The Silence of the Lambs: It Scared the Pants Off Me

When it comes to fears, I have many of them, and most are trivial. For example, that my toothbrush will fly out of my hands and into the open toilet while I’m brushing my teeth. Therefore, I’m fairly particular about the toilet lid being closed at all times except for, of course, when it’s in use. You might think I’m nuts, and maybe I am a little. But this fear affects my behavior, so it’s enough to me, I suppose.

 

I have some nonsense fears and some very legitimate ones. We all do, really, and it’s just part of the entire human experience.

 

Fear, like the love I wrote about in The Shape of Water, is such a widely felt emotion that it infiltrates our movies, our politics, and our greater pop culture. At the other end of the specturm from love stories, scary movies, and the horror genre in general, have been in movies and books for as long as those individual mediums have existed. But he Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t really recognize them with their Best Picture award. That’s not to say there are not great horror movies. Even last year, Jordan Peele’s Get Out received a nomination.

 

Out of 90 Best Picture winners, only one horror film has ever won the award: Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs from 1991. The 64th Best Picture winner is one of those rare movies that just doesn’t age. It strikes us in not only our minds but in the darkest reaches of our souls.

 

I don’t normally make a point of watching horror movies; I take them too seriously and can’t sleep for days afterward. But, when I watched this movie as part of this project, I found it to be an incredibly insightful and unbelievably complicated horror movie. I was appalled with myself, scared to death, and thoroughly intrigued during the film’s entire 118 minutes.

 

It’s worth noting that I watched this movie and then tried to sleep. I felt like I had to keep an eye open.

 

Now, for the rest of the movie:

 

Plot

 

The Silence of the Lambs follows Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a young FBI agent in training, and a damn bright one at that. She’s given the unenviable task of observing  the robotic, cold, and spine-tingling serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Starling and Lecter form an odd relationship to say the least as she convinces Lecter to help her find another serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine).

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She almost immediately discovers, as do we, that Lecter is as devious, calculation, and terrifying as his reputation of “Hannibal the Cannibal” says he is.

The story of young Clarice, whose life is turned upside down by Lecter, is brilliantly told. It focuses almost entirely on the way Clarice sees the world and her relationship with Lecter. She’s constantly criticized by us (through camera work, I’ll get to that) and by many of her fellow characters in the film. For this, we love her so much more. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. More on Clarice below.

 

When it comes to the plot of The Silence of the Lambs, I was enthralled. But the film plays out much more like a drama than an actual horror film. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. The clues that Clarice finds during her search for Buffalo Bill aren’t always apparent, and it take some real sleuthing to find them. Each clue adds a boxcar’s worth of depth to the story. This is not a movie to tune out, otherwise, you might miss something. 1.

 

Writing/Dialogue

 

Like many other Best Picture winners, The Silence of the Lambs is based off a novel. This one is of the same name by Thomas Harris. Ted Tally took that story and made it into a Best Adapted Screenplay winning movie.

 

The writing in The Silence of the Lambs is incredible in its breadth. Clarice is a woman from the hills of West Virginia, and she speaks like you imagine that a woman from the hills of West Virginia would, complete with all the colloquialisms that come with that region. But this movie deals with serial killers and FBI agents, too, all the lingo that comes with those people.

 

The writing helps the plot along tremendously in this movie. Hannibal Lecter speaks in nothing but riddles, and his cold unfeeling demeanor is brilliantly written with short, choppy sentences that leave no fluff. In the case of Hannibal Lecter, the shorter his dialogue, the sweeter. 1.

 

Sound

 

Howard Shore was the composer for this movie and it was brilliant. It teetered on good transitional music to being the entire reason why the tension is so high. I don’t have a whole lot to say here, other than it’s good. And maybe that’s why it’s so good, you don’t even realize it’s there. It takes a some special attention to craft a horror score. There are so many great ones, led by Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s PsychoIt has to be subtle enough to be noticed, yet not too overwhelming to be cheesy. 

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On the technical side, The Silence of the Lambs was nominated for Best Sound Mixing at the 64th Academy Awards.

