“Thrill me with your acumen.”
It’s little wonder The Silence of the Lambs ranks among the most renowned American films of the last three decades. Opening on Valentine’s Day in 1991, the film became just the third feature to win the Academy Awards’ “big five”—best picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay—a feat notable not only for a February release, but for a film generally seen as something akin to a horror movie. Boasting a pitch-perfect screenplay by Ted Tally, visceral cinematography by Tak Fujimoto, Oscar-nominated editing by Craig McKay, flawless direction by Jonathan Demme, and career-best performances from Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, the incontrovertible influence of The Silence of the Lambs has since been seen in countless films and television programs. From its stark formal design—gritty, graphic, and subdued—to its archetypal characterizations—probing investigative agents and ingeniously devious killers—the iconography of the picture (to say nothing of its most memorable lines and sounds) is firmly entrenched in a generation’s pop-culture consciousness.
It is for all of these reasons that the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of The Silence of the Lambs is a deservedly exhaustive look at the film’s making and its prevailing impact. Complimenting a 4K digital restoration are several interviews, deleted scenes, and a handful of documentaries, along with a multilayered audio commentary featuring Demme, Foster, Hopkins, Tally, and former FBI agent John Douglas. In this latter supplement, all involved set the scene for how the film will uniquely treat, first and foremost, its female heroine. Indeed, while The Silence of the Lambs was the second screen adaptation of a Thomas Harris novel featuring the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter (following Michael Mann’s Manhunter in 1986), one of the distinguishing aspects of this tale is the prominence of FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Foster).
First seen at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, Clarice embodies what Foster terms the “mythology of the female hero.” In what had primarily been a male-dominated sub-genre, serial killer movies tended to center on male protagonists (and commonly still do), but this is a pattern immediately subverted as it is Foster who trudges through the FBI’s obstacle course in a headway stressing the physical—that is, male—exertion of her efforts. Foster was just a few years removed from her Oscar-winning turn in The Accused (1988), and though she was not the first choice to play Clarice (that was Michelle Pfeiffer, star of Demme’s 1988 comedy, Married to the Mob), her productive dual incarnation of superficially male and female traits receives repeated consideration throughout The Silence of the Lambs. In this introduction, for example, while her physicality is accentuated at the outset, that facet of her character is soon undercut by the overt contrast of her size and stature next to towering male colleagues in an elevator. The Silence of the Lambs continually positions Clarice as a feminine exception (to her occupation, to the genre), but reminders of her gender restraint remain firmly in place, as in succeeding scenes when she is granted an “interesting errand” by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), head of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit, who on one hand touts her academic and intellectual insight, and yet, not long after, derisively keeps her in the dark when details of a case are deemed too objectionable. Similarly, while her vulnerability is emphasized in reaction shots to brutalized corpses, her instincts are sound through the end, countering the film’s standard female victim by becoming a strong female hero.
Clarice is not alone, of course, and many of the top moments from The Silence of the Lambs involve the interaction between she and her cunning, perceptive, and reluctantly cooperative associate, the incarcerated Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter (Hopkins). Enlisted to help profile and, in turn, hopefully locate the brutal “Buffalo Bill,” Hannibal is introduced at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he remains under lock and key by twisted Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald). Referred to by Chilton as a “monster,” Hannibal is only presented after much hype and an extended subterranean buildup to the last cell of shadowy, remote hallway. The masterful staging of this sequence pays off when audience anticipation is instantly awarded with Hopkins’ disarming charm and his unnerving, assured presence, drawn in by his intense, unblinking gaze. Hopkins recognized a magnetism within the inscrutable darkness of someone like Lecter (“They don’t have a name for what he is,” it is said at one point in the film), while Tally, for many of the same reasons, was concerned about making Hannibal a fun, camp figure. In any event—as both proved correct—Hopkins’ depiction of Hannibal is one for the ages. He is unflappable and meticulous, with a latent brutality only rarely let loose with exacting ferocity. Hopkins, like Foster, was also a secondary choice for the role (which in retrospect is even more boggling), but their relationship—part professional, part warped courtship—is an intriguing strain, compounded by complimentary expertise, attraction, and dependency.
The plot surrounding Clarice and Hannibal concerns a race-against-the-clock search for kidnapped Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), the daughter of a U.S. Senator who has been abducted by Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, played by Ted Levine in the film’s chilling unsung performance. According to Douglas, “Buffalo Bill” is a terrifying composite of three real-life killers, a potent prospect that gives The Silence of the Lambs an additional overlay of alarming ambiance when one realizes that some of what is seen in the film (a “woman suit … out of real women”) is not only to have likely existed, but in some cases, the details were far worse. And again, this sensation hinges on the anomalous enthrallment one has with serial killer psychology, what Demme calls the “strange allure of evil.” As far as The Silence of the Lambs, this innate association is also given a baroque, corporeal correlation, in that both Hannibal and “Buffalo Bill” inhabit parallel settings (secluded, underground lairs), enact similar practices (their manipulative potential), and express a gruesome fleshly focus (cannibalism and skinning victims).
Further contributing to the unsettling nature of The Silence of the Lambs is Howard Shore’s score, evoking haunting thriller-based advancement and conveying the dreary, muted resonance of a bleak, autumnal Appalachia. And harmonizing the entire operation is Jonathan Demme, whose eclectic career has included everything from one of the quintessential women-in-prison films, Caged Heat (1974), to what is arguably the greatest concert documentary of all time, Stop Making Sense (1984). Yet it is The Silence of the Lambs that secured his standing as an outstanding talent. He committed to directing the picture before even reading script, taking over the project after Gene Hackman stepped aside as director/star, and his clever manipulation of space and time is systematically compelling, all while banking on conventions of the genre: ominous noises, vivid visuals, gripping close-ups, penetrating stares, and the subjective fear of the unknown and the concealed (wonderfully rendered in night-vision goggles). He fuses the fascination of horror and the horrific with the engagement of an investigative thriller. At the same time, though, emulating the diligence of a clinical procedural, his execution is so impeccable that no sooner does one start to analyze his methodology, breaking down a particular shot or scene, that the immersion in the movie is so resounding one is unconsciously swept away by what transpires, losing all sight of technique and marveling at the end result.
In light of his tragic passing early last year, Demme’s commentary and his contributions to the interviews included on the Criterion disc are especially poignant. Among the character qualities pulled from these supplements is his decency, his sensitivity (acknowledging how disquieting certain moments in the film can be), and his willingness to share credit, to acknowledge the value of collaboration, something that certainly paid dividends with The Silence of the Lambs, a film, as Demme himself declares, “that will last forever.”