I love this movie. I love this movie right from the Twin Peaks-ish font of the opening credits (ah, 1991) to the fly crawling on Sir Anthony Hopkins’s forehead as he nonchalantly talks on the phone about having an old friend for dinner. It’s so rare that scary movies get the critical acclaim that The Silence of the Lambs did; but then, it’s also rare that scary movies are this damn good.
The Silence of the Lambs was based on the book by Thomas Harris. My relationship with Harris’s writing is a long and passionate one, and this film was the thing that started me on that road. I’m not sure if this film/book was responsible for my whole true-crime thing that took me through most of the ‘90s, but it definitely was a factor. From Jonathan Demme’s direction to Ted Tally’s screenplay to the brilliant performances by Hopkins and Jodie Foster, there’s precious (good dog, Precious) little that doesn’t hold up about this film, even this many years later.
Apparently, despite Foster having recently won a Best Actress Oscar for The Accused, Demme was hesitant to give her the role of FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, though she lobbied hard for it. According to a retrospective NME piece, Demme first went to Michelle Pfeiffer and Meg Ryan, and both of them turned it down. The film was too dark for them, they said. No offense to either of them (particularly Michelle, whom I love with all my soul), but I’m glad they abstained courteously.
The role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter was offered to Sean Connery first, but honestly, I’m pretty sure every role for a man of a certain age in 1991 was offered to Sean Connery first. I’m glad he said no, too, and I’ve crushed him since I was 17. Roles like Starling and Lecter, in a story like this, if you go into them with the slightest bit of trepidation, will eat you alive…with fava beans and a nice Chianti.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 29 years, The Silence of the Lambs follows Clarice Starling as she helps senior FBI agents hunt down a serial killer, Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb (Ted Levine), who has been abducting heavyset young women and skinning them. She enlists the aid of another notorious killer, the psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, who is in prison for eating his victims.
No one can say Harris didn’t do his homework before writing his book. Both Dr. Lecter and Buffalo Bill are composites of some of the worst examples of humanity ever to grace the planet. Even the idea of using a killer to catch a killer comes from reality. Ted Bundy, responsible for the deaths of over 30 women in the 1970s, while waiting for his turn in the electric chair, offered his services to the FBI’s Behavioural Science team. Advice from Bundy eventually led to the capture of Gary Leon Ridgway, the “Green River Killer,” whose body count was more than twice that of Bundy’s own.
I could easily do a whole article on the backstory of the book and the awful individuals that inspired its characters. But no, we’re here for the film, which is compelling on its own, even without considering all the real-life horror behind it.
Right off the bat, the film establishes itself as a woman’s story. Clarice Starling certainly isn’t the only female cadet undergoing FBI training at Quantico, but there’s something special about her, and the film makes sure we know that. When we first meet Starling, she is running through the woods over a grueling obstacle course. Her running gear is soaked with sweat, which clashes beautifully with the demure pearl earrings she wears throughout the film.
She runs alone, and when she passes a group of male cadets, they all turn their heads to look at her. It’s not in a licentious kind of way—she spends the whole movie with men looking at her like she’s a zoo animal, like they’re not quite sure what to make of her. Her run is interrupted by a summons from Behavioural Science department head Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). Jodie Foster is only 5’3”, and Demme uses that to great effect here. The elevator she takes down to the Behavioural Science office is full up with guys who all tower over her. Starling notices but is coolly unruffled—she’s clearly used to this.
It is a fantastic directorial trick of Demme’s that most of the time, when people talk to Starling, they are looking straight into the camera, so we share her perspective. When she speaks to others, her focus is just off-center of the camera. We know right from the start in whose cheap shoes (good bag, though) we are meant to be walking. I don’t know if Harris set out to tell a decidedly feminist story (for all that the protagonist is a woman), but Demme and Tally definitely didn’t shy away from there.
Starling spends the whole movie with men hitting on her or talking down to her (or at the very least being deliberately unhelpful), and she deals with it every time by keeping her cool and being smarter and more capable than most of the men. She plays the game when she has to, but even when she is deferential and unfailingly polite, you can tell when it’s making her teeth ache a bit.
Another great thing that Demme does is the way he handles the violence. It’s on a need-to-know basis. When Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) shows Starling the photo of what Dr. Lecter had done to the nurse, we don’t see the front of the photo. We hear Chilton’s words, and we see Starling’s reaction. That’s plenty, and it allows us to fill in the gaps ourselves. That makes it even scarier than if we saw the gory details.