 

Set Design

 

When it comes to the physical world of this movie, it was shot mostly around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and little bit into northern West Virginia. With such nondescript places, the world allows you to fill in your own simple neighborhood and helps you to believe that a serial killer might be keeping women in a basement on your own street.

 

Where the set design really shows, though, is near the end of the movie. It helps to think about The Silence of the Lambs’s narrative as a bell curve with the top of it at the movie’s climax. The intensity builds and builds until it runs into the ceiling of itself, a beautiful, horrifying journey, before it tapers off again. As the drama builds, so does the complexity of the plot. It becomes very layered.

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The same is true with the set. For me, the most amazing part was the incredible attention to detail when dealing with insanity. When you’re first introduced to Hannibal Lecter, his setting resembles what Clarice, and the audience, think about him. His environment is very sterile and orderly. In fact, he’s standing straight up when she first meets him. Anyway, the settings that Lecter is in become more and more cluttered as we realize that he’s more and more complex.

 

Similarly, the home of Buffalo Bill is messy and chaotic, which, interestingly is the exact opposite of the life he leads while killing. He’s very precise and plotting, pulling off his kidnappings with purpose. Just as Lecter toys with his patients, so, too, does this movie. 1.

 

Cinematography

 

Tak Fujimoto was the cinematographer for The Silence of the Lambs, and, while he didn’t receive an Academy Award nomination for his work, this is an exposition in point of view.

 

First, let me get this out of the way: if you’ve read this blog much, you know that I want cinematography to be artful and, most especially, unbalanced. My eyes like artful cinematography very much.

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This movie has none of that and, outside of one shot in which the reflection of Lecter’s is next to Clarice’s, the movie is not overly artistic in the traditional sense. Yet, it’s still very well done.

 

As I said before, this movie is from Clarice’s point of view. Even though Hannibal Lecter sort of defined this movie, this is not his story, it’s Clarice’s. In an effort to get more personal with our likable protagonist, Fujimoto moved the camera closer to Clarice’s face, and then moved it a little closer. You get to examine every detail of her face, much like the men that she has to deal with in the very male-heavy law enforcement field. You get to know her on an intimate level, and that’s why we like her.

 

But, Fujimoto also uses this effect on Lecter. You get up close and personal with the chilling genius of Hannibal Lecter. But the most interesting, and most frightening, use of this technique involves the eyes of the actors. Clarice, even when the camera is uncomfortably close, is normally looking off camera just sightly. Lecter though, is staring directly at it. And this is particularly scary. He’s glaring through your eyes and directly into your soul, pull the drawers out of the dresser and writing his name on the walls in bright red paint. And I couldn’t look away even if I tried. This technique shouldn’t be used all the time, no, but it sure elicits one heck of an emotional reaction while keeping you glued to the screen and engaged. 1.

 

Acting

 

The Silence of the Lambs is about the Clarice Starling-Hannibal Lecter relationship. Therefore, there are only really two actors we need to focus on: Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.

 

I’ll start with Hopkins as this is Foster’s movie. Anthony Hopkins, the Welsh-born actor played Dr. Hannibal Lecter so well that he steals the spotlight in the movie. He also won Best Actor to thunderous applause for his role. To model the cold and unfeeling, yet brilliant, Lecter, Hopkins actually based his performance on the shrewd HAL 9000, the artificial intelligence villain from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which celebrated its 50th anniversary this week).

 

Hopkins is utterly terrifying in part because he doesn’t really lie about what he did (kill his former patients and then eat them, sometimes with a nice chianti), but also  that he’s always so relaxed and unemotional. Everything he does is like a game to him. Yet, he has no crisis, no change in sentiment. Lecter is a psychopathic, cold-blooded killer throughout the length of the film, and one who’s certainly more than willing to kill again. This would normally be a sign that we have a flat character, but we don’t here. I’ll get to that in the next section.

