The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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Director: Jonathan Demme

Writers: Ted Talley (screenplay), Thomas Harris (novel)

Producers: Ronald M. Bozman, Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt

Photography: Tak Fujimoto

Music: Howard Shore

Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Frankie Faison, Kasi Lemmons, Brooke Smith, Paul Lazar, Dan Butler, Lawrence T. Wrentz, Don Brockett, Frank Seals Jr., Stuart Rudin, Masha Skorobogatov

Introduction

Forget the cultural staples, the straightjackets, the lotion in the basket, the fava beans and the nice Chianti. From a purely historical standpoint, The Silence of the Lambs will forever stand out for two amazing achievements.

The first is its place as one of only three films to ever sweep the “Big Five” Oscar categories — Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Screenplay (Ted Tally), Best Director (Jonathan Demme) and Best Picture (Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, Ronald Bozman). The only other two to have accomplished that feat are Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). At the current rate, it won’t be repeated for another 20 years.

Still, Lambs’ other historical accomplishment may be the more impressive of the two — its place as the first and last horror film to win Best Picture. Okay, so you could argue that it’s not technically horror. Every so often, a scary crime thriller will come along like The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en (1995) that blurs the line. Is Halloween (1978) not also a crime thriller in its own way? Aren’t all slasher movies with a police component crime thrillers? Maybe the phrase should be that Lambs is the first and last horror-related film to win Best Picture. Just because it’s more well-rounded doesn’t mean it is any less of a horror film. Perhaps the true description should then be: a horror movie done right.

Plot Summary

Clarice Starling (Foster) is a young FBI trainee with a scarred past. While growing up on a southern farm, she was traumatized by the screaming sounds that came during the slaughter of the spring lambs, and failed in her attempt to save one. Now she feels saving a human life can help silence those lambs, and FBI Director Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) has just the case for her. A serial killer known as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) is preying on women in the Midwest in order to create his own female suit out of their skin.

The latest victim is a senator’s daughter (Brooke Smith), held captive in a pit in the killer’s basement, and it seems the keys to the investigation can only be obtained through Clarice’s interviews with the cerebral cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), a former psychiatrist already in solitary confinement. Can Clarice unlock the clues from the mind of Lecter, or is he merely taunting her with a wild goose chase and endless mind games?

Adapting a Sequel

The Silence of the Lambs was based on Thomas Harris’ best-seller of the same name, a follow-up to his 1981 book Red Dragon. But many forget Lambs was not the first film to feature Lecter, the first being Michael Mann’s excellent Manhunter (1986), starring Brian Cox as the brilliant cannibal. It was not until two years after that film that Harris even wrote The Silence of the Lambs, which became an instant 1988 best-seller. It was only after these two novels and Mann’s film that Tally undertook the project of adapting Lambs for the screen. He had only written one screenplay at that point, White Palace (1990), but he was more than up to the challenge, winning the Oscar for a script voted #61 in the Writers Guilds’ 101 Screenplays of All Time.

The film contains a number of legendary lines, from Billy’s, “It puts the lotion on its skin. It does this whenever it’s told,” to Lecter’s warning, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice cianti.” The latter was voted #21 on AFI’s 100 Movie Quotes, above such staples as “Bond, James Bond” and “There’s no place like home.” Even some of Tally’s more subtle lines pop out on repeat viewings for their clever foreshadowing, particularly Lecter’s, “Ready when you are, Sergeant Pembry.”

Dual Monsters: Hannibal Lecter & Buffalo Bill

“I’ll help you catch him, Clarice.” With that one line, Lambs instantly separates itself from others of its kind. Few movies can create even one compelling villain, let alone two. Yet in Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill, The Silence of the Lambs brings two characters that could each vie for the title of the most horrific villain ever on screen.