Heald’s portrayal of Frederick Chilton is unctuous—and right on the money. Within five minutes of meeting Starling, he makes a pass at her, then gets crotchety when she rejects him not only as a date but as an escort to go meet Dr. Lecter. It’s always terribly telling of Dr. Chilton when he says of his patient, “I keep him in here,” as if Dr. Lecter is a thing, a prized possession.
Speaking of prized possessions, here he comes. Hannibal the Cannibal, the role that made Anthony Hopkins a sex symbol, the ultimate “but I could fix him” fantasy for everyone who’s ever crushed a bad boy. Hopkins was given some say in his own character. The idea to wear white was his, to play on our fears of medical professionals, even the ones who aren’t likely to eat you. He based his voice and movements on reptiles, which accounts for the iconic voice. In one of the books (I forget which one), Dr. Lecter is described as “imperially slim,” and you see that in Hopkins. And Dr. Lecter is talked about a lot for the first bit of the film, but you don’t lay eyes on him until around 20 minutes in.
The choice to use glass for his cell as opposed to the bars that everyone else in his cell block has was a brilliant one, and he is just standing there. Calm, dignified, and waiting. We are Starling, and we are the camera, and his eyes stare into our souls as he talks to us. Also, I’ve always felt that even though he tells Starling that he himself cannot smell her you-know-what, the implication is that he could do if he really wanted.
When Michelle Pfeiffer turned down the role of Clarice Starling because she was uncomfortable with some of the “darker aspects” of the role, one has to imagine that getting semen thrown into her face was high on the list of things she meant by that. It’s perfect punctuation to the preceding scene. Dr. Lecter has eviscerated Starling with truths about herself and her upbringing (and her shoes), and she is trying to make her way out of the cellblock with her head up.
When Multiple Miggs (Stuart Rudin) next door flings his fluids at her, the quiet of her attempted exit is shattered. Dr. Lecter calls her back, and even though he’s finally saying things that are helpful, he has to raise his voice over the increasing din of the other inmates. The tension of the whole thing builds and builds, until finally—when Dr. Lecter shouts, “Go now!”—we are fleeing out of that place along with Starling.
We leave Starling crying on the hood of her car and get a flashback to the childhood Dr. Lecter had been skewering. It’s always interesting to me that the film bothers to give her father more status than he had in the book. In the book, he’s a night watchman. Movie-dad was a town marshal and got to have not only a noble sort of death, but also to provide inspiration for his daughter’s future law-enforcement aspirations.
Speaking of father figures (whatever else Clarice Starling may be, she’s a girl who uses her daddy issues to her advantage), it took me a little while to get used to Scott Glenn again as Jack Crawford. He’s much more book-accurate than Hannibal’s Laurence Fishburne, which is ironic to me upon rewatch, when you consider what a badass Scott Glenn has actually become in his old age. Seriously, have you seen him lately? He’s become this ripped AF martial-arts expert at the age of 80-ish.
Crawford serves here as Starling’s mentor, but also represents the male species that Starling spends her life dealing with. When he does something male and butthead-ish, he’s reasonable enough that Starling is able to be honest with him about it. And I’m pretty sure he knows she’s smarter than he is—she’s certainly the same kind of young, scrappy, and hungry that maybe he was once, but knows he isn’t anymore. I think that’s the real reason he tapped her for this gig, although to be fair, he had other reasons that were less noble. He knows she will appeal to Dr. Lecter, and he knows that he can feign disdain of her as a way to bro around with local law enforcement, to further their cooperation.
I always question Glenn’s line delivery when he gives her the news about Miggs swallowing his own tongue—“Lecter did it to amuse himself.” No, Scott, he didn’t. That may have been part of the reason why, but Dr. Lecter killed Miggs to punish Miggs for the discourtesy he forced upon Starling. Does Crawford put it this way to her so that she won’t feel responsible for the death of another human being, even one like Miggs? Maybe.
When Starling returns to the hospital after following Dr. Lecter’s lead to Benjamin Raspail’s head (Edward Saxon), she breaks all the rules she was given. She doesn’t even park in the parking lot. Dr. Chilton is bypassed, as is the formality of a chair for her. She sits on the floor, right up against the glass of Dr. Lecter’s cell, as she was told not to do. When he passes her a towel (he is so very polite, and so is she), she takes it and says thank you, despite having been told not to accept anything from him. When he starts dropping hints about Buffalo Bill, that’s when her first real faceoff with him happens. She rises from her seat on the floor, practically in slow motion. “You know who he is, don’t you?” He’s still got his cards close to his chest, but now she knows what game they’re playing.
