively extractive undertaking that created a new kind of class warfare, though this was overshadowed by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, hubristically taken to mean that Reaganomics and Thatcherism had vanquished the old Cold War enemy, and that the economics of plutocratic greed was superior to any other kind.

I remember that the more brash and arrogant yuppie sensibilities of the later 1980s faded into a more Christo-fascist puritanism which favoured a less garish but equally sado-masochist machismo, dressed up in somber suits, white shirts, dour ties, and faux Christian rhetorics.

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I saw some of that more somber tone in Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme’s mises en scène, and photographer Tak Fujimoto’s soft-focus on earth tones in the visualisation of Quantico, Lecter’s cell block, and killer Jame Gumb’s home.

To me this always suggested that monsters lurk in the oldest established American settlements.  I’m sure that wasn’t as intentional as it came across, but it echoed what I’d read about Wisconsin graverobber and murderer Ed Gein, who was probably at least a part-inspiration for Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre misfits, and for Harris’s serial killers.

It’s hard for me to tell whether Virginia, Pennsylvania and other parts of not-quite New England are really as creepy as Demme and Fujimoto made them look, but it worked well to inject a note of a deep rural sadness that might have been emphasised by the gradual immiseration of non-urban Americans robbed blind by Reaganonomics.  That mood was definitely underscored by Howard Shore’s wistful, haunting film score.

There was something else about the film I found pretty creepy, which was the apparent fragility of Starling in the stuffy society of law enforcement males.  Even the uptight Crawford, played so unlike many other Scott Glenn characters, seemed to be more a sexually interested voyeur of Starling than a mentor.  Oddly enough, Hannibal Lecter was her only real friend and ally.  I thought of this as am unlikely metaphor for the rape of American society by its establishment, and its equally unlikely hero being a psychopathic killer so bad there was no real clinical terminology that would do him justice.

If there was one stand-out moment when I felt this misogynistic menace most powerfully, it was Anthony Heald’s excellent performance as Lecter’s gaoler, the loathsome Dr Frederick Chilton.  Specifically his really repulsive come-on to Starling when she first visited Lecter at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  These were lines delivered with contempt for the woman at the same time as expressing a clear sexual interest.

Lecter, on the other hand, represents an insightful, prescient affinity for Starling as a young woman beset by predatory men, not just as an FBI agent.

Harris’s novel does dwell at length on Starling’s inferiority complex about being a country girl patronised by men at every turn, and haunted by her inability to be the kind of saviour in her world she aspired to be.  Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally were sensitive to that undertone.  It informed her riveting confession to Lecter about not being able to rescue the lambs from slaughter; a remarkable performance from Jodie Foster.

But the novel and the film are also different things with different qualities.

There is no questioning that the temper of the times was all about the end of the Cold War, and the retreat of the West’s worst enemies.  Was Lecter a powerful reminder of those enemies?  A contretemps to the dour primness of Reagan’s USA?  It’s hard to remember everything about the era now, and to explain it to people who might not have been born, or not culturally and politically aware.  But there was no divorcing the film from the mood of its epoch: something that isn’t under question is that the work encapsulated something deeply emotional and stirring to Americans at the time. It won an armful of awards and was named as historically significant by the Library of Congress.  Clearly it did capture the Zeitgeist the way I thought Manhunter had before it, but with a much more emphatic endorsement for doing so.

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter was definitely the anchor of the film, eclipsing all the other performances, which were not inconsiderable.  He was what made the fiction unpalatable and disturbing, as if it had been a reality that could not be avoided.  Ted Levine as James Gumb – AKA Buffalo Bill, who ‘skins his humps’ – was a fine sociopath, with unforgettable scenes imagining himself transformed into a woman.  But Hopkins was the smouldering Mephistopheles to Starling’s Faust.  Hopkins offered us a performance worthy of high accolades in the middle of the film, when he explains to Starling the nature of Gumb’s insanity, and the basis of her own psyche, captive to a cloying sense of powerless victimhood.

Lecter’s escape and subsequent stalking of Chilton remain among the most absorbing sequences in film history, in my estimation rivalled in skin-crawling menace only by Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady in John Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear (1962).  Cold.  Calculated.  Unstoppable.  And fuelled by something not quite explicable, but fearsome precisely for its alien, inscrutable pathology.

Starling’s foray into Gumb’s house is almost as good, edited together to make this the explanation why people are scared of the dark in creaky old houses.  Particularly the cellars, which never fail to evoke a chilling Gothic mood, maybe because they can seem so like a dungeon.  That was surely the case for Gumb’s labyrinthine basement.

