Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s post we’ll be looking at the follow-up to the iconic The Silence of the Lambs, 2001’s Hannibal! As you may be aware, this film has a… reputation to say the least. Could it live up to its predecessor’s legacy? Read on to find out…
Even before The Silence of the Lambs was published, Thomas Harris began conceptualizing a sequel where Hannibal was loose in the streets of Europe. However, after the surprise success of the film adaptation, demand for a sequel hit a fever pitch, especially from the owner of the film rights to Hannibal Lecter, producer Dino de Laurentiis. De Laurentiis regretted lending the rights to the character for free for The Silence of the Lambs, but planned on capitalizing on the newfound popularity of the character. He wasn’t the only one looking to make bank though and there was soon a mad scramble to get in on the follow-up (better strap in because the production of this movie was fascinating and a good example of why I include production history in these retrospectives in the first place).
First of all Orion Pictures, which had produced The Silence of the Lambs, had been having financial issues for years and filed for bankruptcy in 1991, even before they could celebrate The Silence of the Lambs‘ history-making Oscar run. This would ultimately result in the studio becoming a subsidiary of MGM, selling all their rights to them in the process, including the rights to the character of Clarice Starling. However, Universal studios chairman Tom Pollock tried to convince de Laurentiis to make the sequel with them instead, with de Laurentiis alleging that they were strong arming him by putting other pictures they were partnered on on the line. This would ultimately be taken to court and when it was settled it was agreed that Universal and MGM would co-distribute the forthcoming sequel.
Of course, this all still up in the air because, despite coming to an agreement, Harris was still working on his follow-up and it would be years before it would be complete. This was back during an era when studios would actually wait for a novelist to write a sequel instead of just forging ahead on their own, as demonstrated with The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Director Jonathan Demme, Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and screenwriter Ted Tally were all interested in returning for a sequel, with it being rumoured that Hopkins and Foster would each receive a cool $15 million to reprise their Oscar-winning roles. Finally, in 1999, the next novel in the series was published, titled Hannibal. The novel was met with mixed reception, with the main complaints revolving around its twisted violence and the ending, which sees Clarice Starling being drugged by Hannibal, engaging in cannibalism and then running off together in love.
When the details of the story came out, key members of the original film began to drop out. Ted Tally was disappointed with the novel and declined to write the script. Jonathan Demme passed on directing, citing his distaste over how violent it was and his disappointment about how Clarice Starling was handled (reportedly, upon hearing this, de Laurentiis said “when the Pope-a die, we create a new Pope-a. Good luck to Jonathan Demme. Good-bye.”). Jodie Foster’s refusal to return as Clarice Starling was particularly contentious, with her putting out several excuses talking around why she wasn’t reprising her role in the film, from concerns about the story quality, to Demme not returning, to financial concerns (according to de Laurentiis, Foster’s agent demanded $20 million and 15% of the gross, which he says caused him to reject her outright). Based on what was said at the time and since, I’d be willing to bet that the main issue was that Foster didn’t like how Clarice Starling was being portrayed in Hannibal, with a secondary concern being and that de Laurentiis was going to lowball her pay. Luckily for de Laurentiis, Hopkins was viewed as the crux of the entire project and agreed to return as Hannibal Lecter, otherwise the film probably would have never been made.
With nearly all of the key figures involved in The Silence of the Lambs gone, work began on hiring the new production team. Ridley Scott was approached during the filming of Gladiator and agreed to take over the director’s chair. This was exciting news since, while he has gained a reputation for being inconsistent in the last decade, his filmography consisted of landmark film after landmark film at the time (and later in the same year of Hannibal‘s release he would put out one of the greatest and most influential modern war movies, Black Hawk Down). The script was written by David Mamet (who wrote, among other things, The Untouchables and Wag the Dog), but this draft was then rewritten by Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian after a grueling brainstorming session between Zaillian and Scott to change the ending of the novel for the adaptation.
