Academy Awards, Anthony Hopkins, cannibalism, classic, crime, drama, FBI, feminism, Hannibal Lecter, Horror, icon, Jodie Foster, Jonathan Demme, Orion, Oscars, psychology, R.L. Terry, retrospective, review, Silence of the Lambs, Suspense, Ted Levine, thriller
“Good evening, Clarice.” How many of you have never thought of fava beans and chianti in the same way since then? Quite literally inventing a new genre that combines elements of horror, suspense, and crime to create the crime thriller, The Silence of the Lambs remains the motion picture that typifies the genre. More than 27 years later, Silence still holds up and continues to terrify audiences today. Whereas this iconic film may not be considered horror, by today’s understanding and expectation by many, it was certainly widely considered horror when it was released in 1991. A sleepy success, I might add. Essentially, Silence is an indie film that flew in under the radar but soon grew to be immensely popular and critically acclaimed. Silence is also one of only three films to win “the big five” Academy Awards (picture, director, lead actor, lead actress, and screenplay). This, in and of itself, serves as demonstrable evidence that The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most influential and profound films of all time–across all genres. Furthermore, there is not one single moment that I would change because it is cinematically perfect just the way it is. It is arguably a dark crime-thriller, but it is also very much a horror film. When asked which category I put it in, I respond with horror. Why? Because there is certainly intent to horrify audiences during particular scenes in the film; whereas, a crime-thriller tends to not overly concern itself with the intent to horrify. The intent to horrify is what defines it as a horror film first and crime-thriller as a very close second.
A senator’s daughter is kidnapped, and it is believed to be the work of a serial killer. After serial killer “Buffalo Bill” (Levine) leaves a trail of mutilated bodies of female victims behind, FBI forensic psychology director Jack Crawford recruits Clarice Starling (Foster), a sharp cadette, to interview famed psychiatrist, cannibal, and psychopath Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins). Crawford hopes that Lecter can provide insight into the case in order to apprehend Buffalo Bill. While tracking down Buffalo Bill with assistance from Lecter, Starling must confront her own internal fears in order to overcome all obstacles to catching Buffalo Bill before he kills again.
Most notable in Silence of the Lambs are the performances of Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, and don’t forget Ted Levine. While Hopkins and Foster get most of the attention, Levine delivers a command performance as Buffalo Bill. Delivering a spine-chilling and exhilarating performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter is Sir Anthony Hopkins. The performance was so intensely perfect that he won his Oscar for male actor in a leading role with fewer than 15mins on screen. Hopkins gave us an uncompromising performance that caused audiences to be frightened and yet love him at the same time. Furthermore, this performance ushered him into the company of the likes of Jason, Freddy, and other icons of horror. Foster’s Academy Award winning role as Clarice Starling was gripping, engaging and pivotal. Her phenomenal performance gave a much-needed voice to feminism–a voice that was sorely missing at the time–and is still needed today. She was strong, feminine, smart, vulnerable, and clever all at the same time. Not nearly receiving the accolades he should, Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill is masterfully delivered. His terrifying portrayal of this character was dark, twisted, and mesmerizing. In fact, his oft quoted line “it rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again” appears in memes, parodies, and other media. His character was even used in an episode of Family Guy. Levin’s Buffalo Bill, much like Lecter and Starling, was instantly iconic. What is the common element found in each of these performances? Uncompromising devotion to the character that brings about a believability that few actors have been able to encroach upon.
What a screenplay! One of the foundational parts of visual storytelling that I feel is largely missing from many modern horror films is a solid screenplay. Adapted from the novel written by Thomas Harris, Ted Tally’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Silence is incredible. Although there are some differences between the screenplay and the novel, the screenplay is widely seen as an excellent adaptation and even praised for its more unnerving ending compared to the novel. While some negatively criticize the screenplay for portraying transgendered (or more broadly queer) individuals as being predisposed to abnormal or violent behaviors, Tally’s screenplay comes to the defense by including dialogue that transgendered individuals are prone to pacificity plus no scientific correlation between, what we would now call the LGBTQ community, and violence. Starling is never objectified by Lecter; and any other character objectifying or patronizing her, she quickly diverts attention back to the case. She isn’t modeled as a sex symbol; funnily enough, Lecter refers to her clothes as frumpy, cheap, and her entire persona is barely beyond her background as “poor white trash” from West Virginia. The screenplay contains a healthy, progressive message for feminism–more specifically–women working in a man’s world. Foster’s Starling gave a voice to those women who are working diligently to prove that they are just as capable (and in some cases maybe even moreso) as any man in a given profession. Some film scholars and critics have referred to Silence of the Lambs as one of the most feminist films of all time. Prior to Silence, there were few horror, crime, or film noir motion pictures with strong female protagonists (Ridley Scott’s Alien being another example).
