Silence of the Lambs

Release date: February 14, 1991

Director: Jonathan Demme

Cast: Jodie Foster Scott Glenn Anthony Hopkins Ted Levine Brooke Smith Anthony Heald Kasi Lemmons Diane Baker

The Silence of the Lambs opens introducing us to FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a smart student who has been chosen by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the head of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, to help in the finding of a murderer named Buffalo Bill, who skins his victims after killing them. Crawford wants Clarice go to the famous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, or "Hannibal the Cannibal" as he has become known, and get Lecter to provide some information about Buffalo Bill. Crawford claims that Lecter might be more willing to open up to a woman. The good doctor offers Clarice a quid pro quo deal. Each time he shares a piece of information about Buffalo Bill, Clarice must reveal something about her past. So, while hannibal is helping Clarice get closer to Buffalo Bill, he is also slowly entering into her psyche.

There is little doubt that best aspect of The Silence of the Lambs is Anthony Hopkins' perfect performance as Lecter. Taking over for Brian Cox, who was good, but not too memorable, as the good doctor in 1986's Manhunter, Hopkins instantly makes the role his own, capturing and conveying the charismatic essence of pure evil. To his dying day, no matter how many more movies he plays in, Hopkins will always be best know for his part as hannibal. I can throw out any number of superlatives, but none of them do any type of justice to this chilling performance, which I think is one of the best acting works in the '90s. Want to feel the icy fingers of terror stroke your heart? Watch this mixture of brilliant eloquence and inhuman cruelty. As portrayed by Hopkins, Hannibal is both a brilliant, cultured gentleman and an unspeakable fiend. He is gracious and horrific at the same time. (Hopkins also provided one of the most quotable lines in recent film history with "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti", which was followed by an inimitable slithering slurp.)

Jodie Foster's interpretation of Clarice Starling is not nearly as great as Hopkins' work, but the film wouldn't have been the same without her. In a quiet, non-flashy manner, but at the same time not too impressive Foster takes ownership of Clarice, transforming her into the films protagonist; she is our point-of-entry into. There isn't a false note in the performance. Of course Foster's best scenes are the ones where she is with Hopkins, such as the instance in which Clarice's facial expression crumbles almost imperceptibly while Lecter coldly and cruelly dissects her life. It's debatable whether she deserved a Best Actress Oscar for her work in The Silence of the Lambs (I personally don't think she did that great of a job, but I never really liked Jodie Foster so have my own biases), but she definitely deserves more recognition for the films success then she receives.

In terms of psychological depth, Lecter easily matches Clarice. He's far smarter and dangerous than any real-world murderer; it's a wonder that he was caught at all (a story related as background material for Manhunter), it's not suprising that they take huge precautions when dealing with him. As Lecter is part-man, part-machine. Hopkins has invoked 2001's HAL when asked about his inspiration for creating the character. Yet, as dark as hannibal can be, there's still parts of him that want to be recognized as a human being, and this is what draws him to Clarice. He respects her intelligence, is interested in her ambition and femaleness, and is touched by her sad and bitter past. He senses a kinship. Their relationship becomes twisted and complicated, kind of like a student and mentor relationship, father and daughter, and husband and wife all rolled together. By the end of The Silence of the Lambs, it is obvious that both characters have had a huge impact on the other.

Unfortunately, as impossible as it is to look away from the screen when you see Lector, the same type of attitude can not exist for Buffalo Bill, who is a ordinary demented personality drawn from Serial Killers 101. Him being the main antagonist throughout the film Buffalo Bill isn't too special and even kind of boring as the main antagonist. Don't get me wrong Ted Levine is OK in the role, but there's not a lot to grab on to: a transvestite who is so interested with women that he is making an outfit out of their skin. What's disappointing about The Silence of the Lambs' presentation of Buffalo Bill (real name: Jame Gumb) is that it doesn't give you the same detailed look into his pathology as it does that of Hannibal Lecter. In terms of villains, Bill looks like a joke when compared with Lecter, and this definitely dilutes the climax's impact.

Jonathan Demme's sure-handed direction is helped immeasurably by the work of his cinematographer (Tak Fujimoto), his production designer (Kristi Zea), and his editor (Craig McKay). The Silence of the Lambs always looks good, of course slowly builds suspense, and does not outstay its welcome. Many two-hour thrillers have some boring parts to them, but that's one characteristic of the genre this film is able to avoid. Instead of using the common tactic of priming an audience by employing "boo" moments (fake scares), Demme uses what he calls "deceptive cutting" to increase the tension. There are also little cues that hint at bigger dangers, such as when Clarice receives a nail prick while sliding under the partially-closed door to the garage where she finds Bill's first victim.

That scene, with Clarice slowly making her way through the dark, uncertain world populated by mannequins, is one of the movie's creepiest moments. The longer, original cut (available on both the laserdisc and DVD special edition) is even more evocative, as rats play a song on a piano keyboard. Another memorable moment is Clarice's descent into the depths where she first meets hannibal. When she reaches the lowest level, the reddish glow of Dante's hell is all around her. Demme then employs a point-of-view shot as she walks descends down the long hall towards Lecter's cell, putting us in her position. The director also uses effective editing as well as reflections to point out the relationship between Clarice and Lecter. In one scene, the camera focuses on Clarice while Lecter's face appears to hover, in the air beside her. Another scene, while Clarice tells the story of the lambs, Demme switches back and forth between close-ups of Clarice's tortured looking face and Lecter's eager one. This is the scene that creates the strongest ties between them. Lecter sees that Clarice needs to save one innocent lamb (in this case, Buffalo Bill's latest captive) to redeem herself, and he gives her the information that will allow her to do so.

Demme has stated that, he wanted to be faithful to Thomas Harris' text, so he worked with screenwriter Ted Tally to keep more than just the essence of the novel in the final version of the movie. So the movie becomes a thriller with no sex, no gratuitous nudity, and no overt romance (thank god). There are no car crashes, chases, or stunts, yet the level of suspense is still able to remain high. For this, the credit must go to everyone involved in the production, from the director and actors to the technical staff.

Since the 1991 release, much a lot of different things have been written about The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter, Clarice Starling, and their complicated relationship. Thomas Harris was so interested by the characters that he ended up writing the sequal, Hannibal, which soared into the top spot on best-seller lists countrywide as soon as it was released. The Silence of the Lambs may not have been the best thriller of the year, but it was the most chilling.

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