Essentials #9: THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling intellectually spar in a tightly shot and edited horror masterpiece under the brilliant direction of Jonathan Demme. No…that is inc-idental.

It’s been over 25 years since THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was released on February 13, 1991 (oddly enough, the day before Valentine’s Day), and the film still sends a shiver to my spine. While LAMBS is a horror film of the highest order, I believe the key reason as to why it still holds up today are the scenes involving its dialogue.

HANNIBAL LECTER: “Oh Clarice, your problem is, you need to get more fun out of life.”

We’ve seen the serial killers who torture with power tools in their basement. We’ve seen the volcano of blood exploding in your average vampire or zombie movie. Violence rarely makes us gasp in horror because it’s become more spectacle and less foreplay. In LAMBS, the violence is disturbing not because of the deadly game and its repercussions, but because of the players involved. It’s the buildup of tension that makes the game worth watching. It’s the striptease of information that raises the stakes. It’s the character development that demands the audience involvement. The characters here have such depth and emotional nuances that we immediately fixate our eyes on them and what they have to say whenever they’re on-screen. The real pleasure is simply listening to each character speak as opposed to them getting slashed to bits as in your typical horror movie.

And yes, for those who could care less about character, the story is intriguing, the villains terrifying, and it has just enough horror beats to satiate those who get off on that sort of thing.

Let’s take a minute and talk about Hannibal Lecter, who is quite possibly the most fascinating villain ever created.

While he is, according Dr. Chilton, a “pure psychopath,” there is a certain magnetism about Lecter that is undeniable. He’s like that brilliant professor in college who engaged every bit of your attention and carved an intellectual space in your mind. Major credits, of course, go to author Thomas Harris for creating such a character and Ted Tally for being able to translate the novel to the silver screen while maintaining it’s menacing quality (originally, Lecter was a bit of a physical freak; 6'5'’ with red eyes, six fingers in each hand).

The other credit must go to Anthony Hopkins. To say his acting is incredible here would be an understatement. There are times I have to remind myself that he is actually acting because he embodies Hannibal with such surgical precision that you feel like you are picking the brain of a psychopathic killer. There are three different Hannibal Lecter portrayals, Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s underrated MANHUNTER (1986), this movie, and the TV series where Lecter is played by Mad Mikkelson.

With respect to the other actors, Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter is by far, the best of the three. Hopkins plays Lecter as snarky, sardonic, and fiercely intelligent to the point of intimidation. Hopkins based a lot of the portrayal on Katherine Hepburn’s transatlantic accent and HAL from in 2001 due to the computer’s omniscient sense of knowing. He also looked at the movements of snakes and goddamn — you can really see that in his portrayal, especially in the way Hopkins is so physically controlled. There is a sense of deliberation in every movement in conjunction to his performance that is spellbinding.

What is also frightening about Lecter is that he can break you down psychologically and severely damage you physically (he is, in fact, a doctor). However, it’s odd because I find myself rooting for Hannibal because he is so fascinating, so intelligent, so insightful; he claims to have only killed people who deserved it (he did, however, murder a musician because he played off-key and served his body to the music board of review).

But we root for him because he assists our hero.

HANNIBAL: “Quid Pro Quo, Clarice. Yes or no?”

I didn’t realize this until later viewings but the movie could definitely be seen as a view on sexism in the workforce. For example: she is a female FBI agent. She is working in a field that is predominantly male. The serial killer who helps her is a male. The serial killer she is chasing is a man who kills women. In a scene where the agents are dissecting one of the female victims, she has to tell all the male officers to leave and their response is disrespectful and condescending toward her.

Unlike most movie heroes who are men, Starling has to first overcome her gender role as a woman before she can solve the mystery of the story. As a result, her emotional journey is just as important as the narrative one (not to spoil anything, but it has a lot to do with the title of the film) and that is why LAMBS works so well. When she attempts to extract information from a genius serial killer, we are genuinely terrified for her well-being. When she tries to capture the movie’s villain, we sense her vulnerability given she is a woman, and experience a catharsis when she finally prevails.

