When I first saw "The Silence of the Lambs" on Valentine's Day in 1991, I found
it chilling and intense but not much more than a sophisticated slasher film
"with a little taste." Now, in the year 2001, ten years later after its release,
I find it is far smoother and tighter than I thought. This is more than a
chilling, intense thriller - it is a psychological thriller and character study
that often resembles an unusual love story. Let me explain further.
As the film opens, we are introduced to a young, virile woman running in the
woods, training to be an FBI agent. She is Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), an
ambitious woman eager to study criminal psychology and behavioral science. FBI
Section Chief Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) wants Clarice to run a test on Dr.
Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a psychiatrist who also happens to be a
cannibal and is being held in a Baltimore prison surrounded by thick glass
Crawford: "Do you spook easily Starling?"
Clarice: "Not yet sir."
Clarice is determined to question Dr. Lecter and decipher any knowledge he might
have about a serial killer on the loose known as Buffalo Bill aka Jame Gumm (Ted
Levine). This killer likes to skin the humps of heavyset girls and may possibly
be a transsexual. Apparently, Lecter knows him very well.
The initial meeting of Lecter and Clarice is enough to give people goosebumps
and nightmares for weeks. We enter a cavernous prison underground surrounded by
some obscenely red lighting and red gates, as if we were entering Hell (a heavy
murmur that gets louder and louder is heard on the soundtrack). She meets Lecter
who stands motionless in his cell whispering, "Good Morning." Their conversation
is so memorable that it stands as one of the most classic introductions of evil
characters to grace the silver screen since Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Lecter
analyzes Clarice to the fullest, fully aware of her second-rate shoes, the
disguising of her West Virginia accent and knowing she would do anything to keep
away from her homely existence by going so far as to join the FBI. In this
scene, we see how Jodie Foster's Clarice works - she maintains her cool and
composure without crying, though she wants to. Then she turns the tables on
Lecter, asking if he has the temerity to look at himself and analyze his own
This gets to Lecter who has finally met his match in the form of an ambitious
FBI trainee, who also happens to be a woman.
Based on Thomas Harris's novel, "Silence of the Lambs" involves and engages us
from the start, closing in on an investigation of murders in the midwest of
women found in ditches or lakes with their skins removed. It is all part of the
Buffalo Bill murder spree and Clarice needs Lecter to provide crucial details,
such as Buffalo Bill's real name and whereabouts. An exchange has to occur as
she fools Lecter into thinking he can be moved from Baltimore to a pleasant
island known as Plum Island where he can roam the beach freely "under Swat team
surveillance, of course." But the film is not just interested in grisly details
of murders or scamming jailed killers. Each passing event and sequence invites
us to see how Clarice Starling is affected and changed by them. And we also see
how she is affected by Lecter and how he gets inside her head. After their
initial meeting, Clarice walks to her car, reminded of memories of her father
Clarice Starling is also the focus of "The Silence of the Lambs" as we see how a
woman lives and breathes in a man's world, and how she copes with her slain
father who was a cop killed on the line of duty. We see two brief flashbacks of
her as a child, one where she is greeted by her father and another where she is
at his funeral. They pinpoint to a woman who has her emotions in check but is
unable to forget her past thanks to Lecter's intervention in her psychological
And how can a short, ambitious, sincere woman survive in a man's world? Several
scenes indicate that her every encounter with a man results in romantic
interest. For example, there is her initial encounter with Dr. Chilton (Anthony
Heald), Lecter's psychiatrist, who reminds Clarice that the town of Baltimore
is fun "if you have the right guide." One entomologist asks her to go out for
"cheesburgers and beer."
More often than not, Clarice is reminded that she is a minority. There are
several examples such as when Clarice enters an elevator of tall, imposing men.
At the mortuary where a slain victim of Buffalo Bill's is being autopsied,
Crawford tells the sheriff that certain elements of the sex crime should not be
discussed in front of Clarice. Yet she maintains her cool and shows
determination and persistence, no matter who gets in her way. It is doubly
ironic that Hannibal Lecter is the only man who shows her some level of respect.
The film is directed by Jonathan Demme ("Beloved," "Melvin and Howard") and he
has a fascinating device in the film that is also used sparingly in
"Philadelphia." He shows us mostly close-ups of his characters and shifts in
reverse angle shots by showing another character off-center. Often the
characters seem to be looking straight at us - a subjective device that would
often seem distracting is cleverly used in the film, particularly the meetings
between Clarice and Lecter. The subjectivity forces us to study their faces and
understand what they are thinking and feeling.
The casting is impeccable. Jodie Foster is unequivocally seamless as Clarice
Starling - tender, tough, sincere, argumentative, vulnerable. She has her flaws
but shows fierce ambition and all the characters in the film know it. Anthony
Hopkins (thankfully not typecast, though he might have been) is sheer excellence
as Lecter. He has remarkable stillness and a quiet, calm voice that carries a
sense of understated malice - he has a way with words and can tell what kind of
fragrance a woman wears. More than that, he can get inside your skin and rattle
your nerves. Lecter also has a way with biting people's cheeks while listening
to Bach's "Goldberg Variations." Amazingly, Hopkins is only on screen for twenty
minutes but his presence looms large throughout. Both actors won deserved Oscars
for their roles.
There are so many memorable moments in its 118 minute running time that remain
etched in one's memory. Clarice's meetings with Lecter are all exceptionally
shot and edited. I love her story of the screaming lambs and the one lamb she
tried to save (not to mention the priceless shot of Lecter's tears after hearing
her story). The moment when Clarice shakes Crawford's hand after getting her
official FBI badge. The intricately shot scene at a building where Lecter makes
his extraordinary escape while FBI agents circle his cell. The unquestionably
suspenseful climax where Clarice hunts for Buffalo Bill in his subterranean lair
(look closely at shots of moths and swastikas). The autopsy scene of the slain
girl which is quite heartbreaking to watch, thanks to Foster's controlled yet
emotional observations. And there is so much more.
Another exceptional aspect as to why "The Silence of the Lambs" works is because
it chooses to be uniquely disturbing without showing much gore. A film about a
cannibal and a serial killer with a predilection for skin could very well show
plenty of gore and bloody executions. Instead, director Demme implies as much as
he shows, forcing us to imagine certain unseen events. My favorite moment is
when Dr. Chilton shows Clarice a picture of what Lecter did to a helpless nurse
- a close-up of her reaction to the photo says so much more than what is
actually in the photo.
At heart, "The Silence of the Lambs" is really about the relationship between
Lecter and Clarice, resulting in a love story of sorts between a monster and his
mate. "People will say we are in love," says Lecter. Of course, it is more of a
mutual respect for one another, not a literal love story of a sexually
attractive couple. Clarice and Lecter both test and size each other up, and
continue being personal and up close. It is only fitting that this film was
released on February 14th.
Copyright © 2001 Jerry Saravia