DR. HANNIBAL LECTER. BRILLIANT. CUNNING. PSYCHOTIC. IN HIS MIND LIES THE CLUE TO A RUTHLESS KILLER. CLARICE STARLING, F.B.I.. BRILLIANT. VULNERABLE. ALONE. SHE MUST TRUST HIM TO STOP THE KILLER.
Rumor has it that author Thomas Harris has never seen the film adaptation of his novel “The Silence of the Lambs”. I’m not sure I believe that, but if it’s true perhaps Harris should see it and learn, considering how his subsequent novels about Hannibal Lecter have been unable to reach the height of Jonathan Demme’s version.
This serial killer thriller stands as one of the best ever, so intense and chilling that one can’t help but being drawn into its seedy world. Hannibal Lecter was first introduced to moviegoers in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), but it was in this film that he became a worldwide phenomenon. Demme had made a fair share of documentaries before this movie and succeeds in making it as frighteningly realistic as possible.
Killing and skinning women
Autumnal views of a fairly cold and damp Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania dominate this tale of a murderer nicknamed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) who kills women, skins them and dumps their bodies in watery areas. The FBI has reached a dead end and needs the help of a professional, another serial killer called Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) who’s been interned in a maximum security prison for eight years. He isn’t talking, but special agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) sends an inexperienced cadet, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), there to see if her presence makes a difference. It does. Lecter gives her a clue, and soon the investigation is progressing. Lecter is a former psychiatrist who was exposed as a murderer with cannibalistic urges (he tells Clarice that he once enjoyed a census taker’s liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti) and it turns out that Buffalo Bill was probably a former patient of his.
But in order to divulge information about this man to Clarice he demands quid pro quo. He wants a better cell and he wants Clarice to open up and tell him a few things about herself. It’s a dangerous game, but as Clarice and the FBI come closer to finding Buffalo Bill, she learns more about herself during the sessions with Dr. Lecter. He, on the other hand, has specific plans for the future that the FBI won’t like.
Final showdown a masterstroke
What a Hollywood breakthrough this was for British actor Anthony Hopkins. He had enjoyed decades of prosperity on stage, film and television, but I guess nothing could prepare him for the kind of superstar status he would enjoy after playing a person who has the power to intimidate in profound ways even when he’s locked up in a cage. Hopkins plays Lecter as a flamboyant and dangerous, yet somehow discreet, intelligent and playful human being. In a tense and brilliantly directed sequence in Memphis, Hopkins puts those qualities fully on display. Foster is equally good as the rookie who isn’t even yet an agent; she has a past that torments her and her daring choice is compelling – will it be a therapeutic, cleansing path to mental health, or one that will destroy her? Anthony Heald is also very amusing as the arrogant and sadistic shrink in charge of Lecter and his fellow prisoners.
Demme uses close-ups a lot and that becomes a mesmerizing part of the film; it’s easy to be fascinated by the characters’ faces. The final showdown between Clarice and Buffalo Bill is such a masterstroke, a wonderful example of how suspense is constructed in the editing room. Howard Shore helps immensely with his eerily oppressive music; this is the score that became his true breakthrough.
The film deals with ugly, dark subject matters (it has been accused of transphobia in later years), but director Demme never loses his wits and neither does the story. We are manipulated into seeing an evil man as kind of a hero in the film – and we’re pleased to see him triumph in the last scene.
The Silence of the Lambs 1991-U.S. 118 min. Color. Produced by Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, Ron Bozman. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Screenplay: Ted Tally. Novel: Thomas Harris. Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto. Music: Howard Shore. Editing: Craig McKay. Cast: Jodie Foster (Clarice Starling), Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal Lecter), Scott Glenn (Jack Crawford), Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith… Roger Corman, Chris Isaak. Cameo: George A. Romero.
Trivia: Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall were allegedly offered the part of Lecter. Serial killer Buffalo Bill is a composite of three actual murderers: Ed Gein, Ted Bundy and Gary Heidnick. The character of Lecter next appeared in Hannibal (2001); also followed by two TV series, Hannibal (2013-2015) and Clarice (2021- ).
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Hopkins), Actress (Foster), Adapted Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Actor (Hopkins), Actress (Foster). Golden Globe: Best Actress (Foster). Berlin: Best Director.
Quote: “I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.” (Hopkins to Foster)
Last word: “There’s something very cool about taking from Hitchcock and Fuller. So [Tak Fujimoto and I] started playing around with subjective cameras with ‘Melvin and Howard’, and a little bit here and a little bit there. Then along came ‘Silence of the Lambs’, and that seemed like, ‘This is why we’ve been playing with subjective camera. Let’s go for it.’ Because they go inside each other’s heads. So we went for it. That, in a certain way, was a fulfilling experience. We had been pursuing a certain kind of style, a classic style: Roger Corman meets classic Hollywood shooting with a strong dose of subjective camera and a little seasoning of Martin Scorsese hand-held.” (Demme, A.V. Club)