It’s the film that launched a thousand airport books, filled the schedules with true crime documentaries and inspired 290 episodes and counting of Criminal Minds. The Silence of the Lambs is roundly considered to be one of the most iconic films of the 20th century. It holds so many accolades that it’s mostly talked about in facts and figures, like a film historian’s pub quiz primer. It was the third film to bag all five major Oscars; its male lead, Anthony Hopkins, won in the Best Actor category for a performance that had a paltry nine minutes of screen time; and the character he played in it routinely tops the top-ten lists for best villain. And the top 100 lists for that matter.
And really, how can any discussion about this most famous of thrillers not begin with the character that pushed it over the line from a merely great suspense flick, to cultural phenomenon. Dr Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer of legend. Firstly, he is spoken of in hushed tones and with reluctant awe. We first find out what he is capable of when our heroine, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), sees a picture of his latest victim. We never see the picture ourselves but get a chilling commentary from the doctor in charge of Lecter’s rehabilitation. The details are not only gruesome but baffling. How could one man create so much carnage from a hospital bed, with only his mouth restraints removed and his pulse never rising above 85? Already the film is deifying him by describing his almost superhuman acts.
His physical introduction comes in the film’s most famous scene. Clarice passes through a cell block filled with the most violent psychopaths imaginable. All of them are deranged, vulgar, aggressive and at the very sight of Clarice, waste no time in trying to impose their will on her. They are also behind bars. Classic jail bars that your arms can easily reach through. Lecter’s cell is different. His is glass. The only source of ventilation are tiny holes drilled into the bulletproof walls and only a sliding tray provides a means of reach from his cell to the outside.
Yet, he is passive. He stands still in the light, while others writhe around restlessly in the dark, with a gentle smile on his face and even when he speaks he seems very reasonable. But all this normalcy only serves to make this man whose evil deeds have been spelt out for us, who has been called monster and psychopath, even more disturbing. As we have already established, when he is in a state of serenity, he is capable of great violence.
Clarice Starling is meeting with this prolific murderer this to gain an insight into the mind of the latest chronic killer to grace the FBI’s most wanted files, Buffalo Bill. Bill has a habit of kidnapping women and skinning them. Lecter, not only being a psychopath but a brilliant psychologist, is the perfect consultant to get inside the head of a deranged and sadistic killer.
Other than interviewing a walking nightmare, Clarice Starling examines bodies and crime scenes in the real world. Her hunt for the killer feels depressingly and tragically topical. It is assumed by everyone she meets that her presence as a woman is designed to either agitate, comfort or arouse anyone her superiors need to get information out of. It is insinuated multiple times that she has been granted her position because her boss fancies her. She is publically chastised to make the more old-school law enforcement her team has to work with feel more comfortable about collaborating with a woman. She is hit on by every male she meets.
The film puts you in our heroine’s shoes as she trawls waist deep through this swamp of sub-human slime. The close angles and downward tilts suffocate and demean her, but still she perceivers. Jodie Foster plays her by creating an incredibly well trained, dogged, and persistent detective with a quick wit and quiet determination. But she isn’t impervious to the psychological torment surrounding her and unlike the stainless steel slabs that make up the rest of the genre’s lead characters, Foster allows us to see the damage done to her agent like a weather-beaten house after a hurricane. This humanises her in a way hard-boiled detectives like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade could never be, allowing us to empathise with her as we could seldom do with her contemporaries.
Jonathan Demme creates a constantly threatening atmosphere through the use of perspective. Throughout the film he puts us in one character’s point of view, not to see from their perspective, but to see how other characters are looking at them. How they judge and regard that character; how they stare and leer. Being in such an exposed position keeps the paranoia and threat levels relentlessly high.
The Silence of the Lambs is an astonishingly well made, written, acted and directed thriller. It contains not one, but two of the most iconic serial killers of all time; Jodie Foster is mesmerising as Clarice Starling; and Ted Tally’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ original novel is a twisting labyrinth of human conflict; by delving through layers of desire, trust and deceit he turns every conversation into a battle of wills. This is a film with so many accolades it could load them on a cruise liner and sink it. But make no mistake, it has earned each and every single one of them.
Dir: Jonathan Demme
Scr: Ted Tally
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine
Prd: Ronald M. Bozman, Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt
DOP: Tak Fujimoto
Music: Howard Shore
Runtime: 118 min
The Silence of the Lambs is in UK cinemas now.