As for who would play Clarice Starling, several high-profile actresses were considered, including Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, Gillian Anderson (remember this one, it’ll be important in the future), Hilary Swank, Ashley Judd and Helen Hunt. However, Hopkins suggested to de Laurentiis that Retrospectives veteran Julianne Moore be considered for the role, as he had worked with her a few years earlier and thought that she would be great for the role. While I can’t confirm whether Hopkins’ endorsement ultimately won her the part (Ridley Scott also said that she was his top choice), Julianne Moore was chosen to play Clarice… and I’ll bet that de Laurentiis was happy about this because she was paid a reported $3 million!!! This legitimately infuriates me. Like I said earlier, Foster and Hopkins were both expected to collect around $15 million for their roles in this movie (I couldn’t find an exact number, but it is believed that Hopkins was paid more than $10 million for this film), which reflects the fact that both characters and their performers are crucial to the film’s success. The fact that de Laurentiis was just so flippant about casting Foster aside is more blindingly obvious proof of the Hollywood wage gap. Won’t take a pay cut, little lady? That’s all right, we’ll replace you with one of the other actresses starving for a meaty female role. Also consider the fact that Foster was considered expendable whereas Hopkins exiting the project would tank the entire production. I do get that Hopkins’ Lecter was the main draw for audiences and so I wouldn’t say that he doesn’t deserve a decent payday, but Clarice Starling was the real main character of The Silence of the Lambs and the beating, emotional heart which made it all work and that should be reflected. Also consider that Julianne Moore herself is getting lowballed at $3 million – she was coming off of such box office and critical successes as The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Boogie Nights (which she would get a Best Supporting Actress nomination for), The Big Lebowski and Magnolia, and you’re telling me that she was worth less than a third of what her male co-star was getting (and that’s assuming that conservative $10 million number is correct)? Bull-fucking-shit.
For the other major roles, motherfuckin’ Christopher Reeve was offered the role of Mason Verger, but turned the role down when he actually read the script and realized that they were asking him to play a psychotic, disfigured, wheelchair-bound pedophile. The role went to their next choice, Gary Oldman. Ray Liotta was cast to play Paul Krendler, a Justice Department official who had previously appeared in The Silence of the Lambs played by Ron Vawter, but Vawter had died in 1994 and so had to be recast. Giancarlo Giannini (probably most famous internationally for playing Mathis in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) was cast as the shady detective Rinaldo Pazzi. Also noteworthy is the fact that the only other actor to reprise his role from The Silence of the Lambs was Frankie Faison as the asylum orderly Barney. Faison had also played a different, minor role in Manhunter, making him the only actor to stay a consistent part of the franchise thus far.
Filming lasted 16 weeks, with the production going on location in Florence and various locales across the US, which is probably part of the reason that the budget ended up going over $80 million, which is high for a hard R-rated film of this nature. Luckily for all the film’s financial backers, Hannibal opened February 9, 2001 to a $58 million opening weekend, the third largest debut ever at the time, and would gross $351.6 million. However, the critical and audience reception of the film was lukewarm and many people felt that it didn’t live up to the legacy of The Silence of the Lambs.
Ten years after the events of the previous film, Hannibal Lecter is still on the loose and is one of the FBI’s most wanted. Clarice Starling is leading a drug bust which goes awry when one of her agents disobeys an order to stand down. As a result, several people are killed and a PR nightmare ensues, with Starling taking the blame. After pulling some strings with corrupt Justice Department official Paul Krendler, Mason Verger (a grievously wounded survivor of Lecter) has Clarice Starling assigned to hunt down Lecter, believing that Lecter has a special relationship with her and that her involvement will draw him out into the open. This seems to work because shortly after being reassigned, Clarice finds a letter from Hannibal. After performing an analysis on the letter, it is discovered that it contains trace elements of a skin cream that is only legally available in certain parts of the world. Clarice requests police departments around the world to send security footage from potential shops, including in Florence. The chief inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, who has been investigating the disappearance of a library curator, recognizes someone in one of these security tapes, a man who he had interviewed about the disappearance named Dr. Fell. Putting two and two together, Pazzi investigates the FBI’s database and realizes that Dr. Fell is actually Hannibal Lecter. He soon discovers that someone has put a $3 million bounty on Lecter’s head and tries to collect it. He is told that he will require a fingerprint to positively ID Lecter before he can be apprehended. Pazzi recruits a pickpocket to get the fingerprint and, while he is successful, the pickpocket is stabbed to death by Lecter in the process. Despite this incident, Pazzi ignores ominous warnings from Lecter and a plea from Clarice to stand down and sends the fingerprint off for confirmation. He discovers that the bounty has been issued by Mason Verger and, despite being told that his own men will apprehend Lecter, Pazzi chooses to joins Verger’s crew to apprehend the serial killer. However, when he attempts to draw Lecter out into an ambush, Lecter ties up the inspector and then disembowels and hangs him from the balcony of the Palazzo Vecchio in retribution. He then murders one of Verger’s men in retribution before slipping away.
