HANNIBAL (2001): classy yet sleazy carnival horror (Movieversary #2)

20 years on from the year 2001, I’m looking back at some of the films across the year which stood out as among the more interesting, and year-defining, pictures…

This week, released on the weekend of February 9th, Ridley Scott’s Hannibal

One of the more telling aspects about Hannibal’s occasionally troublesome production is the fact that almost nobody, outside of director Ridley Scott and producer Dino de Laurentiis, truly believed in the story.

Released in 1999, Thomas Harris’ sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, which took him over a decade, was more than highly anticipated, thanks in no small part to Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation released that same year, 1988. Due to whip smart, suspenseful direction from Demme and memorable turns from Jodie Foster and especially Anthony Hopkins as the eponymous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs swiftly established itself in popular culture as a tense piece of modern, procedural, psychological horror, inspiring future cultural phenomenon’s such as The X-Files and establishing its main female lead as a feminist heroine.

The moment Harris elected to devise a trilogy around Lecter, which became eventually a ‘quadrilogy’, the film adaptation was a foregone conclusion. Hopkins had won an Oscar for his deliciously unnerving, playful performance, revitalising his career in a stroke. The film launched Demme into the big leagues and even boosted the already successful Foster’s career. Lambs became one of the signature, iconic pictures of the 1980s, which meant any follow up would be overcome by a weight of expectation, as befits any sequel to a beloved movie or property long after the fact.

What surprised everyone involved, however, was Harris’ story for Hannibal.

With Lecter having escaped captivity after aiding FBI agent Clarice Starling in her search for Jame Gumb aka the serial killer Buffalo Bill, Harris places the cultured ‘doctor’ in Florence, posing as a ‘Dr. Fell’, who teaches Renaissance art in the city and lives almost the kind of fantasy existence Lecter only could have imagined from his cell.

As Starling, back in the States, comes under fire for a botched drugs raid and remains haunted by Lecter’s escape, Italian inspector Rinaldo Pazzi begins to suspect Fell is the wanted Lecter, while elsewhere disfigured billionaire and child rapist Mason Verger—the only survivor of Lecter’s cannibalistic killing spree—plots a gruesome capture and revenge on his tormentor. So far, so modern Gothic, and the eventual film plays out many of these beats, but many of the principles drew the line at Harris’ conclusion to the novel.

At the climax in which Clarice romances Lecter and they flee to South America, after he presents her the unearthed bones of the father who has equally haunted her entire existence, Demme walked as director. Foster, too, diplomatically elected to focus on her directorial piece Flora Plum. Even Hopkins was sanguine for a time about whether he would revive the part, despite his presence being a dealbreaker for de Laurentiis.

The producer, arguably quite rightly at the time, understood that a new director could be found, even Clarice could be recast, but Hopkins in the role was irreplaceable. It was his performance in Lambs which had turned Harris’ source material into a best seller, and Hannibal Lecter into a seminal movie monster. After all, Harris first wrote Lecter’s first appearance in 1981’s Red Dragon, later adapted into the 1986 film Manhunter by Michael Mann, but it took Lambs and Hopkins’ twisted turn to propel the film into the stratosphere.

One of the few people to adore Harris’ novel was Ridley Scott and following production on Gladiator—a film which single handedly revitalised his own career—he took the project on and, with customary Scott propulsion, turned the picture around quickly. Julianne Moore stepped in as a harder-edged Clarice. Gary Oldman asked to be uncredited as the grotesque, malevolent Verger. And Hopkins agreed to return, requesting changes in the bargain. Everyone, Scott included, knew that ending had to go. In the end, it was revised, with similar psychological and emotional beats intact. Clarice does not elope with Lecter but she is certainly conflicted. Part of her, in a weird, sinister and quite twisted way, loves the psychopathic doctor. Scott believed this disturbing romance was the heart of Hannibal, the rotten core at the centre of the picture, one many audience members completely missed.

There is an absurdity about Hannibal that is, on some level, to be celebrated. To Harris’ credit, he does not simply attempt to write another Lambs, and nor does Scott work to simply emulate Demme’s work on that film. Scott’s film, written by celebrated scribe Steven Zaillian after an initial attempt by celebrated playwright David Mamet, stays largely faithful to Harris’ melodramatic tome and accentuates the bizarre, grotesque aspects of his story. Lecter prowls around Florence with wicked elegance, Verger contains horrific impulses and incandescent rage behind the fake veneer of a rich Southern gentleman (he’s as much a monster in this film as Lecter, in many respects) and Clarice is no longer the wide-eyed ingenue facing the baptism of fire in Lambs. Age, experience and the natural injustices of living in a man’s world have wearied her.