Another body turns up in another river, and Starling gets pulled from class to go assist. I have to give an enormous shoutout to the women who played the dead girls—they are the unsung heroes of this movie (as a Twin Peaks fan, I always wonder if, ever since Twin Peaks, any actress who played a corpse had hopes of becoming the next Laura Palmer, their career skyrocketing as the result of it). It’s got to be a particular kind of grueling to lie there, naked and covered in dirt and fake wounds, while others emote around you. A nice touch that I wish more films would do is acknowledge that corpses smell bad. Smudges of Vicks Vapor Rub under the noses of the FBI team aren’t flattering, but they are a reality that Demme doesn’t shirk.
Starling is affected by the victims on multiple levels, aside from simply being a rookie at this kind of thing. The girls resonate with her because with her upbringing, she could have been any of them. And she’s protective of them. Her first action is to shoo away the local law enforcement. She’s very polite about it (almost schoolmarmish, and you can tell they don’t appreciate it), but very firm. Go drink your coffee somewhere away from the dead naked girl, boys. No gawking on my watch.
Back to Baltimore, to dance with Dr. Lecter some more, because another girl has been taken, and the clock is ticking. Now the dance is set to the tune of “quid pro quo”—Dr. Lecter will trade what he knows about Buffalo Bill in exchange for personal information from Starling. She agrees to it without hesitation, and you can see him sucking up her life like a vampire (a comparison that is made in another of the books). He tells her, “Don’t lie, or I’ll know,” and you have to wonder if that’s true.
Crawford certainly feared that Dr. Lecter would detect deceit when he first sent Starling to talk to him, which is why he hadn’t told her the real reason she was going. But when Starling pitches the idea of a transfer for Dr. Lecter to a different, more preferable institution, that’s a bluff he doesn’t see through. Or maybe he does, and chooses to go along with it just to keep her coming back? It’s hard to imagine anyone getting anything over on Dr. Lecter.
My only real complaint with this film has to do with Dr. Chilton’s pen. They make a big point of showing Dr. Lecter staring at the pen, and then he uses a piece of it to pick the lock of the handcuffs the Tennessee police put him in later. I saw the film before reading the book, and it drove me crazy—how did he get hold of the damn pen? Am I to assume that Chilton was sloppy enough to have left it in his cell? I have trouble buying that, since it’s clearly an expensive pen that Chilton enjoys playing with, even when he’s not using it to write. And they show him missing the pen later, but how did Dr. Lecter get it?
Then I read the book and discovered that, ah, he didn’t get it. In the book, Dr. Lecter has a handcuff key that he had made over the course of his eight years in that cell, and he had been waiting for his chance to use it. It absolutely makes more sense cinematically for it to be the pen, but I wish Demme had given me just a little more on how Dr. Lecter could have conceivably gotten his hands on it.
The transfer is happening, through the less attentive machinations of Dr. Chilton, and doesn’t Dr. Lecter so enjoy being smarter than Chilton! In Tennessee, Dr. Lecter is for some reason being kept in a municipal building, rather than the regular lockup. The cell they’ve constructed for him is quite posh and roomy, and he’s got back his books and music. When Starling fibs her way in to give him back his drawings, he greets her with a wry “People will say we’re in love.” Yes, Dr. Lecter, quoting Oklahoma! makes you sexier…at least, it did to me.
That final scene with her and him? What is there to say about it? They both won freaking Oscars (you remember the Oscars that year? Hopkins won his first, and when Foster got up to receive hers she grinned at him and said “quid pro quo, Doctor”). The speech about the lambs is brilliant, she’s brilliant, and that way he ever so slightly runs his finger over hers as he hands her the case file back…shivers.
Lest we forget that we are technically watching a horror movie (or at least a scary one), now it’s time for some relatively gory cop-killing. My initial takeaway from this scene was disappointment that a perfectly good plate of rare lamb chops had been wasted (give them to meeeeee). It’s a really well-done attack scene, done with each shot almost like panels of a comic book. And again, the violence is never more than you need. Another director would have showed the cop getting his skull bashed in, as opposed to just Dr. Lecter, calmly swinging the nightstick. And this horrible, fast-paced violence is bookended on either side by Dr. Lecter serenely enjoying “The Goldberg Variations.” Never let it be said the man didn’t have an appreciation for beautiful things…though honestly, I always felt his pencil sketch of Starling with her lamb was a little trite for him.
