Hannibal and Atticus

9 June 2003

Lechter and Finch Top AFI Villain and Hero List

When it comes to talk provoking lists, the American Film Institute has managed to create some good ones. The AFI's 100 best films of all time ("Citizen Kane") was great, but its most recent, "Best Good Guys and Bad Guys," may be better. Hannibal Lechter ("Silence of the Lambs") was the worst human in film, while Atticus Finch ("To Kill a Mockingbird") was the best. The arguments of whether these were the right choices are trifling compared to the insight they offer into the human soul.

Hannibal Lechter, as played by Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins in four films, is a serial killer with a bad habit of eating parts of his victims. What is so evil about Lechter, apart from his behavior, is the intelligence and education that is wasted in him. Although Mr. Hopkins (not Sir Anthony, as he is a naturalized American) plays him more aristocratically than did Brian Cox in the 1986 film "Manhunter," in either instance Lechter is a trained psychologist, doctor, and genius. Anyone can eat a census taker's liver with fava beans and a nice chianti, but to be able to do so much good and choose to do otherwise magnifies the evil.

At the other end of the spectrum, is Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, a widower lawyer who defends a black man charged with raping a white woman in the bad old days. He chooses to do what is right rather than what is easy. Not a few legal careers have been started in the dark watching the elegance of Mr. Peck.

In history, Hitler, Stalin and their ilk murdered far more than Lechter, and Dr. King and Abraham Lincoln probably achieved more for racial harmony than Mr. Finch could have. Yet, the roles in these flicker shows have far greater impact, in part because of the greatness of the actors, but also because they are everyman and everywoman. Because each human must choose everyday which side he or she is on.