Detective, Horror, Page To Screen

The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)

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Odds are that even if you’ve never see this one, you’ll almost certainly be aware of Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Agent Clarice Starling. These two characters are what set this film apart from all the other serial killer films out there.

A film focusing just on the conversations between these two characters would be just as good as this film; their exchanges are so fascinating to watch, from the way lines are delivered, to witnessing the undeniable growing bond of trust between these two polar opposites.

The film is a favourite of mine not just because of the story, but because of the well written characters of Starling and Lecter. Foster and Hopkins give unforgettable performances(both won an Oscar for their performances in this film)that stay with you long after the film has finished.

Gene Hackman and Michelle Pfeiffer were originally going to play Lecter and Starling, but both ended up turning down these roles. As much as I would have loved to have seen how they would approached these roles, I am very glad that we got Hopkins and Foster in the end.

Hopkins plays Lecter as seemingly unthreatening, he is polite and charming and speaks calmly and quietly. However, characters soon learn not to let their guard down around him as his mind, words and observation skills are his weapons, and he uses them to devastating effect. He is like a snake, just waiting to strike out and when he does his attack will be swift and deadly.

The first meeting between him and Starling shows us how much information(both concerning what the FBI want from him, and personal details about Starling)he has got from her without her even being aware she has given him this. He is a manipulator and will only tell someone what he want’s to, you can’t force anything out of him.

Foster is the young FBI trainee, keen, dedicated and more than capable of coping fine in a very male dominated profession. Clarice Starling joins Ellen Ripley as one of my favourite tough female characters. Starling is a tough, strong and capable woman, who is admirable and brave enough to face horror and evil head on.

Starling finds herself drawn to Lecter and can’t deny that a genuine bond has developed between them despite what he has done and is capable of. Day after day this woman puts herself through hell to try and get vital information to help save a new victim of the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill.

The horror and violence she sees on this case affects her deeply, but she doesn’t shrink away from it because she needs to face it in order to defeat it. I have always considered Starling to be brave because of this, there were times when she could (and we might say should)have just quit and moved onto a less emotionally destructive case, but she didn’t and to do that takes courage.

Behavioural Science Unit Chief, Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) assigns Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Lector is a cannibalistic serial killer, who is one of the most high profile killers behind bars.

Crawford believes Lecter can help the FBI build a profile of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a terrifying killer who is murdering and skinning women. Lecter slowly agrees to share his observations and knowledge with Clarice, but only if she in return tells him deeply personal things about her childhood. Clarice must make a choice between saving Bill’s current victim, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith)and letting Lecter inside her head. Clarice must also deal with the interference of the smarmy Dr. Chilton(Anthony Heald), the head of the secure prison/hospital where Lecter is imprisoned.

This is a suspenseful film that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. It plays with the audience because at times we find ourselves liking Lecter, in spite of what we know him to be and to be capable of doing. Clarice is also in many ways acting as our eyes throughout as we are thrown headfirst into a rabbit hole of horror, manipulation and fear.

I love the scene in the hospital/prison when Clarice first visits. There is a terrific point of view shot when she walks into the guards office leading to the cells of the most dangerous inmates. We are seeing this new environment for the first time as she sees it.

The film is directed by Jonathan Demme, and he does such a good job of bringing the horror and realism of the novel by Thomas Harris to life. The film sticks very closely to the book and I believe the book and film were the first to look inside the mind of a killer, instead of just portraying them as monsters, this story gives us reasons why some people do such horrendous and disturbing things.

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Harris wrote four novels featuring Lecter. The first of these was Red Dragon, which is the prequel to Silence of the Lambs and features the psychologically tortured Agent Will Graham forced to confront Lecter. I love Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs the most. Hannibal is a good story but I didn’t like what happened to Clarice at the end, I much prefer the ending scene in Ridley Scott’s film adaptation.

Back to the film. I loved Howard Shore’s atmospheric score. I love the performances of Hopkins, Foster, Smith and Levine. I love the realistic look to the film and how it shows us what Police and agents have to see and go through to find killers and investigate their horrendous crimes.

I wish the film had included more of Crawford though. In the book he is very much a key character, and has a subplot involving his terminally ill wife. Glenn is very good as the driven unit leader, who has seen so much of this horror that he has learnt to be more unaffected by what he sees in comparison to Starling. On the Blu-ray there are some good deleted scenes involving Crawford that I wish had been kept in.

I like how we also see what is going on with Catherine (the latest victim) and how despite her fear she tries to stay strong and tries to get control of her situation when she can.

My favourite scenes are the following. All the scenes between Lecter and Clarice, but especially the one where he gives her a towel. Crawford putting a protective and comforting arm around an injured Starling. Catherine trying to get control of her situation by capturing Bill’s dog. The FBI training montages featuring Starling. The finale in the basement. Lecter speaking with Senator Martin (Diane Baker)and telling her “love ya suit”. Clarice telling Lecter about the lambs.

Most unforgettable scenes? The cage breakout and the officers being killed in the process. The cleverly edited doorbell scenes, where we are not sure whether Crawford or Starling have found Bill’s house. Starling cocking her gun when she starts to realise a man she is talking to is more than likely Bill. The finale in the basement where Starling is trying to find her way around in the dark.

