According to AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes & Villains, the absolute pinnacle of cinematic evil is Hannibal Lecter, prime villain of Silence of the Lambs. Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the cannibalistic psychiatrist earned him an Oscar in 1991 and the attention of the AFI jurors tasked with naming the best of the worst from movie history.
The best villains, for the AFI’s purposes are “character(s) whose wickedness of mind, selfishness of character and will to power are sometimes masked by beauty and nobility, while others may rage unmasked. They can be horribly evil or grandiosely funny, but are ultimately tragic.” It is easy to see how Lecter easily surpasses his diabolical competition in these categories. Indeed, no less a person than Roger Ebert claimed, “It has been a good long while since I have felt the presence of Evil so manifestly demonstrated as in the first appearance of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs.”
Perhaps it’s the unsettling combination of the sociopath’s menace paired with intellectual brilliance that earns Lecter this top honor. What other big screen villain could deliver such a seemingly innocuous line as “I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner” with so much delightfully sinister intent? Without a doubt, Lecter steals every scene of Silence of the Lambs in which he appears. He may not be “grandiosely funny”, but Hopkins delivers every line, from outright threat to subtle mindplay, with brilliant timing. And although he is confined to a cell for much of the film, Lecter manages to menace with looks and disturb with insinuations until the deadly denouement when he ultimately wreaks murderous havoc in a memorable escape.
Perhaps, though, it is Lecter’s iconic line “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” (itself enshrined on AFI’s list of top movie quotes) that manages to best encapsulate both his “wickedness of mind” and “nobility” of character in just a dozen tidy words.