What is clear, however, is that Hannibal the film, and to some extent the book that preceded it, exists to cash in on Hopkins’ career-defining performance. His film-stealing turn in Lambs is here, naturally, expanded to make Lecter a major player in the story. He shares just as much screen-time as Moore’s Clarice, who arguably spends the first half of the film reacting to events: a failed, violent drug bust she becomes the scapegoat of; a letter from Lecter which draws her back into the search for a man she has remained quietly obsessed with for years.

Much is left for Giancarlo Giannini’s inspector Pazzi to carry in the Florentian scenes, but he is a downtrodden protagonist whose fate is sealed the moment he begins to realise there is a hefty reward waiting from Verger, outside of the FBI’s most wanted list, that he can cash in on if he sacrifices his police morals to sell out ‘Dr. Fell’. That Pazzi will fail is never in question, the audience simply has to wait for the narrative to catch up. That, in some sense, is the appeal of Hannibal. The level of dread.

Lambs was a different beast, more concerned with the internal FBI investigative structure that threw the wide-eyed, country girl Clarice into the orbit of some of the most depraved minds in the American wilderness. The horror—such as Lecter’s escape—was sudden. Hannibal is a romantic, neo-Gothic slice of horrific anticipation built on the somewhat sleazy enjoyment in positioning Lecter as, almost, anti-hero. Hopkins is so enjoyably, deliberately devilish in how he chews the scenery, you are compelled to like this most terrifying of movie monsters. How can you not smile at lines, delivered with appropriate weight by Hopkins, like “I’m giving very serious thought… to eating your wife”. The sexual subtext is clear. The frightening “Does Lecter wanna fuck her, or kill her, or eat her, or what?” Verger asks his (not so) faithful employee Cordell. “Probably all three, though I wouldn’t wanna predict in what order” he replies.

While the film thankfully avoids embarking on the questionable May-December romance Harris chooses for the novel’s climax, the underlying open debate about attraction between Clarice and the much older Lecter evokes the long-standing Hollywood trend of older male actors romancing much younger women on screen. One only has to look at 1999’s Entrapment as an example not long before Hannibal, whereby an almost-seventy year old Sean Connery woos a grifter in Catherine Zeta-Jones young enough to be his daughter. Clarice is sexualised heavily across the entire film.

Outside of Verger’s suppositions and Lecter’s clear urges, fellow FBI agent Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta)—a sexist and a homophobe—openly commits the most egregious levels of overt sexual harassment toward Clarice. She is consistently reminded that, as a woman, she is less superior as an agent to her male colleagues, and as a country girl she, in the minds of her toxic, male Washington cohorts, nothing more than white trash. “This town is full of corn-pone country pussy.” Krendler promises when Clarice reminds him his own disdain for her is fuelled by an unsuccessful pass he made years before.

This is perhaps why Jodie Foster turned the role down, as Clarice is routinely humiliated at the expense of her male colleagues, and transformed into a woman whose own moral steadfastness is, by the end, ever so slightly in question. Moore plays the role with conviction and as much grace as the script affords her (which is not much), but Clarice’s epitaph by the end of this film is dirtied, with the character regarded as little more than a sexualised object by all concerned.

There are even homosexual overtones suggested between Lecter and Verger, in flashbacks which detail how Verger came to be so disfigured. Hannibal never goes too far in quantifying these suggestions of Lecter’s bisexuality, but it certainly lays the ground for Bryan Fuller’s NBC series Hannibal the following decade. That is a show filled with latent homosexual and psychosexual thirst, of the kind Scott’s film could only dream of. That series understands the confluence of pretentious artistry and grotesque horror, mixed together with sexuality and culinary profundity, in order to portray Lecter as both a monster and sophisticate. Mads Mikklesen’s turn as the character, remarkably, holds its own against Hopkins’ approach, simply because it turns up the urbane, almost sympathetic restraint in Lecter, steering clear of Hopkins’ sneering cultural disdain.

In this respect, Hannibal feels less sophisticated than it does grubby, and like many films released across 2001 feels much more attuned to audience expectations of the decade that preceded it. Scott’s film is a scuzzy piece of psychosexual horror hiding inside a lavish blockbuster, one centered around the star material of Hannibal Lecter, as opposed to Anthony Hopkins. Lecter transcends the picture, in many respects. He is untouchable, inviolate, akin to the indestructible superhero. When breaking into a house and facing a fierce attack dog, he calms the animal. When standing in a nest of specially trained man-eating boars, he somehow avoids being eaten. There is a protective barrier around the character, around the idea of Lecter as a romanticised, Gothic creature we love to hate, that Hannibal becomes the kind of perverse love letter to the character of the kind he writes Clarice at one point during the film.

The great Roger Ebert described the film as “a carnival geek show elevated in the direction of art. It never quite gets there, but it tries with every fiber of its craft to redeem its pulp origins, and we must give it credit for the courage of its depravity” (12).

Hannibal certainly has the courage to encourage us, even if secretly, to love the monster. Even if it might eat us alive. 

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