Years later, when reading the novels, I felt vindicated in my observations about the sexism encountered by Starling, which was much more strongly emphasised by Harris: a relentlessly vicious, malicious, predatory attitude directed at Starling by her male colleagues, demanding she be a courtesan rather than a respected agent.  That petty malice is still part of American society, manifested as a malignant tumour on the Republican social vision.  You see it most often in social media these days, when used as crude taunts and threats of murder by particularly perverted forms of rape.  It may be that Harris had experience of it through his family in small-town America.  It was there in Demme’s work, but as a more timid hint.

It’s a malice conspicuously absent from Lecter’s persona.  His last words to Starling are ‘I’ve no plans to call on you, Clarice. The world is more interesting with you in it.’

But it returns with a vengeance in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal.

There is a detail about the The Silence of the Lambs that might not mean much to anyone but devoted cinephiles: Demme had approached Dino De Laurentiis, producer of Manhunter, for the rights to the characters in the novel ‘Red Dragon’. De Laurentiis was contemptuous of Manhunter for not making him the money he had hoped for. He let Demme use the characters for free. That decision was to have unforseen consequences for De Laurentiis’s further exploitation of his copyright, especially for the 2010s television series.

Hannibal (2001)

Ten years after Silence of the Lambs, Ridley Scott leads his film with Starling’s struggle against petty men who desire her, and opt to destroy her professionally for her lack of subservient compliance.  For her failure to be submissively sexually available to them.

We see it too through Mason Verger’s confession to Starling of his predatory sexual perversions, which led Hannibal to drug him and then have him cut off his angelic face as punishment for his paedophile crimes.  Verger is played masterfully through heavy makeup by Gary Oldman.  It took me a long time to recognise him in the rôle.  It transpires he was omitted from the original credits at his own request after the producers refused to grant him a higher billing than Hopkins and Julianne Moore.

Setting the scene this way at the beginning of the film serves to set up the same kind of sexual tension and ambiguity between Starling, this time played by Julianne Moore, and Lecter rather than the one with Crawford that existed in Silence of the Lambs.

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It seems, in hindsight, a fitting anchor in its open acknowledgement of aggressively asserted male sexuality as a perk of power in Bill Clinton’s America.  Harris doesn’t locate his stories in national political frameworks, but he was quite strident about bureaucratic power plays, and FBI agent Paul Krendler became another loathsome Chiltonesque character, lecherous and destructive in his pursuit of office politics to advance his own career at Starling’s cost because she had rejected his advances some years prior: ‘That was a long time ago, and besides, this town is full of cornpone country pussy.

‘That said, I wouldn’t mind having a go with you now if you want to reconsider.’

The film owed it to Harris’s story to include this theme, because the script excised his vivid descriptions of the unspeakably perverted, misogynist cruelty of Mason Verger to his sister, and the pass at which Starling becomes Hannibal’s companion.

Contemporary and subsequent trade press reports suggest that Harris’s novel caused quite a bit of consternation.  Demme and Foster were said to have thought the story excessively violent and convoluted.  Scriptwriters Ted Tally and Steven Zallian turned down the job for similar reasons. though Zallian relented after David Mamet wrote a first draft.

Based on press snippets, Dino De Laurentiis comes across as a brash, arrogant, greedy producer who may not have been the best negotiator for a good team.  I do love the anecdote where Ridley Scott, still finishing Gladiator, glanced at the heavy script and remarked he wasn’t ready to do a film with elephants and alpine crossings.

I know only in hindsight, after reading the novel, that it was an ambitious undertaking to tell three stories in one: the Barney-Verger-Margot axis; the Lecter-Pazzi-Verger axis; and the Starling-Verger-Krendler-Lecter axis.  There was enough material here for two or three films, but not more than one ‘blockbuster’, as producers with accounting personalities like to call financially successful films, despite the unsavoury nature of a term referencing a cruel weapon designed to drop through several floors of tenement buildings to explode only at the bottom, for maximum carnage.

However it may have come about, large parts of the novel’s intentions are missing from the film.  Not because it is inconceivable, but because it is unconscionable to the hypocrites in the American film industry, who will not allow the black hats to succeed, or the white hats to join the black hats in that success.  As if that denial on film could contradict its reality in life.

I gained the impression that by the time Harris wrote ‘Hannibal’, he had a measure of financial success that allowed him to write convincingly about first-hand experience of Italian settings.  Lecter’s exile in Florence was certainly visualised as sumptuous and steeped in history by Ridley Scott and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer John Mathieson.