In comes local law enforcement to check on him. An aside—why on earth does Chris Isaak have the prominent billing he does in this film? He’s a random FBI guy, and I’m always happy to see him. In my headcanon, this was simply early days for Agent Chet Desmond’s career. Dr. Lecter is certainly skilled at his particular form of mayhem and can get it done super-quick. He’s got the one cop strung up in the bloody eagle tableau and has managed to get the other one into his own clothes and on the roof of the elevator. And still he’s had time to skin the face off of that cop, and wear it out of there himself.
Yikes! Dr. Lecter has escaped from prison! Starling is pretty sure she’s not next on the menu, but as for abducted girl, Catherine Martin…her odds of survival are getting lower by the minute. A nice detail from the book is the scene in which Starling and her friend Ardelia go over the case file together, sitting on top of the washer/dryer in the laundry room. Starling does laundry in times of crisis, and apparently so do a lot of people. It’s because the sound of the machines comes close to the sounds we hear in utero, from our mothers’ heartbeats.
Also, did you notice Jonathan Demme has a thing for cats? When Catherine Martin is first abducted, it is outside her home, and she’s cooing up to the cat in the window before entering. When Buffalo Bill grabs her (using the Bundy method of wearing a fake cast, so as to play on his victims’ sympathies), not only was I concerned for Catherine, I was also concerned for her cat…especially knowing that Mommy will also be bringing home a new dog by the end of this, and how is kitty going to feel about that?
I don’t remember where I got it from, but back in the day, I saw some alternate cut of this film, which, among other things, included a line from Starling, when she’s insisting to Crawford that she needs to keep on with the investigation. I don’t remember it precisely, but it was along the lines of, “This guy hunts women, and the only woman hunting him is me.” Maybe Demme thought it was a little on the nose? This cut also did not include Dr. Lecter’s line at the end, where he tells Starling he has no plans to call on her. All things considered, the theatrical release was a better idea.
I can’t talk about Silence of the Lambs without special mention to Ted Levine, whose performance as Buffalo Bill is just as creepy and iconic as Anthony Hopkins’s is. I always appreciated how the film makes a big point of saying that Buffalo Bill isn’t a real transsexual. It should also be mentioned that when I saw this film first-run, I was young and naïve and didn’t know that “tucking” was a thing that men could do, and hey, respect.
Buffalo Bill’s dance wasn’t in the original screenplay, but it was put back in at Levine’s insistence, because he felt it demonstrated necessary depth to the character. There’s a line he gets in the book that I wish they had left in—right before he dies, he asks Starling what it feels like to be so beautiful. I also wish they had been a little more clear about the identity of the corpse in the bathtub, by the way.
That last bit in the basement is one of those edge-of-your-seat-heart-in-mouth-straight-up-horror-movie sequences. Starling is flailing around in Bill’s labyrinthine basement. Those little laughs this film occasionally throws us are wonderfully valuable, as if we should remember to take a breath. “FBI, you’re safe!” remains one of the most hilariously ironic lines in modern cinema. We should also notice Starling remembering to check the corners of every room she enters, which is a nice callback to her failing to do this in a classroom setting earlier.
Not going to lie, the book has a bit more realism to it when it comes to the end of the story. After all, Starling missed a bunch of classes and probably exams while she was off doing extracurricular crime-solving. She comes dangerously close to having to repeat her courses. In the film, I guess we should just assume that Crawford took care of it, and thus Starling got to have her graduation and fancy FBI cake right on schedule.
And can someone please tell me what the bug guys are doing at the graduation party? True, they helped identify the telltale moth in the victim’s throat, and Starling didn’t seem to mind one of them hitting on her (in the book, she actually goes away with him for the weekend, and I’ve always found it interesting that they deliberately cast the goofy-looking Paul Lazar as Dr. Pilcher). They’re not even both PhDs. Maybe if you help solve a case even a little, you get to come have cake?
Like I said, The Silence of the Lambs holds up beautifully, even this many years later, and you can’t say that about a lot of films. Watch it again some time. While you’re at it, check out Silence! The Musical (I have never laughed so hard in my life), and of course the series Hannibal, for which we are still hoping we might someday see a Season 4. The Silence of the Lambs—still tasty after all these years.