Heroes appear more heroic when we empathize with them.

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One of the great horror film climaxes. Clarice takes down Jame Gumb. Image: http://epg.sat1.de/epgimg/025c08d7138fe9a18164e448ecabf0ce-original.jpg

Just like Anthony Hopkins, I must praise Jodie Foster’s performance as a major key to the film. She brings a sense of vulnerability and toughness to Clarice which allows us identify and empathize with her. When Foster goes toe-to-toe with Hopkins, their chemistry is in sync with the master/apprentice trope. She gets knocked down, berated, condescended to but we feel she can take it and come back the next day even stronger because she has inner, emotional demons that are fueling her to overcome her odds. A great physical characteristic of Jodie Foster are her eyes. They are very expressive. You can mute the dialogue in her scenes and her eyes do all the talking.

If Starling was a man played by Stallone or Schwarzenegger, armed with a sawn-off shotgun, we probably wouldn’t be talking about this film today. That’s what I never understood about action heroes. We don’t feel scared for them because they’re unstoppable badasses to begin with.

It’s no surprise that Foster would later win the Oscar for this role and earn her place as one of the greatest heroes in movies.

Jonathan Demme’s style (pre-2005) could not be perfectly fitted to this material. Before LAMBS, he was known for his comedies and music videos, but this film was his “puberty stage” film (a term I mentioned in my PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE review). Demme would later become a powerhouse filmmaker throughout the 90s/mid-2000s because of LAMBS.

Specifically, Demme is an absolute master of filming dialogue and LAMBS is a dialogue-driven film. Notice his trademark visual touch: the characters look directly into the camera as they speak to one another. Demme aims for first-person subjectivity via shot-reverse-shot. It is all is so simple, yet effective here because we vicariously live through the exchanges of these characters staring at us on-camera. We feel like we are having the conversation.

And this movie is all quid pro quo(“something for something”). Everyone is having a war of words with one another and it’s deliciously fun to witness this all in the driver’s seat.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS:

  • I’m a huge logophile (lover of words) and I love Lecter’s use of vocabulary: acumen, covet, segue, rube, wheedle, Quid Pro Quo
  • If I could play chess with any fictional movie character, it would be Hannibal Lecter. I would assume he is a grandmaster level because there is key sequence in the film that is executed with brilliant intuition and attention to detail that only a chess player could envision
  • I love every scene involving Hannibal Lecter. He’s only in the movie for a little over 20 minutes but I could honestly watch an 8 hour interview with Anthony Hopkins’s version of Lecter
  • Hannibal’s scene with Senator Martin is the money scene and is reason alone why Hopkins won the Oscar
  • Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is wonderful because it’s exactly what great cinematography should be: invisible — I’ve seen this movie at least 20 times and barely noticed the camera movements and lighting because there are so many subtle gestures — cinematography should add to the story, not act as a separate piece.
  • The climax of this movie is as tight as it gets. It is so well-choreographed and the first-person shots are extremely effective in catapulting the viewer into the tense cat-and-mouse game
  • Ted Levine should get a mention; compared to his others roles, he is unrecognizable as Jame Gumb. Also, because of his dance show, the song “Goodbye Horses” will never be the same for me
  • Howard Shore’s score for this is like a zombie lullaby. He makes great use of the clarinet(?) which is rarely used in horror movies. Very effective.
  • Editor Craig McKay performs a masterclass in editing; this is as tightly cut film as I could ever hope for in a suspense film
  • Casting director Howard Feuer did a marvelous job; every face in this movie is unique and fit their respective roles. Particularly, Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), the pair of entomologists, and the Memphis cops (one of which is singer, Chris Isaak); all great! Most importantly, the people look like people — nowadays, movie characters look like models or C-list actors
  • Speaking of cameos, watch for George Romero and indie king Roger Corman. If you blink, you might miss it.

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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Filmmaker | Photographer | MatthewOquendo.com

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