The more famous of the two is, of course, Lecter, voted by the AFI as the single greatest villain of all time. The horror is almost deceptive, as his chats with Clarice make him feel like he’s working on our side — until he baits a guard and bites his face off. The moment comes like a tiger mauling at a zoo — we know he’s dangerous, but seeing him contained makes us think we can befriend him. How wrong we are. Such an effect is a credit to Hopkins, who has us rooting for him and horrified by him at the same time. But at all times we respect him for his superior intelligence, supported by Hopkins’ place as the finest British actor of his generation. He’s a man who can play Shakespeare and turn right around and play a cannibal. And any discussion of his ability should be footnoted with this factoid — he only appeared in the movie for about 17 minutes, the shortest amount of screen time for any Best Actor winner. Anyone who can create history’s greatest villain in just 17 minutes is a champion.

Miraculously, for someone so horrific, Lecter does not even function as the film’s chief antagonist. That role goes to Buffalo Bill, played so creepily by Levine as to be burnt in all our memories.What makes him so scary is the fact that he’s a composite of three real-life killers: Ed Gein, who wore the skin of his victims, Ted Bundy, who used a cast to lure his victims, and Gary Michael Heidnik, who kept women in his own basement dungeon. (A) The character also summons the best of cinema’s killers, from Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) to Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). What makes Levine’s villain so scary is the dichotomy between his deep male voice and his effemenite body movements, from slinking away into the kitchen to grab a gun, to tugging at his over-tight shirt to mock his victim; from petting his precious poodle, to tucking his private parts in a dance we’ll never forget.

Buffalo Bill so captured the popular imagination that it invited an instant backlash from gay rights activists, who believed the film portrayed homosexuals in a negative light. Demme was so remorseful about this that he decided his next project would be Philadelphia (1993), where Denzel Washington’s lawyer speech about an AIDS-stricken Tom Hanks remains the quintessential movie speech on gay rights to this day. Philadelphia answered any critics who doubted Demme’s intentions with Lambs.

Hello, Clarice

While gay rights activists were uncomfortable with Buffalo Bill, women’s rights advocates had a new hero in the little starling who slayed him. A female thrust into a world of males, both good and bad, Clarice was the biggest feminist hero since Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979) and placed two spots ahead of her at #6 on the AFI’s 50 Greatest Heroes. Does that make her the greatest movie heroine of all time? The achievement is all the more impressive considering there are only seven female entries on that list. The part earned Foster her second Oscar in three years, following her rape victim in The Accused (1988), and all at the young age of 29.

Foster transforms herself with a southern accent and a whispered voice recalling her past demons. She more than holds her own against the crafty Hopkins, appearing in a number of intense shot-reaction-shots through the glass. Call it a directorial “quid pro quo,” where we often wonder who’s interrogating whom. The close-ups need not always be on their faces — a nice tight shot of Lecter’s finger brushing Clarice’s hand speaks volumes.

The chemistry of the two in these close-ups extends beyond interviewer and interviewee, cop and criminal, mentee and mentor, and elevates to a fascinating subplot of romantic tension. It’s one of the more subversive touches of Tally’s script, and Demme is determined to play it up by putting the camera right in their faces.

Demme’s Direction

What could otherwise be considered an over-reliance on close-ups actually works well with this material. Demme knows exactly when to use a wide shot — to see Lecter standing erect in the middle of his jail cell — and when to punch in for close-ups, pulling in tighter and tighter as each conversation intensifies. Occasionally, we even see Lecter’s reflection in the glass next to Clarice’s head, suggesting that he, quite literally, is “getting inside her head.”

We, the audience, also get inside her head, in the form of POV shots. Staying there for the entire movie, we see exactly what she sees, and Lecter’s presence hovers over this vision like a psychic predicting every step she will make.

“We had the camera do a complete subjective point-of-view shot for Jodie, without fail, in every single sequence,” Demme said. “People are always talking into the camera, the camera always sees exactly what she sees. I felt it was imperative that…Clarice be not only honored but capitalized by pulling the audience right into the maximum identification zone with her.” (A)

This directorial choice may bring us sympathy for Clarice, but it also often has us in the uncomfortable position of staring down Dr. Lecter. As he stares directly into the camera, we may know it’s Clarice’s POV, but there’s the slight dread that somehow, just maybe, he’s undressing us, laughing at us. Crawford tells Clarice, “Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” Demme ensures there’s no other option.

