psychopathy... n. Psychiatry. 1. a mental disorder in which an individual manifests amoral and antisocial behavior ... extreme egocentrici y ...
They turn their backs to us in delusion or intellectual defiance, against the building blocks of our world order (laws, codes and morals) and the beliefs they’re quarried from. They turn their backs to the light, their shadows flickering on-screen as the antiheros with a thousand faces (or masks). Celluloid psychokillers are Frankenstein’s monsters of cinema, pieced together from nightmares, grim fairy tales, myths and news clippings, the Mr. Hydes to our Dr. Jekylls, our repressed wishes returned fulfilled.
Many are the fallen, but the self-elected few deny grace. With murder, they cut themselves away from the membrane of human society, molding themselves as bizarro supermen, the death of God in cinematic flesh. Many are the fallen: from Peter Lorre’s serial child-murderer of M (1931) to the prince, the psycho of Psycho (1960), Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). They’re nightmares with beating hearts and breath, trapped in the cellars of their minds and buried beneath our waking lives.
But the few, the overachieving best and the darkest, are the bastard children of Prometheus who stole power from the gods. “Steal” is the key word: “to take ... without permission or right.” Behind every permission is an authority, its foot on the brakes of freedom, that controls the power to grant licenses. Prometheus never asked the gods for a permission slip. James Bond has a license to kill, but movie psychokillers have never applied for one. They murder outside of any authority other than their own.
“Murder is a crime for most men, but a privilege for the few,” Professor Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart) opines over cocktails in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). “The victims are inferior beings whose lives are unimportant anyway.” His pet students, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), listen, trading looks, justified. They’ve proven that they’re above the laws and mores of the mundane by strangling one of their college buddies, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), to death. Brandon raises the experiment to art by serving drinks and food from the top of the chest that hides David’s body. He explains to Phillip, “Murder can be an art too.”
Prometheus paid for his transgression in eternal torture. The murderers of Rope get off comparatively lightly, ending up in police custody. But at the end of Silence of the Lambs (1991) and its sequel Hannibal (2001), Dr. Lecter, like few characters of his kind in popular cinema, walks away scot-free. Why?
Where most characters in the psychokiller canon live in worlds that operate under a strict Judeo-Christian system of reward and retribution, Lecter has set himself above and beyond. His is more like the bizarro world of the Marquis de Sade’s characters, where virtues are punished and vices rewarded — unless one sees fit to act as his own god in order to change the score. Sade considered God a delusion that many still found comforting. Thus weakened, He becomes the feet of clay of morality. The entire system begins to list and topple. Later, the 19th century philospher Friedrich Nietzsche would proclaim God dead and man his own master. In the 20th century, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would bury the corpse, declaring man “monstrously free.” What better personification of montrous freedom than Hannibal Lecter?
The American psychokiller club is exclusive: Whites and males only need apply. Joan Crawford’s Lucy Harbin, an ax-wielding Lizzy Borden in Strait-Jacket (1964), is the exception that proves the rule. Lucy is “very much a woman and very much aware of the fact,” her daughter, Carole (Diane Baker), narrates as we watch Lucy step from a train, all high heels and curves. But she snaps like a fresh ladyfinger when she walks in on her young husband and his girlfriend. Both get the ax. Lucy is locked away in an insane asylum for 20 years and emerges aged, desexualized and timid — no longer a threat to society, or at least to men. Her daughter takes her on a Vertigo (1958)-style shopping trip (“so a girl can look her best”) making her over into the mother she knew 20 years before, the mother who murdered her stepfather. Soon afterward, heads begin to roll.
Why so few women and people of color? Perhaps because killing is the ultimate power and white-male Hollywood is loath to give it up. Wealthy white male Hannibal the Cannibal — Prometheus and man-eating Minotaur both — is the premier human predator. One has ultimate authority over what one eats.James Keith La Croix writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]