Executing his impeccable vision for this iconic film, the late director Jonathan Demme guided this film from screenplay to screen, blazing new trails for a genre not typically known for high caliber, excellent motion pictures. Moreover, the film was so successful that junior executives at studios would pitch other screenplays as “the next Silence of the Lambs.” Most remarkably about the direction of the film is the success at overcoming prejudices held against visually and psychologically disturbing stories that involve graphic language, cannibalism, nightmarish serial killers, nudity, self-mutilation, and (although mostly off-screen) violence. There are Hitchcockian tones in the suspense and violence that can be seen in the off-screen violence, framing, lighting, and angles. That which is in the mind is more frightening than what the naked eye can see. Demme’s Silence is arguably seen as a model for other horror and thriller filmmakers, and is often imitated but never has been replicated. The power of subtlety. Demme communicated so much emotion through subtle movements and strategic dialogue rich with subtext. One element that is common amongst Best Picture winners is the ability to take what was then “present day” and make it timeless. The plot, characters, and setting feel ageless. Genuine fear can be felt throughout the film because Demme channeled that which terrifies him in real life. It’s authenticity is uncanny. Much like Psycho was groundbreaking for modern horror films featuring psychopaths and twist endings, Silence of the Lambs was groundbreaking in that it relied upon the everyday world rather than supernatural forces to shock with unbelievable credibility and realism.
While the director, screenwriter, and actors are the principle forces behind the success and timelessness of Silence, the film would not have won best picture without amazing editing, music, cinematography, and other technical elements. The best editing and cinematography occurs when you don’t see the seams or think about camera placement or angle. Superior editing and cinematography enable the characters and plot to maintain center stage. The world Demme desires to portray in the motion picture was to be as real as possible. Hence why you won’t find lengthy shadows, set decoration that stands out from the world that it inhabits, and music that enhances but never overpowers a scene. Demme and his director of photography Tak Fujimoto worked together to strategically include a motif of birds that are literal and metaphoric. This is evident in not only Clarice “Starling” but in the crows at the beginning, stuffed owl in the Your Self Storage unit, and even in the line at the crucial turning point, “it’ll be terns for us too.” Birds are an important element in films, not limited to horror films. Specifically terns was used in place of turns because terms are a protected bird species, much like the mind of Dr. Lecter. Birds are a common motif or symbol in films, and can be used to represent different concepts or ideals.
Thematically, Silence is incredibly rich. These themes are brought out through the strange relationship shared by Lecter and Starling. There is a high level of respect mutually expressed by both characters, albeit unconventional. This strained relationship is observed in the similarities between Lecter and Starling. Examples of the parallels between Starling and Lecter include the feeling, they both experience, of being ostracized by the world in which they respectively live and work. Lecter from the human race, for his psychopathy and cannibalism; and Starling by the law enforcement profession because she is a women in a time that women were not commonly pursuing careers in law enforcement. They both occupy a prison. Whereas Lecter’s prison is a literal one, Clarice’s is a metaphoric one because of the men that literally and figuratively tower over her, establishing her boundaries. Clarice may not have a doctorate but she can easily match wits with Lecter in the shared power they both have to manipulate and persuade with cunning. Less obvious is the shared past they both have as victims of abnormal upbringings. Lecter was a victim of child abuse, and this ca be inferred in his dialogue with Clarice (note: Demme should have underscored this a little more) with Clarice being left an unloved orphan to be raised by distant relatives. Shared childhood trauma. These similarities are what forge the bond between these two strong characters. Demme and Fujimoto reinforced these themes and relationships with visual storytelling elements in order to personify and manifest in dynamic ways that hook and mind and eye.
Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs remains one of the most iconic films in cinema history and will continue to have an evergreen shelf-life. It’s a multidimensional motion picture that frightens and intrigues. It is an arthouse film that achieved commercial success. Perhaps Red Dragon and Hannibal do not live up to the quality of experience of Silence but they by no means infringe on the ability for Silence to terrify us today. From the buildup to the introduction of Dr. Lecter to the trademark moth cocoon in the throat of the original victim. Furthermore, Demme continues to drive up the suspense and tension that create frightening thoughts and imagery through the use of interiors and exteriors of houses and buildings that represent the minds of characters (i.e. Buffalo Bill’s house and lair). We continue to seek this film out for its ability to manipulate our minds and eyes through strategic and artistic use of story and image. And you know what? We love these characters. We like and can identify with Clarice, have an unconventional respect and even like Dr. Lecter, and are completely intrigued and disgusted by Buffalo Bill.
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!
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