Frustrated that Hannibal slipped from his grasp, Verger bribes Paul Krendler again to put Clarice Starling in harm’s way. Verger fabricates a letter which makes it seem like Starling is aiding Lecter’s continued freedom, causing her to be suspended from the FBI. Hearing about this, Lecter calls Clarice and lures her out for a confrontation. However, Verger’s men are following her and apprehend Lecter. Clarice witnesses this and tries to get the police to inspect Verger’s estate, but they aren’t able to find anything incriminating. Clarice then decides to go on her own, finding Lecter tied up and about to be fed to Verger’s pack of carnivorous pigs. Clarice frees Lecter and kills two thugs but is shot and wounded herself. Lecter rescues her as the pigs break in and devour two of the guards after ignoring Hannibal. Lecter then convinces Verger’s physician to drop his boss into the pig pen, saying that he can blame Lecter. The physician complies and Verger is eaten alive.
Clarice wakes up sometime later at Krendler’s lakehouse, heavily drugged. She calls the police and then makes her way downstairs, where she finds Lecter preparing dinner with an even more heavily-drugged Krendler. Lecter reveals that he has sawed open the top of Krendler’s head, which he removes to expose his brain. Lecter cuts out a piece of the still-living Krendler’s brain and then sautés it and feeds it to him. Clarice then tries to stab Lecter, but he locks her ponytail in a fridge door and holds her down as she handcuffs him to her. With the police almost upon them, Lecter takes a cleaver and threatens to cut her hand off if she doesn’t release him. When she refuses to budge, he brings the cleaver down and she screams. Shortly thereafter the police find Clarice and it is implied that Hannibal chose to cut his own hand off to escape. He is seen in the ending on a plane, arm bandaged, sharing cooked brains with a child curious about his meal.
I think that the thing that I appreciate the most about Hannibal is that it aims to be very different from its predecessor. Too often sequels, especially sequels to a pop culture icon, end up just repeating the same bits, returning to a formula and become self-referential. The Hannibal Lecter franchise was ripe for this – hell, The Silence of the Lambs itself nearly falls into this trap since it could basically be boiled down to “Hannibal Lecter helps solve another murder case”. Hannibal is a different sort of beast though, by necessity. With Lecter on the run and ten years having passed, it would be very difficult to just do the same thing again without it feeling contrived. As a result, we get to see all sorts of fresh ideas play out. We get to spend the film’s entire second act in beautiful Florence, a breath of fresh air compared to all the comparatively boring American vistas that make up this series’ settings. We get to see a psychopath actively wanting revenge on Lecter, putting our main characters directly in danger. We get to see Lecter living out among the people and outsmarting everyone who tries to catch him. There’s some give-and-take to this approach, as the film is certainly slower and the tension is less consistent, but I do appreciate the attempt to inject fresh ideas into the formula.
There is so much to love in Hannibal. First off, the acting is great across the board. While Lecter doesn’t have quite the same spark that he did in The Silence of the Lambs, in part because he spends most of his screen time separated from Clarice, Hopkins seems to be having the time of his life and he’s always enjoyable to watch. As for Julianne Moore, she brings her own take of Clarice Starling to the film, one that is more experienced and disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the FBI. She’s much more defiant, she doesn’t take any shit from people who are still talking down to her. I’d have to say that Jodie Foster’s take was far more compelling, but Moore brings her own spin on the material that she’s given. The two best performances in the film have to be Gary Oldman’s Mason Verger and Giancarlo Giannini’s Rinaldo Pazzi. Starting with Verger, Oldman plays him like a rich, polite old man, despite the fact that his character is a self-professed pedophile who’s obsessed with the idea of torturing and killing the man who ruined his life. He’s so sinister and darkly funny at times, making for a more than worthy opponent to Lecter. I also love his obsession with feeding Hannibal alive to a pack of man-eating pigs, since that means that we get one of the most brutal and amazing set-pieces in the film which culminates in Verger’s own ironic death by pigs (a change which was made for the movie, thank God). I have to give a particular shout-out here to makeup artist Greg Cannom, whose prosthetics work makes Gary Oldman unrecognizable and so disturbing to look at. As for Rinaldo Pazzi, his story plays out over the course of the film’s second act and is easily the most compelling part of the film. It’s fascinating to watch Pazzi go from a disinterested cop to a man just barely holding onto his composure, blinded by greed to the obvious dangers he’s walking into.