Lecter is hunted by an ambitious ageing cop, Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, played by Giancarlo Giannini, hoping to earn the money he needs to maintain a beautiful, younger, end expensive wife from Mason Verger, who wants Lecter returned for his own private execution.  There’s a masterful scene in which Lecter catches Pazzi on camera, as if to assert how he is keeping Pazzi in his sights as much as Pazzi is watching Lecter. In that scene Hopkins again affects the stance we first saw him adopt in Silence of the Lambs, feet together but perfectly balanced, as if ready for a martial choreography.  Arms at his sides, neat but unnatural, like a mannered butler.  You almost see him float rather than walk in his dark pyjamas, worn with the grace and ease of a lounge suit, as he converses barefooted with his antagonist.  Despite this calm and mannered poise, Hopkins manages to inject into the entire posture a hint of the kinetic energy you expect from a diver, standing with feet together high above the water, ready to execute a complex and carefully thought-out sequence of acrobatics.

I sometimes wonder where Hopkins found the inspiration for his characterisation.  He had come to the project this time from a bruising experience with the film Titus, which was itself a shocking tale of depraved sociopathy.  Perhaps his mood was Shakespeare and disdain for Hollywood.

The defenestration of Pazzi by Lecter, framed as an homage to Pazzi’s ancestor’s own murder hundreds of years earlier, was a nice touch.

Julianne Moore was introduced as Starling in a gruelling FBI stakeout gone horribly wrong.  When I saw it, I thought it just wasn’t Starling, but I changed my mind.  The material called for some pretty ugly action shots, even when excluding all of Harris’s plot twists, but Moore ended up doing a more believable job than I think Foster might have been capable of.

All I said about the lechery Starling experienced as personal affront notwithstanding, I found myself physically drawn to the character as portrayed by Moore.  A man might have had no way to reach Lecter except by fatal duel.  As was the case in the television series still more than a decade down the track.  But Starling managed it with her femininity and her fragility, which were not necessarily causally linked.  I realised that this personal interpretation came from observing Moore’s Starling with Lecter’s eyes.  And that Lecter was the hero of the piece despite his heinous villainy.

Ridley Scott was right to suggest in an interview that the nature of the story changed after the opera in Florence that sealed Pazzi’s fate and began Lecter’s hunting expedition back in the USA.  Things do become surreal and grotesque from about the 90-minute mark in the 132-minute film.  The entire character of the film changes.  The opening stakeout shots and the post-Italian revenge plots are shot in almost stark contrasts and colours, abandoning the soft focus and inkiness of the Italian scenes.

It struck me when I first saw the film that the FBI couldn’t have been quite so incompetent as to be denied by Mason Verger and Paul Krendler.  Today I’m not so sure.  Gross incompetence seems to be as characteristic of the American police state as its overreach.

The failed Verger revenge on Lecter, and the counterbalancing, carefully prepared revenge on Paul Krendler by Lecter, follow each other too closely to have the necessary dramatic impact.  The omission, in the feast of pigs, of Verger’s sister, her lesbian lover, and Nurse Barney deny it some of the psychological legitimacy it had in the novel.  Compressed for the sake of time and budget?  Who can know after all this time?  Maybe there was more film on Pietro Scalia’s cutting room floor than we can guess at.

I think the final moments in the film are its biggest weakness.  Lecter would not have sacrificed his own hand, even for Starling.  Making an unwitting cannibal of the child on his flight to new horizons, though, was an unintended entrée to much of what made the television series work years later.

It was now almost fifteen years since I’d seen Manhunter.  I still thought of it as a work in its own category.  A work that was part of its time much as the succeeding films were of their own.  And I was an observer moving through those times, changed by them the way people are.  I had by now seen and done things that made me think differently about the world and the possibility of a Hannibal Lecter in it.

The New York towers had come down and the beginnings of a police state had emerged in the USA.  ‘Rendition’ and ‘black sites’ had already entered a specialist lexicon.  Specially trained people were doing in the world what had been the domain of espionage novels and heavily redacted transcripts of secret testimony.  In such a world I thought the Lecter of Hannibal wasn’t just credible, but possibly already mundane.  The next film in the franchise all but made that an explicit statement.

