It's one of the most classic on-screen tropes: As soon as you see a character tent his or her fingers together, you know a sinister plot is a-brewing. But how did this little bit of a body language become such a loaded gesture?
Mike Pesca, over at Slate's Brow Beat, unpacks where steeplings cinematic baggage came from and what — if any — roots it has in real life:
Harry Shearer, who voices Mr. Burns, has said he based the character in part on the actor Lionel Barrymore. The best-known baddie Barrymore ever played, Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, was a finger tenter. In the scene in which he tries to buy off George Bailey, Barrymore lights Jimmy Stewart's cigar and then proceeds to engage in some archetypical finger-tenting. But perhaps the bad guys most steeped in steepling are Bond villains. Ernst Blofeld was always stroking that damn cat, but subsequent 007 foils have been fond of pitching tents, usually when divulging a dastardly plan. The moment that Bond meets Hugo Drax in Moonraker gives rise to a gravity-defying steeple or two.
Steepling at the cinema almost always signifies evil, but there is little evidence that the gesture connotes malevolence in real life. Rather, if the gesture signals anything, it's confidence. Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent, has called finger-steepling "probably the most powerful display of confidence that we possess." If finger-steepling connoted evil confidence, you'd think Navarro would have mentioned it in the manual he co-authored with John R. Schafer Advanced Interviewing Techniques: Proven Strategies for Law Enforcement, Military, and Security Personnel. But the manual is mum on the topic, other than a nod at the cinematic convention.
You can read more about the history of cinematic steepling over at Brow Beat.
Point out some of your favorite examples of on-screen finger tenting (pictures or clips, too please) in the comments now — especially if you have any examples where the character didn't turn out to have sinister motivations.