Ridley Scott’s direction is also fairly solid throughout the film. I feel like Jonathan Demme’s direction favoured the characters more, but Scott brings his own take to the material. As one would expect of him, the production design is spot on (particularly aided by the fact that much of it was shot on location in some gorgeous locales) and the visuals are all top-notch. There are some moments when I feel like he has trouble keeping the audience oriented though, particularly during the chaotic opening shootout sequence (which looks cool at least, there’s so much blown up debris and sparks from ricocheting bullets) and when Hannibal draws out Clarice into a crowded station. I’m not sure if these issues come down to direction or editing, but they are two notable examples of when Hannibal‘s direction stumbles.
With all that said, let’s get to Hannibal‘s crippling flaw – the script. Damn near every aspect of this movie is firing on all cylinders and if not for the inconsistent quality of the script this could have been a very worthy successor to The Silence of the Lambs. We’ll start with what I think is the most damning flaw in the film, the treatment of Clarice Starling. Clarice is the film’s focus in the first thirty minutes: she’s devastated for having to shoot a woman holding a baby during the botched drug bust, she gets suspended unjustly, is reassigned to Lecter’s case and then starts following clues. Cool, that means she should find a clue to lead her to Lecter in time for the second act, right? Nooooope… for whatever reason, Clarice doesn’t do anything in the second act – aside from a few short and unimportant scenes, she effectively disappears for a whole fifty freaking minutes. The only things of note that she does in the third act is fail to find Hannibal when he’s right behind her, go rogue to rescue him and then basically lets Hannibal get away again. She’s a far-cry from the Clarice of The Silence of the Lambs who is the film’s emotional core and the one who’s driving the plot forward, here Clarice takes a back seat right as the plot is getting underway and gets pushed around where the story demands she go. The film also brings back hints of the sexism that Clarice faced back in The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s done to much lesser effect. Instead of being objectified and belittled by men in all areas of her life, the only person being sexist to her is her boss, Paul Krendler, who’s just a total sleaze. There’s a shot of him staring up Clarice’s legs and at one point he gets caught staring at a drawing of Clarice’s breasts that Hannibal sent her. We later discover that he’s doing this because Clarice wouldn’t have an affair with him, so he’s been making her career hell because he’s an abusive piece of shit. It’s nice at least that they acknowledge that this sort of power abuse happens, but it makes it feel like this is just the sort of thing that bad people like Krendler do instead of being a systemic issue that women routinely have to deal with. It’s such a shame that Clarice was done so dirty by this film, even with the ending being changed to be less controversial. With some more deviation from the book to make her a more active character she could have been at least on-par with Hannibal Lecter once again.
While I have complained that the second act totally shafts Clarice Starling, effectively excising her from the story for fifty minutes, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this was by far the best part of the movie. After a half hour of build-up we finally get to see Hannibal on the loose in Florence, working his way up into a curator’s position at a museum. Watching Pazzi come to the slow realization that Dr. Fell is Hannibal Lector and then trying to collect the bounty on him is fascinating. The film is at its absolute most tense and exciting during these sequences, since we know that Pazzi is no match for Lecter and we’re left waiting on the edge of our seat to see what the good doctor is going to do to this would-be hunter. And, like any good story, just when you think that Lecter is going to pounce, he relents until the tension has hit an absolute peak. This all culminates in the brilliant “bowels in or bowels out?” sequence, one of the most memorable in the entire film. And then… it just kind of ends on an inconsequential note. Hannibal escapes his pursuers and nothing comes of it. It’s ridiculous how much the air gets sucked out of the room once the second act is over. The only consequence is that Verger sees video footage of the killing where Hannibal waves, which he takes to mean that he’s waving to Clarice Starling… but, like, Verger already knew that she was Hannibal’s weak point from the very start of the movie. Hell, he already put pressure on her to lure Hannibal out once, having to do it again after this is just redundant and doesn’t flow with the story as it has been told up to this point. And to make matters worse, having Hannibal escape was pointless too because he gets captured like ten minutes later anyway. There were only really two ways to move the movie out of Florence and back to the States in a way that makes sense and doesn’t render the entire second act pointless: either have Hannibal get captured in Florence by Verger’s men after killing Pazzi, or have Hannibal realize that Verger’s onto him and that his only course of action now is to actively take on Verger (for example, think of how The Bourne Ultimatum brings Jason Bourne back to the US).
