Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald
Written by: Ted Tally and (based on the novel) Thomas Harris
Running Time: 118 mins
Original UK Cert: 18
Original UK Release: 31st May 1991
As with any film that grows in popularity, or becomes a major award winner, especially the Oscars, The Silence Of The Lambs has its detractors, those who say it isn’t as good as people have made it out to be. It happens with all films that win over a mass audience, as the years go by, they are frowned upon by the next generation who don’t see what everyone else did when it was released. The same fate has happened to The Exorcist, as if it has been watered down since 1973. Are the next generation so immune to screen violence and horror that this is tame in comparison? There are also those who see the film just as a vehicle to Anthony Hopkins, creating an iconic character and so the backlash is, he isn’t on-screen long enough. We forget that Hannibal Lector is just a small part of a much bigger and more impressive thriller.
Clarice Starling, a young FBI cadet, is asked to visit serial killer Dr Hannibal Lector by her superior, Jack Crawford, to take a survey. On seeing the cannibal encased in a glass cell, it becomes apparent that this is more than just a meeting for a survey but a way to get help capturing a fellow serial killer, nicknamed Buffalo Bill. The doctor and the agent must share information, him about the killer, her about her past.
Revisiting The Silence Of The Lambs, you have to look at it not as a Hopkins masterclass is creating a psychopath but as a deeply intelligent and masterful piece of cinema. Director Jonathan Demme was never known for this kind of movie. Cutting his teeth at the school of Roger Corman in the 70’s, he turned his attention to more human dramas like the forgotten Citizens Band and the underrated Melvin and Howard, before coming to the forefront as the director of one of the best concert movies, Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense.
So handing him the reins to such a film was a huge surprise. Thomas Harris’ blockbuster book, his second to feature the bad doctor, had already made his screen appearance in Michael Mann’s stylist and highly regarded Manhunter (later remade as Red Dragon with Hopkins reprising the role). Yet Demme had already made a superb thriller in 1979 with Last Embrace, a Hitchcockian style piece with Roy Schinder. So he understood the genre and the film is full of confidence, of trappings that make it more than just a horrific tale of murder.
Taking the Clarice Starling character, a perfectly underplayed Jodie Foster, and having us see things from her point of view is a masterstroke. Apart from the occasional cutaways and the scenes where we see Buffalo Bill kidnap Catherine Martin and Lector’s brutal escape, it is Starling we follow. Her conversations with Lector being the most chilling, and a trick that is used in which, in the early scenes when they first meet, Lector, behind the glass cell, the shots from his point of view, we know there is glass, as the reflections are shown but when seen from her, it looks like the glass is removed and they are talking without any obstacles.
The same happens when Lector is behind bars. The longer they talk and Lector slowly gets into her head, the bars seem to vanish and we get nothing in their ways. It is so subtle that you’d probably haven’t even noticed but the more he gets deeper into her past, the more it feels he gets closer to her.
The film also boasts three villains: Lector and Buffalo Bill, of course but also Dr. Frederick Chilton. Brilliantly played by Anthony Heald, he is an egomaniac with a line in sleaze. This power-hungry man is just as monstrous as the two serial killers. His slimey, sexually induced introduction in which he is obviously coming onto Starling, which turns when she rejects his advances. The fact that he is angered by not being included in the questioning of Lector, which leads to striking a deal with Martin’s politician mother. He is probably more evil than Lector, as he almost jeopardizes the capturing of Bill.
Add to the fact that the violence in the film, while bloody, is never actually seen. Demme knows that the imagination is the most powerful tool a human being has, so he lets us see the aftermath but not the actual gory details and maybe that’s what horror fans want. Lector’s escape is shocking, his violent but the camera never once shows us what Lector has done. Unlike Ridley Scott’s visually gory sequel, Hannibal, Demme moves us away from the room where Lector slices his guards, which makes it even more terrifying.
The Silence Of The Lambs deserves to be up there with the best horror thrillers. It intrigues, it shocks, it grips but it never once takes its audience for granted. It offers so much than just a blood and guts affair but quality film work from one of the best in the business. After this, Demme went onto making Philadephia, The Manchurian Candidate and the sorely underrated Rachel Getting Married but his concentration has gone onto music documentaries. It would be great to see him return fully to narrative cinema. As for The Silence Of The Lambs, it is a modern classic and if you haven’t seen it in a while, then maybe it’s time to give it another viewing. Forget the detractors and backlashing it has received, it’s still a mighty powerful thriller.