Red Dragon (2002)

Coming so close on the heels of Hannibal, Red Dragon – a remake of Manhunter – must have been in production concurrently with Hannibal.  Oddly enough I can’t find any mention of this concurrence in the trade press.  The De Laurentiis family owned both ‘properties’ and would have had to make at least plans for both films at the same time to meet their release dates.  I can’t quite fathom how two such different films could have been made so close together.  But their co-existence might help explain the changes in the visual style I saw in Hannibal.

Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, and Harvey Keitel are fine actors, but were oddly wooden and uninspiring in Red Dragon.  Stilted going through their lines, sometimes word for word the same as Manhunter’s: the script was written by Ted Tally, who’d also written Silence of the Lambs, but Tally didn’t plagiarise so much as lift the same lines from the novel.

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Hopkins was indistinguishable from his other Lecter performances, but he was not the focus in this story.  Francis Dolarhyde, played by Fiennes, was the centrepiece, with his obsessive quest to be desired as the emerging reincarnation of William Blake’s red dragon, while being tormented by memories of his vindictively cruel, deceased grandmother.  Fiennes did not carry off the depth required to make it work.  I cannot explain it since he is capable of it.  The same way Norton was not equal to the role of Will Graham.  Nor was Marie Louise Parker as Molly Graham, Harvey Keitel as Jack Crawford, and Emily Watson as Reba McClane (Dolarhyde’s lover).  Were they all hurried too much?  Too few takes?  Too little time to prepare?  I don’t know.  Except that they failed to be comvincing as almost as a group effort. Even Danny Elfman’s score struck me as pedestrian and indifferent.

Curiously, Anthony Heald returned as the sleazy Dr Chilton, again managing to perfectly capture his initial bureaucratic, self-serving repulsiveness.  And Philip Seymour Hoffman was good as Freddy Lounds, the yellow press journalist from the Tattler who becomes instrumental in causing Dolarhyde to give himself away.  Stephen Lang had been good in the rôle in Manhunter, but Hoffman was better.  Less the flashy Miami Vice yuppie, and more the seedy, contemptuous character you might really associate with gutter press.  Perhaps, though, that is a matter of personal perspective and the passage of time.

Director Brett Ratner may have been too pragmatic to inject the film with much of an atmosphere.  Or maybe he decided the story didn’t need anything but that special kind of literalist realism so popular in American cinema today.  Dante Spinotti was the cinematographer for both Manhunter and Red Dragon, but this time clearly without the strong visual influence of Mann, whose style is unique enough to be observable across his work as his own.  Spinotti says he was influenced by Steven Soderberghs’s Ocean’s Eleven to push his film stock a couple of stops for greater contrast and more saturated colours.  There was certainly an element of what would later become an obsession, in film and photography, with colour-enhanced hyperreality.  Quite unlike the more blurred, and sometimes inky tones of the Italian scenes in Hannibal, of the subdued earth-tones of Silence of the Lambs, but nothing as impressionistic as Mann’s use of strong, flat colours to accent the mood he is looking to create.  Yet closer to the second part of Hannibal in some ways.

It was probably instructive for cinephiles to get the entire interaction between Graham and Lecter on film, but reading the novel would have been more insightful and entertaining.

It might just be a personal thing, having seen Manhunter all those years ago, when it was a work very much in keeping with its times, but I still think it superior to Red Dragon, which I see as devoid of soul or anchor.  Red Dragon becomes just another routine police thriller, removing the special, fearsome menace from Dolarhyde and Lecter, almost as a deliberate normalisation of subject matter that had thus far succeeded for its exposition of freakishly abnormal pathology. 

I am left to wonder whether this film did not come at the beginning of a new period for Hollywood.  One dominated by superheroes and one-dimensional narratives.  Influenced, perhaps by the political imposition of a post-Cold War need for a new certainty about good and evil.  About a police state apparatus that could enforce a new McCarthyism in which evil can only ever be banal if the good is not also to be feared.

It was certainly a time long enough into the progressive dismantling of the education system, begun in the Reagan/Thatcher era, to give rise to audiences that could no longer interpret nuance and metaphor in their entertainments.  Audiences that require narrative literalism and spoon-fed realism.  Audiences clueless about allusions to the canon of classics, and even pop culture intertextuality. I recall reding film reviews in that era in which it was earnestly proposed that fictional stories were not authentic enough about this or that historical or mechanical detail.  A demand for realistic minutiae that used to be anathema to fiction, and almost always the destruction of the best stories, which require a degree of ambiguity to allow for personal interpretations and meanings.