On a lighter note, the more you see the film, the more you realize how much fun it is to be inside Lecter’s head (realizing it’s all fiction, of course). Once you adjust to the suspense, you can sit back and enjoy how Demme mines comedy from those intimate close-ups, like this exchange between Clarice and Lecter — “Most serial killers keep some sort of trophies of their victims.” “I didn’t.” “No, you ate yours.” Such moments prove once again how close the genres of horror, comedy and romance are, a secret Hitchcock knew only too well. Demme was the perfect candidate to combine them, having built a reputation as a director of smart comedies. While Manhunter was being made, Demme was directing the screwball comedy Something Wild (1986), and while Harris was writing Lambs, Demme was directing Married to the Mob (1988). After such light-hearted films, few would have expected him to make a successful horror picture. But he did just that, recruiting George Romero and Roger Corman in cameos for good measure.

From the opening shot, Demme has us extremely unsettled, starting with bold black credits over a mist-filled forest and Howard Shore’s eerie score. He continues such mastery of suspense throughout the film — the slow disclosure as Clarice walks down a dark hallway to come face to face with Lecter for the first time; the slow disclosure of the human head as she explores Miss Moffet’s garage; the victim’s POV as Lecter weilds a police baton and blood flies; the choice to use classical music amidst the carnage of his attack; the reveal of a gory death tableau in his prison cell; the cross-cutting of his escape; the cross-cutting of mistaken locations in the build-up to the final scene; and Clarice’s descent into the lion’s den, where the lights go out, the night-vision comes on, and we are forced to view the scene from the terrifying point of view of Buffalo Bill. That latter choice is so terrifying because we’ve spent so much time seeing things from Claric’s perspective, that the subjective camera from someone else unsettles us. It’s like watching ourselves stalked with no way to reach into the screen and help. It’s excrutiatingly suspenseful.

Directing Female Sympathy

As good as Demme is at it, it was exactly the horror that initially turned Demme off to the project. “It wasn’t the kind of thing that I find interesting,” Demme said. “It was Clarice that got to me.” (A) Indeed, what Demme found most fascinating with the story is what we also find most fascinating — Demme’s quest to identify and sympathize with Clarice as a feminist underdog in a male-dominated world.

He achieves this theme with a combination of camera set-ups and mise-en-scene. In the beginning, Clarice enters an elevator as the only female among nine other male FBI employees. These men are purposely taller than her so they can look down at her, but Clarice is unphased. Later, when she joins a group of male detectives at a funeral home, Demme positions the camera to look down on Clarice. She again asserts her strength by ordering the men to leave. While characters like Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) may view her as a sex object, Demme never does. He treats her the way Crawford does, as an equal, extending a hand in friendship and, in the end, offering her a piece of the pie (i.e. an FBI graduation cake).

That’s not to say every directorial decision is perfect. Many critics will point to the last shot as unnecessary, as Lecter disappears into a sea of people as he prepares to “have an old friend for dinner.” These critics would rather have seen Demme cut to black the minute Lecter refuses to respond on the other end of the line. I personally find the ending a humorous homage to the final scene in The Bicycle Thief (1948). Either way, few can doubt Demme’s importance to the success of Lambs. Look no further than the sequels, Hannibal (2001), Red Dragon (2002) and Hannibal Rising (2007) to see how much a pro like Demme is missed.

Legacy

The Silence of the Lambs may not place on every best list, particularly the most elite, international ones. But few films have become the instant cultural phenomenons this one has and still packed as much substance. It’s likely to remain in the AFI Top 100 forever, even though it’s fallen into the bottom quarter.

Personally, I think Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers got it right. When he compiled his 100 Maverick Movies of the 20th Century, he felt inclined to include a group of movies under the heading: “Mainstream hits that still have juice.” It included Gone With the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1942), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), On the Waterfront (1954), Jaws (1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and, you guessed it, The Silence of the Lambs. Very rarely does a pop culture phenomenon wipe up at the Academy Awards. How glorious when the popcorn kernels taste like Oscar statues.

Citations:

CITE A: Special Edition DVD booklet

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