90s Review: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)


Analyse this: Orion/Strong Heart/Demme Production

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS has been a firm favourite of mine for a long time, one of those I’d always stop for if it was playing on TV late at night, and try as I might, be helplessly drawn in all over again.

To catch a meticulous and depraved serial killer, the FBI must use the mind of another meticulous and depraved serial killer. When 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…

Point of view is really interesting in Lambs. It’s not really a murder-mystery because we know who the killer is almost from the start. It’s really about how the protagonist catches up and whether they will manage it in time. This is a very Thomas Harris way of telling a story.

Clarice is set up to be underestimated from the start, 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’s 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 uses 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 a keenly honed tool like Lecter or a blunt object like Bill.

Quite rightly, the film is best-known, best-loved because of its bravura set pieces, not action or visual spectacle, but conversations, Clarice and Dr Lecter mentally sparring, each trying to deconstruct the other. These scenes may only be a few minutes a piece, but Foster and Hopkins make them dazzle, giving Harris’ words, adapted almost verbatim, 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.

Jonathan Demme isn’t a showy filmmaker here, letting performance and our imaginations do most of the work. By the time Ridley Scott brought HANNIBAL to the screen with sickly style but lacking power, it became really obvious that less is more. Dr Chilton showing an (unseen to the audience) Polaroid to Starling with the comment, “He did this to her…the doctors managed to reset her jaw, more-or-less” is far more chilling than actually seeing the incident (Scott of course actually showed it to us to shrug-worthy effect in the sequel).

“It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again”. I get 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 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”) but since the film unwisely dropped this subplot from the book, some nuance is lost. When trans characters are so seldom seen in mainstream films and when they are seen they appear like this, well, it’s 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. He remains beguiling and fascinating but an enigma from his introduction, his escape and beyond. In the foreword to the new edition of RED DRAGON in 2000, Harris admits that Lecter still frightens him, that the character holds some strange supernatural power over his creative process. He writes that “I found, and find, the scrutiny of Dr Lecter uncomfortable, intrusive” and that “I did not know that Dr Lecter would return”.

I love the misdirection at play throughout. I’m sure it wasn’t the first movie to do it, and we’ve seen it plenty of times since, but the cross-cut between Crawford’s heavily armed team knocking and Buffalo Bill opening the door to Starling alone on his doorstep gets me 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 Clarice’s perception of the present and how she got there.

For all Hopkins’ showy twenty minutes or so of screentime, 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-up wasn’t as compelling; Lecter is only interesting when interacting with a worthy opponent and he’s in the spotlight far too long. It’s Foster’s movie through-and-through and Foster’s performance makes this slick thriller special. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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