That kind of literalism had not yet undermined the commercial success of Hannibal, which rested heavily on Scott’s staging of Lecter’s erudition, featuring his conspicuous display of cultural knowledge, of languages, of historical trends in art and literature.  But it also didn’t prevent Red Dragon from making big box office returns.  A turning point in cinematic history, then?

Red Dragon ends with Hannical Lecter being told by Dr Chilton of a visitor from the FBI, and Lecter asking the unanswered question: ‘What’s her name?’ It is tempting to see in this ending a parting shot at the producers of Silence of the Lambs, who owned the film rights to everything that was unique to Harris’s characters in that film, restricting De Laurentiis’s options for re-making that film, or exploiting its storyline elsewhere. But that would have been petty, wouldn’t it? And Ridley Scott would have had to be in on it, wouldn’t he?

Hannibal Rising (2007)

Dino De Laurentiis owned the cinematic rights to the Lecter character and announced he would make a Lecter prequel with or without Thomas Harris’s involvement, prompting Harris to write the 2006 novel ‘Hannibal Rising’, and the screenplay to the film, released in 2007.  I think Harris was rushed and not at his best.  It was an ambitious undertaking for him to strip his character bare, exposing all his secrets, precisely in the way I suggested good fiction does not.

But it was ambitious also for the production team, to shoot in Prague with a cast unknown in the USA, and with novice director Peter Webber.  An unkind view would be to see the entire project as the pursuit of a quick buck with no sympathy for the story and its characters.

Tracing back the personal history of the most notorious serial killer in history is not an easy thing.  And Hannibal Lecter was certainly that celebrity psychopath in the now universal mythology spawned by the previous films.  I wonder whether Harris didn’t hurt himself a little imagining it, the way he described Will Graham being hurt by imagining the mind of the killer, but more by prostituting himself to De Laurentiis than by imagining Hannibal’s origins.

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The overly long exposition of a childhood exposure to cannibalism, even in the grimness of second world war Lithuania, was tortuous to endure.  I suppose that was the point.  But it doesn’t make the film more watchable.  Or maybe it does.  For a certain kind of person.  It sees all the potential Freudian horrors unleashed to explain the making of a monster.  Perhaps it is best that most of us don’t recollect early childhood.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether the child actors in the first part of the film knew what grisly drama they were playing out.  It was pretty fearful for me to watch.  Maybe kids are tougher than we care to remember.  I acknowledge that the fairy tales of my own childhood included cannibalism too, albeit as fairy tales.  But the Lecter origin story demands that we understand how a mind snaps.  Or maybe just how it forms a different kind of normalcy.  How war doesn’t just end when the armistice is signed.  That the experiences of it last a lifetime, even if they are out of sight, invisible to most people.  Perhaps Harris was interpreting his own experiences of returned soldiers and PTSD.  That was, by this time, a sombre reality facing many Americans.

Frenchman Gaspard Ulliel does well as the adolescent Hannibal, seduced and mentored by his Japanese aunt.  The dog bite on his face is perfect for the rising fiendishness in his demeanour.  He falters a little late in the films, but that’s a risk when you hire models as actors; every now and then I still see Marky Mark in Mark Wahlberg.  It isn’t a fault, exactly, but acting is best when the character, not the actor, is all you see.

Ulliel was better than Gong Li, who didn’t quite carry off her rôle.  She’s a sensual woman, sure.  But most women are.  In the end, though, she doesn’t serve to project anything more than the desultory function of some imagined social conscience that has been ascribed to women since Wealhtheow in Beowulf.  In this case it was also a failed social conscience, with Hannibal disappearing to go on to his American career.

Rhys Ifans as Vladis Grutas was at times scary the way I have seen in some low-brow thugs.  The way he wasn’t in Berlin Station, but with an earlier hint of a range and register that hasn’t yet found its zenith.

Staging the flowering of the Lecter insanity in late 1940s or early ‘50s France was genial.  The Czech atmosphere seemed easy to translate to the France of a bygone era, as a never-never land in which unspeakable things might well have happened out of sight and mind.  I wonder, though, whether that was only the case because I am unfamiliar with the France of those years.

The novel did not have the familiar patterns of the first three.  The film certainly doesn’t, though it was apparently a financial success, making a profit over budget.  The novel was sometimes a chore, and I found the film unwatchable in places; I needed many breaks and almost grudging returns to the DVD before I had finished all two hours of it.

Frankly, De Laurentiis may have killed off his own franchise by being too greedy.  Hannibal was a better character for not being exposed to quite such an intrusive scrutiny.  It was a conclusion I reached many years before Bryan Fuller did, though Fuller’s confirmation makes me more certain about my own interpretation.