Quite a disturbing film in places, but one that is a must see. Strong performances, fascinating characters and a gripping and scary story.

I’d love to get your thoughts on the film and the characters. Any other fans of the novels? Please leave comments about the novels too.

 

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15 thoughts on “The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)”

  1. Great review! I agree with basically all of your points, especially the bits about how the film follows the book for the most part but is still its own thing, and how some of the scenes that were deleted or never even captured from the book would make things even more compelling. Not that the film isn’t compelling as is. There is a lot of psychology to how this movie has been shaped and directed.

    As for the books, I’ve read them all, although I was out of sequence with the first two. (To be fair, most people were, as the second book, “Silence”, is the one that exploded in the literary world and this lead folks to seek out the first book. I’m sure you’re probably aware of all of this.) When reading “Silence” that first time, I remember Harris doing such an excellent job of getting into the mind of a serial killer that you can actually “understand” why they do what they do, and that made the whole experience even more creepy!

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    1. Thanks so much. Harris is such a good writer, I’m really surprised that he hasn’t written more novels over the years. He really does get inside their heads and makes you uncomfortable and on edge when you’re reading. When you learn about the event in Hannibal’s childhood that made him the way he is, it’s very hard not to sympathise with him despite knowing what he has done. The film sequels (and prequel, Manhunter) are all quite good, but none of them will ever compare to this one for me. One of the best thrillers out there.

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  2. While I like Gene Hackman a lot, I don’t believe he could have matched Hopkins in this. Hopkins has that horrible creepiness and a sort of reptilian quality. Yes, like a snake that’s got a small mammal in its sights and is waiting to strike. How long is he in this, 20 minutes or something like that? Hard to believe, given how much he dominates it. His scenes with Foster are my favourites in the film. She is very good at conveying her unease with Lecter, and the fact that she’s aware of the danger of letting him get into her head. According to Foster, she and Hopkins never really met or spoke to each other during filming and were kept separate most of the time, which probably helped their performances.

    It’s interesting that lightning never struck twice with this series. Manhunter is OK but horrifically dated in its cheesy ’80s style, and Brian Cox is a pretty dull Lecter. Red Dragon has Hopkins and Ralph Fiennes but is so pedestrian in that Brett Ratner way, and Hannibal is just bizarre. Foster apparently passed on it because she didn’t like what happened to her character:

    “The official reason I didn’t do Hannibal is I was doing another movie, Flora Plum. So I get to say, in a nice dignified way, that I wasn’t available when that movie was being shot… Clarice meant so much to Jonathan [Demme] and I, she really did, and I know it sounds kind of strange to say but there was no way that either of us could really trample on her.”

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    1. I would have loved to have seen how Hackman would have approached this, but I agree I doubt he would have been like Hopkins. You’re right, he is only in this for a few minutes, but he sure steals every scene he is in. You miss him when he’s not on screen, but not to the extent that the rest of the film suffers due to his absence.

      I used to find Cox’s portrayal nothing special myself, but the more I’ve watched it the more I can appreciate how he plays it. Cox is scary because he seems so normal and unthreatening, and in real life many killers are like that, they are not obvious monsters and that is what makes them so scary. He also gets across his intellect and powers of persuasion. I think it’s a shame that Brian Cox wasn’t given more screen time, I think if we had seen more of him we could get a better sense of the character he is playing.

      Have you ever read the books? I think the films are good adaptations. I actually find Hannibal the novel more dark and disturbing than the film though. I think the weakness of Ridley Scott’s film is that it focused too much on gore, rather than on the psychological darkness/aspects as Silence Of The Lambs did.

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  3. No I haven’t read any of the books, so I can’t compare them, but the novel of Hannibal sounds even more absurd than the film. The film is in a different style, more grand guignol than The Silence of the Lambs, and it’s a bit trashier really. The latter is quite a restrained film in some ways, which makes it more effective. I have to say as well, I find Lecter much less threatening when he’s loose than when he’s caged, ironically. Strolling around Florence, or wherever it is, in his panama hat, listening to Verdi, he just seems like a camp old guy on holiday.

    Coincidentally, I read this morning that Jonathan Demme has died. He certainly wasn’t a one hit wonder, he made several interesting films, but I assume this is the one he’ll be remembered for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I highly recommend the novels. Demme’s death is a sad loss. I love his films Swing Shift, Married To The Mob and Philadelphia. LOL at your description of Lecter in Italy. He certainly loses his edge somewhat in this film; until he gets a craving to eat that is…

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  4. Excellent review, I loved the atmosphere in the scenes between Hannibal and Clarice. I was sad to read of the passing of Jonathan Demme, but at least he’ll be remembered for good movies like this.

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  5. Great review! It is definitely in my top 5 films. The dialogue between Lecter and Starling is electric. This film was so deserving of the five main Academy Awards, although I would have loved to have seen The Fisher King win some (another one of my faves). This film definitely helps create a strong legacy for the late Jonathan Demme. Brilliant film in so many ways.

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