This article was originally published to SSP Thinks Film by Sam Sewell-Peterson.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenwriter: Ted Tally
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Scott Glenn, Brooke Smith, Frankie Faison, Anthony Heald, Kasi Lemmons, Diane Baker, Stuart Rudin
In the foreword to the new edition of his novel “Red Dragon” published in 2000, Hannibal Lecter’s creator Thomas Harris admitted that the character still frightened him, that he held some strange supernatural power over his creative process. He wrote: “I found, and find, the scrutiny of Dr Lecter uncomfortable, intrusive” and that “I did not know that Dr Lecter would return”. But return he did, and the second Hannibal Lecter story, The Silence of the Lambs has since become the most famous, largely due to Jonathan Demme’s iconic 1991 film adaptation.
To catch a meticulous and depraved serial killer, the FBI must use the mind of another meticulous and depraved serial killer. When FBI trainee Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) enters the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to interview Dr Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a game of wits begins as she attempts to use Lecter’s invaluable knowledge of criminal psychology to capture the illusive Buffalo Bill before he kills again, all without allowing Lecter to probe her mind.
Point of view is really interesting in Silence of the Lambs. It’s not really a murder-mystery because we know who the killer is almost from the start. It is, instead, really all about how Starling puts the pieces together and whether she will manage it before the body count increases. The camera echoes this by staying at Starling’s eye-level and having every other character speak directly to her, and to us. This is a very Thomas Harris way of telling a story, with director Jonathan Demme deftly taking on this voice and putting the viewer at the heart of the action.
Clarice is set up to be underestimated from the opening sequence, with the 5’2″ Foster hemmed in on all sides by big men in the FBI lift. She has to work twice as hard to be noticed, to be respected and valued, but she has likely learned to use these expectations of her (based on her sex and stature) to catch people off-guard. She puts up with a lot of belittling and more blatant sexism, from FBI colleagues including Scott Glenn’s Crawford (sympathetic, supportive, but still using her), Anthony Heald’s puffed-up Dr Chilton (superior, lecherous), Frankie Faison’s hospital orderly Barney (kindly but patronising), but she also gets to play her hand, using guile and fortitude to keep at least a step ahead of everyone she encounters. Unless she is caught off guard by sociopaths that is, whether by a keenly honed tool like Lecter or a blunt object like Buffalo Bill.
Quite rightly, the film is best-known and best-loved because of its tension-soaked drawn-out set pieces, not the usual action or visual spectacle, but conversations, Clarice and Dr Lecter mentally sparring, each trying to dissect the other. These scenes may only be a few minutes a piece, but Foster and Hopkins make them crackle, giving Harris’ words, adapted almost verbatim at times, even more bite. From Lecter’s iconic, low-key reveal to the barrier that constantly divides them as their sessions get really intimate in the details, these sequences are masterful examples of economic yet deep dives into character.
“It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again”.
Its completely understandable that Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) can be seen as an offensive stereotype, that his prominence in pop culture along with several other examples from the 90s probably did the public perception of the gay and trans community lasting damage. The book does a better job of distancing him from the group he is often seen to represent: “It’s taken years – we’re not through yet – showing the public that transsexuals aren’t crazy, they aren’t perverts”. I’d be inclined to see him as one isolated, disturbed individual (Lecter even theorises that “Billy is not a real transsexual”, though this clearly has attached issues of gatekeeping,) but since the film unwisely dropped this extended subplot from the book, some nuance is lost. When trans characters are so seldom seen in mainstream films, appearing like this is problematic.
There’s something behind Hopkins’ eyes that is utterly terrifying. We empathise with Clarice and her struggles, we even feel a modicum of pity for Buffalo Bill, but we are never asked to feel anything but fear towards Lecter. As Harris came to realise when he wrote him, he represents the line to never cross. On film he remains beguiling and fascinating but an enigma from his introduction to his escape and beyond.
The misdirection at play in Silence of the Lambs is particularly striking, as Lecter is fully aware of the wider story he is a part of and how his information (or withholding of such) is shaping it. While it wasn’t the first movie to do it, the stomach-lurching cross-cut edit that leaves Starling unexpectedly alone and vulnerable for the final act remains a shock every time. This trick of storytelling is even foreshadowed earlier with Clarice’s flashbacks to her worst childhood memory, changes in time and location not signposted but blended into the same scene and thus Clarice’s perception of the present and how she got there.
For all of Hopkins’ showy twenty minutes or so of screen time, it’s not Lecter alone we remember about The Silence of the Lambs, but his dynamic with Clarice. That’s one of the many reasons why the follow-ups weren’t as compelling; Lecter is only interesting when interacting with a worthy opponent, and in the other films he’s in the spotlight on his own for far too long. This is Foster’s movie through-and-through, and it’s her gutsy performance that makes this masterfully slick thriller so memorable.
Recommended for you: ‘Hannibal’ at 20 – Review