Re-imagined for television (2013-2015)

By 2013 the world had changed again, and I was now almost 30 years older than when I saw Manhunter for the first time.  Time and tide leave indelible marks on us all.  Perceptions mature and change in ways we could not have imagined, and entirely new generations rise who simply don’t recall the details of being alive in a world that existed before they were born.  The paradox of that circumstance is that when I was younger, I could not foresee the quality of greater age, but with greater age comes the ability to reflect on youth.  It is the cruelty of the unidirectional arrow of space and time, and it explains a lot about older people being thought to thinking younger ones naïve or ignorant.  Or both. And vice versa.

I’m not really making a case for the wisdom of the wizened, but I am trying to explain how fictions and film pitched at a younger audience can appear more shallow and one-dimensional as time passes.  This is not a snobbery so much as an inevitable human dynamic, probably experienced most strongly when parents watch their children discover for the first time stories and experiences their fathers and mothers have carried internally for decades.

I felt about a lot of television and film that way in the early 2010s: second-hand and dumbed down versions of originals I remember from earlier times, which were probably regarded by my parents’ generation as dumbed-down versions of even earlier stories not yet transferred to television.

With the decline of risk-taking in Hollywood, which has been sticking pretty much to formulaic, special effects-driven, super hero fare (and rom-coms as appeasement to vacuously conceived female audiences), with increasingly rare big budget literary ventures, I was sceptical that the Hannibal Lecter franchise could be resurrected at all.

The world had by now experienced the final act of Reaganomics with the global financial crisis, open and repeated breaches of war crimes conventions by the West, the wilful immiseration of Western populations for the sake of obscene and unproductive plutocrat profits, and a black Democrat president in the USA who was more conservative than Richard Nixon, thinking nothing of frequently exercising his outrageous power to assassinate anyone anywhere in the world.

What sort of villain could shock us in that world?  What could be more sociopathic than the new normal?

It seems Bryan Fuller, the creator of the Hannibal television series, had ideas to make Lecter compelling again even in that context.

The brand had kind of been oversaturated, overexposed, and de-fanged in a way. Once you see your villain as a young child and get to know how they became the villain, they are immediately less interesting, because the mystery has been taken away from you. Nobody cares why Darth Vader is Darth Vader, they just want Darth Vader to be as cool as possible and showing him as a little kid actually takes away his power. And Hannibal Rising took a lot of Hannibal’s power away from him. I love The Silence of the Lambs, I love Manhunter, I love Red Dragon, and I love Ridley Scott’s Hannibal movie … Then Hannibal Rising came along and the character sort of died. Everybody lost interest in him because they are like, “You showed him with his pants down and we didn’t like his underwear.” I saw it as a great opportunity to not only reintroduce this character that everybody is fully aware of, but also to reexamine him and give him a life that no one has seen in any of the adaptations before. So I felt like there was new real estate to be explored that made it very attractive. And the idea of bringing that character to a television audience and being able to tell the story of this friendship between two heterosexual guys that is so intimate and passionate and destructive was really kind of an opportunity for me to deconstruct male friendship in a way that I had always been fascinated with as a gay man, being outside of a heterosexual male dynamic, where I look at heterosexual male friendships in a completely alien way. I don’t identify with so much of that dynamic that I was like, “I want to explore that in a way that is totally psychological, completely cinematic, and as beautiful in its filmmaking as the title character itself.”

It’s a mark of Brian Fuller’s creative genius that he could re-imagine the characters as stunningly as he did.

I saw everything Fuller talked about above quite powerfully through all three seasons of his show, often wondering whether we were getting a coy version of an unconsummated homosexual relationship in the tensions between the resurrected, but now unmarried Will Graham, played by Hugh Dancy, and a kind of sartorially splendid aesthete Lecter, re-interpreted brilliantly by former ballet dancer, Mads Mikkelsen, who did at times come across like he was wardrobed by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, who moves with that indefinably graceful dancer’s gait, and whose face, especially his eyes and lips, hint at a barely restrained erotic sensuousness deliberately enhanced by the Veronica Lake lock of hair occasionally almost covering his left eye.

I confess I never liked Hugh Dancy’s overly emotionally charged interpretation of Graham; it seemed to lack the hard edges I had come to expect from a man who could overcome his own fears to expose and then face down serial killers.  I suspect it only worked because Mikkelsen, and Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, counterbalanced Graham’s permanent crypto-hysteria with a much more cold and restrained edge.