While I have my issues with how the first two acts play out, I still quite like the movie up to this point. However, the third act is a total mess. First of all, the sequence where Hannibal phones Clarice and lures her out to union station while he stalks her (complete with him brushing her hair when he goes past on a carousel) is just so silly and out of place. You’re telling me that Clarice isn’t hearing the musicians playing just beside Hannibal and trying to use that to pinpoint his location? She’s not hearing him speaking right behind her as he touches her hair? Then Hannibal gets captured by Verger’s men – I had thought that he was using Clarice to lure them out so he could pick them off one-by-one, but no, it seems like he was just a dumb-dumb all of a sudden so they could get ahold of him. Clarice just happens to see this too, so she calls the police who investigate Verger’s mansion and then leave again. You’re telling me that they’re just going to take his word that there’s no captured serial killers on my property, no sir-ee-bob!? They don’t leave any sort of surveillance, just in case he’s having him held elsewhere? Apparently not, because how else are we going to make Clarice decide to go rogue and break into the mansion to save Hannibal’s ass? I kinda love this sequence because it does result in several people being eaten to death by pigs, but feels very rushed in order to resolve the Verger plot and then get us into the finale… and hoo boy, what a finale it is. I’ve never been able to take the ending sequence of this movie seriously, which sees a drugged up Clarice watching as Hannibal peels Krendler’s skull open and feeds him parts of his own brain. It’s just too funny to be horrifying, in part because of Ray Liotta’s drugged-up acting and in part because the whole premise of feeding someone his own brain is just pure schlock comedy. Then, after that’s done, we get Clarice and Hannibal’s final confrontation, which ends with him chopping his own hand off to escape rather than harming Clarice. It’s an interesting moment, but it leaves us with no resolution for Clarice’s storyline. It’s definitely better than the book’s ending, but it’s still unsatisfying. This third act (which plays out over the last thirty minutes of the film) really sours me on Hannibal. After the first two acts move at a slow and measured pace, it suddenly feels like they had to cram too much story into the last thirty minutes and everything suffers as a result.
On a related note, this film could have been improved with some better editing and writing. The first couple acts are slow, but they could have been tightened up with more judicial cuts and better scripting. Like, did we really need two sequences where Verger realizes that Clarice is Hannibal’s weakness, where men are sent to capture Hannibal, and where Clarice gets dicked over by Krendler unjustly? There’s also moments that I don’t even understand why they made it into the film. There’s a sequence where we see Lecter scoping out Krendler’s apartment and then breaking into a hospital to steal medical tools so that he can later cut open Krendler’s head. Did we really need to spend several minutes belabouring this detail? I mean… in a post-Cinema Sins world some dickhead would probably nitpick “Oh where did Hannibal get these tools? Why did he know where Krendler lived?”, but we don’t really need to be shown this. Despite being roughly the same run time as The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal feels much flabbier and could have done with another pass on the script to tighten things up. Like I’ve said, there are elements about this movie and the story that I really like (such as the fantastic opening title sequence), but they’re bogged down with too much excess.
I’m well aware than Hannibal has a bad reputation, that it’s considered responsible for killing a lot of peoples’ interest in Hannibal Lecter with its pivot into campy, dark humour. However, I’ve always had a soft spot for it in my heart, just due to how much it deviates from the established formula and how sick and twisted it can be. That said, upon rewatching it my enthusiasm for the film has definitely dulled somewhat. There are still plenty of parts that I enjoy, but I have a hard time looking past how unsatisfying the last act is and how badly they treated Clarice Starling. Still, there’s enough here that I like that I can’t call it a complete disaster but I am disappointed that Hannibal didn’t live up to the potential it had.