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Foster plays Clarice Starling, a newly-minted FBI agent who has a real aptitude for psychoanalysis of killers and criminals, and she discovers that she’s a damn good detective and field agent, too. She, like the rest of the film, becomes significantly more complex as the movie rolls along, revealing her troubled past and the death of a father gone too soon in her young life. She handles every test that’s thrown at her, by either the FBI or Lecter and finds her courage to deal with tougher tasks as they come along.

 

She’s a real power woman in this role, too, only depending on an insane Lecter to get her job done. She’s constant fondled with the eyes of men in a male-dominated profession, and she’s examined very closely by those men and by us, too, through the camera work. Yet, she still holds up, and that’s why we like her so much as a heroine.

 

To say that she’s brilliant here, is an understatement. Like so many other Best Actor/Actress winners (which Foster won with her role in this film, her second award) she excels in the subtlety of her performance, using exactly the right tone and body language at exactly the right time. She was wonderful and this is an all-time performance. Not everyone can stand up to Hannibal Lecter this way. 1.

 

Directing

 

Jonathan Demme won his only Best Director for The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 and this movie is clearly his masterpiece. This movie takes all the typical expectations for a horror film and turns them upside down in a terrifically scary way. He plays into our biggest collective fears (kidnapping, torture, death, mutilation, cannibalism) and puts them all out on the screen.

 

But what is so remarkable about this one is that it everyone around Clarice believes Lecter to be a monster. He is, don’t get me wrong. But Lecter likes Clarice for whatever reason, be it pity or if he feels like he’s got a friend in her, and since Clarice is so likable, we like Lecter, too. And this relationship is really what the core of the film is about: the competition within ourselves as to whether we see Lecter as objectively good or objectively bad. I’d argue that he’s perceived to be a little of both, and that is appalling in itself. He’s charismatic and sympathetic to our Clarice that he almost becomes Robin to her Batman, even though we know what kind of a monster he is. And that’s the true nature of why The Silence of the Lambs is so great: it’s carried forward by it’s incredible development of Clarice and Lecter and how we view their relationship. The core of the film isn’t about serial killers, Buffalo Bill, or psychoanalysis, but it is at the same time. It’s one giant gray area in morality of good and evil. Lecter’s a bad man, yes, objectively bad, but we only see that while we’re not watching it. It’s so hard for me to not like him while I’m watching the movie because he likes Clarice. It’s amazing how that works. This is the true horror in the movie, and that’s why I was appalled with myself. But Demme planned it that way.

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Just as a note, that last paragraph was extremely difficult to write without it coming across that I like Lecter or that I approve of anything that he does. Let me be clear: I DO NOT CONDONE OF HANNIBAL LECTER.

 

When it’s all said and done, though, I think this movie is up there with Slumdog Millionaire, Dances with Wolves, and Casablanca as my favorites that I’ve seen so far. Brilliant performances, thoughtful cinematography, and a story that is thrilling, send this one over the top for me. This is one of the smartest movies I’ve seen doing this project and it’ll go down in my Hall of Fame when I’m done with it. 1.

 

Bonus Points

 

I’ll just give it a 10.

 

Final Score: 10/10

 

Oscar Facts

 

The Silence of the Lambs won the 64th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 30, 1992 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It beat out Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, and The Prince of Tides for Best Picture. The award was presented by Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor and accepted by Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, and Ron Bozman, producers at Orion Pictures. It received seven nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and Sound Mixing. It won five, the most of the night and it joined It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as the only films to win the “Big 5” awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay).

 

Other winners that night included Jack Palance winning Best Supporting Actor for City Slickers and Mercedes Ruehl winning Best Supporting Actress for The Fisher King. Bugsy led the way with 10 nominations, winning just two. The ceremony was hosted by Billy Crystal.

 

Final Thoughts

 

Next week, I’ll jump into the Great Depression with The Life of Emile Zola from 1937. After that, it’s a couple of Clint Eastwood flicks: Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. Following that, it’s Gone with the Wind, How Green Was My Valley, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Amadeus.

5 Comments

  1. Great review! I didn’t like this movie as much as you did, but my husband and three sons LOVED this movie and quote lines from it often…! So I’m quite familiar with it. I’m not a fan of horror movies, otherwise I might have liked it more.

    Like

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