Fuller told AV Club in 2013 that his intention was to see:

… the Will Graham I had always understood from the literature and turning up some of those dials, because there are references in the literature about how he takes on the cadence of someone else’s speech when he’s talking to them, which is reflective of certain personality disorders and also a condition called echopraxia—which is when we have an impairment of the mirror neurons around our brain—and those things that help us socialize initially can prevent socialization as we mature, so I thought that was an interesting thing to explore. Also, to give him a vulnerability that I think the character hadn’t had before onscreen. We had always seen him as a stoic leading man and highly competent at his job, and I thought if we take some of these elements that we’re seeing in his internal life and make them a little more external, then we have a new version of the character that is still very honest to how he’s portrayed in the literature, but gives you a greater vulnerability for a man who has to put himself in the shoes of serial killers on a weekly basis and the detrimental effects that can take on his psyche.

The first season focused heavily on the developing relationship between Graham, Crawford, and Lecter, hinting here and there at the more pedestrian television series Dexter, which surely must have been influenced by the established myth of Lecter.  Fuller did things less mundanely, though.  He displayed an influence – probably Baz Luhrman – for grand artistic visualisation, particularly of grotesquely horrifying mises en scène.  This included the time slice metronome device and Graham’s shocking re-enactment of the crimes he investigates, but especially the recurring and developing stag motif, probably hinting at the primordial id underlying the frenzied execution of the crimes.  I will never forget the mushroom people, the totem pole of corpses, the ‘winged’ couple cut and posed to resemble praying angels, the human sculpture in the silo, and the entire third season, which was more like richly layered visual art on film than television narrative.  At times any coherent narrative simply disappears in those later moving frescos.  But it worked.  Because television is a visual medium in which dialogue is a distant second when it comes to the potential for impact.

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I mentioned to a friend that I think it would be possible to watch the third season entirely without sound or subtitles, just for the visual impact.  I can’t think of any other television show for which that is true.

I didn’t know this until I read about it, but there is a scene in the first episode shot in a red and white bathroom mirroring the one in The Shining, where Jack Torrance hallucinates a conversation with the murderous butler Delbert Grady.  In the ‘Sorbet’ episode Graham is shown in another bathroom, this time mirroring The Shining’s room 237, where Jack Torrance is beckoned by a bathing woman who turns into a rotting corpse in front of his eyes.  Fuller acknowledged these references, using them to illustrate the mental disintegration of Graham the way Kubrick had used his own scenes to illustrate Torrance’s descent into insanity.  Where Michael Mann might have turned away from intertextual stereotypes, Fuller embraced them, even if it is Will Graham who adopts their characteristics rather than the serial killers he hunts.

Elsewhere, possibly in the Entrée episode, I noticed Jack Crawford utter part of a line straight out Godfater II: ‘In my home. In my bedroom. Where my wife sleeps!’. Michael Corleone had added: ‘Where my children come and play with their toys.’ Fuller even used part of the Harris quote I used at the beginning of this reflection, bringing the stray dogs into Will Graham’s house, and having Graham talk about his house at night like a boat at at sea. I have no doubt Fuller’s team dropped in many more references to other texts during the show’s cycle.

The second series develops a growing relationship between Lecter and Crawford, based on investigating Graham as a suspected serial killer in his own right. There are some nice juxtapositions between Graham and Lecter. We also see the character of Mason Verger and his sister in a telling of that tale from Hannibal quite different that already imagined on-screen.

The third series is something else again, heavily featuring the lissom Gillian Anderson as Lecter’s psychoanalyst, Bedelia Du Maurier, who becomes his willing companion and partner in crime, until she also becomes part of his undoing.  who can forget the lines: ‘I’m trying not to eat anything with a central nervous system.’ … ‘My husband has quite a sophisticated palette. He’s particular about how I taste.’ In that season we get to see Manhunter’s and Red Dragon’s Francis Dolarhyde again, with Richard Armitage offering an engrossing portrayal that I think edges out both Tom Noonan and Ralph Fiennes for impact.

The notable absence from the TV series of Clarice Starling and Jame Gumb is, I think, explicable by recalling the screen rights issue asociated with Silence of the Lambs, and Martha De Laurentiis’s involvement with the television series perhaps precluding the other rights owners from collaborating. It strikes me as a shame that Fuller was forced to circumvent these constraints with other characters, but he did so with skill and conviction.

Some of the lush scenery of Hannibal is made quite disturbing by the jarring atonality of the soundtrack.  It had the desired effect, though I am still more a fan of the electronic music used by Michael Mann to augment the moods he was pursuing.

I confess that sometimes I could not watch the series while eating; the visuals of the crimes were too overpowering to mix well with food.  If, at times, the visuals became too confronting, and the crimes too bizarre, a crime committed not two kilometres from my home in the early October Brisbane spring of 2014 created a personal context that made Hannibal seem a little less far-fetched.

Twenty-seven year old chef Marcus Volke murdered his Indonesian pre-operation transgender wife, Mayang Prosetyo, also known as Mayang Panang and Febri Andriansyah, in their Commercial Road apartment in Brisbane’s trendy, upmarket, riverside suburb of Teneriffe.  They may have met because both advertised their services on Asian and European internet sex sites, and were married in Denmark in 2013, though the marriage was not recognised in Australia because technically Prosetyo was still a man, and same sex marriage is not yet legal in the state of Queensland.

Volke cut up Prosetyo’s body and began to cook her remains in their apartment, causing an electrical short that required an electrician to attend.  The electrician did not quite believe Volke’s story that he was cooking a pig’s broth, and contacted police, who arrived to investigate some hours later.  Volke fled the scene, apparently climbed into a ‘wheelie bin’, and stabbed himself to death with the same knife he had used to murder Prosetyo.

Police commented that the murder had been caused by an apparent domestic dispute, and attending officers were offered counselling because of the shocking nature of the crime.

No one will probably ever know the precise details of the murder suicide; both killer and victim cannot tell the tale, but I remember thinking what a great tragedy it must have been to bring on such rage and frenzy.  Perhaps not nearly as controlled and calculating as Lecter’s crimes, but when events like this can happen within walking distance from my front door, it is easier not to scoff too much at the extended demand for suspension of disbelief Fuller made in Hannibal.

I was not surprised that ratings for Hannibal dropped off in the third season.  I think Martha De Laurentiis was wrong to blame the show’s cancellation on piracy, and I wonder where the figure of two million illegal viewers came from, which she rolled out like a certainty.  Looking at the ratings figures overall, the sharp decline for the third season seems to be related more to the intellectual participation Fuller demanded from his audience than any other reason; plenty of shows get pirated without being cancelled.

There is talk of more Hannibal Lecter in the future, but there seem to be both copyright and funding hurdles, and Fuller is now engaged in American Gods.  Perhaps it will take a while.  Perhaps there is not much more to be said.  Perhaps we need another shift in the socio-political context of our times to make Lecter relevant again.

Lecter already always was …

What has happened to the legend of Lecter over the past 30 years, though, is the absorption of an outlier into mainstream mythology.  The world is no longer without knowledge of Hannibal Lecter as a cultural icon.

Thinking about how that process of absorption might have taken place, I found myself strangely drawn to Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation.  Not in the strictly political sense he wrote about in the early 1970s, but in the sense that contemporary mythology ‘interpellates’ new ideas and tropes into the wider body of cultural myths, incorporating them into a canon passed on as if they were already and always there, creating a cognitive split between those who have never known the canon before the interpellation, and those who witnessed the ingestion as before and after consciousness.  This association with Althusser struck me as appropriate in a macabre way, as a metaphorical conception of cannibalistic culture, eating its dissidents and marginalised victims, and for the theory itself coming from a cultured intellectual who killed his wife by strangulation in 1980, a year before Thomas Harris’s ‘Red Dragon’ was published.

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The television series, more than the films, makes me think of the reconfigured legend of Hannibal Lecter as not just a dark psychological thriller, but as congruent with our culture’s thinking about contemporary socio-cultural trends: the excesses of the rich echo in the polite society inhabited by Lecter; the cannibalism of Western capitalism by its own corporations is suggestive of Lecter’s reduction of life to haute cuisine, fed only to a select clientele; the grotesque violence of the serial killers in the series seem like a wagging finger at the even more grotesque violence the West idolises on-screen and practices in its military adventures and the unashamed police state crimes against its own people.

Hannibal Lecter today is more than a psychopath, serial killer, cannibal, and savant genius.  He is the cumulative expression of Western excesses, unable to be controlled, and the soulmate of his nemesis, Will Graham, who is both our conscience about our decadent crimes, and the sacrifice we must make to exorcise the rampant self-gratification driving Lecter’s crimes.

Can we really end our cycle of depravity by extinguishing our conscience about it?  Or is eliminating that conscience the only way we can now live with our institutionalised sociopathy?

 

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