#308) The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
OR “The Lecter Circuit”
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Written by Ted Tally. Based on the novel by Thomas Harris.
Class of 2011
The Plot: FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is assigned to the Behavioral Science Unit, under the command of Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). Crawford enlists Starling to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant former psychiatrist and equally brilliant cannibal, in an effort to track down wanted serial killer “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). After a tense first meeting, Lecter agrees to help; on the “quid pro quo” that Clarice shares her personal information with him. As the clock ticks on saving Buffalo Bill’s most recent victim (Brooke Smith), Clarice must follow Hannibal’s increasingly cryptic clues, while confronting her own issues, specifically the screaming of a helpless lamb from her childhood.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “chilling thriller” and praises the “superb” Foster and Hopkins, as well as Demme’s “taut direction”.
But Does It Really?: One of my notes simply reads “captivating”, and that sums up “Silence of the Lambs” for me. The film’s occasionally gruesome subject matter doesn’t sound appealing on paper, but once this movie starts, I am hooked. Foster and Hopkins are giving magnificent, career-defining performances, and they along with Jonathan Demme subvert all your expectations of the crime thriller genre. The film is an irresistible roller coaster from start to finish, and I’m always glad I took the ride. “The Silence of the Lambs” is one of filmdom’s finest thrillers and a no-brainer for NFR inclusion.
Everybody Gets One: Shockingly, this is the only NFR entry for director Jonathan Demme, actor Anthony Hopkins, and most surprisingly, composer Howard Shore. Shoutouts to Brooke Smith as Catherine Martin (aka “the vic”) and Darla the dog as Precious.
Wow, That’s Dated: When “Silence” was released, there were complaints from various LGBTQ+ organizations regarding the depiction of a transsexual character as a mentally disturbed serial killer. “Silence” tries to skirt around this negative portrayal by saying that Buffalo Bill is only pretending to be transsexual due to trauma, but that definitely does more harm than help.
Seriously, Oscars?: Despite its January release and Orion Pictures declaring bankruptcy in December 1991, “Silence of the Lambs” still received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. “Silence” became only the third film in Oscar history (following “It Happened One Night” and “ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) to win the Big Five: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and (Adapted) Screenplay. Most surprising of these is Anthony Hopkins’ win for Lead Actor, considering that he’s only on screen for roughly 25 minutes. It’s category fraud, but hey, if Hopkins had campaigned for Supporting we would have missed out on Jack Palance’s push-ups.
- That’s right; even with “Dances with Wolves” winning Best Picture and “Silence” being a surprise hit, Orion Pictures still had to file for bankruptcy in 1991. I blame “She-Devil”.
- Is Jodie Foster doing her Holly Hunter impression?
- Anthony Hopkins, man. What can I say? His Hannibal is a master class in restraint, and brings out the best in an already great Jodie Foster. His performance seduces you into siding with Hannibal, and never fails to give me some serious chills.
- Does liver go well with fava beans and Chianti? And isn’t it pronounced, “kee-ahn-tee”, not “kee-ann-tee”?
- Shoutout to cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. There are plenty of Demme’s trademark head-on shots, which help with this film’s confrontational moments. I also appreciated the many hand-held shots from Clarice’s point of view, helping us sympathize with and understand a strong-willed woman’s uphill struggle in the boys club of the FBI. How Fujimoto didn’t get an Oscar nomination for this or any of his other movies is a crime.
- And that’s why you never help anyone move furniture!
- The last person I expected to see in this film was Bulldog from “Frasier”. He’s one of the weird butterfly experts that help Clarice.
- FBI Director Roger Corman! This is the part of Corman’s career where his successful protégés (like Jonathan Demme) started casting him in bit roles as a thank you (see “The Godfather Part II”).
- Anthony Heald never gets the credit he deserves as Hannibal’s insufferable warden Dr. Frederick Chilton. You know that Hannibal is going to go after him, but Heald’s performance makes sure you want Hannibal to go after him.
- The great thing about Jodie Foster’s Clarice is that she is above all a human lead, rather than a female lead. She is not a male writer’s idealized woman; she is flawed, she is vulnerable, she is continuing to grow as a person and learning about herself in the process. It’s still a rarity in a Hollywood film.
- Speaking of, although there are only about four women in this whole film, they are all independent, strong, intelligent, or all three. Even Catherine tries escaping on her own without waiting for Clarice to show up. No damsels in distress here.
- It’s bad enough that the transsexual character is a serial killer, but he’s a Nazi too? No wonder the gay community was up in arms about this movie.
- How many rooms does this basement have? Good to know Buffalo Bill’s victims are safe during a tornado.
- The film is dedicated to the memory of actor Trey Wilson, who appeared in Demme’s previous film, “Married to the Mob”.
- “Silence of the Lambs” was one of the biggest hits of 1991, and talks of a sequel began immediately, with Thomas Harris releasing the much-anticipated follow-up novel “Hannibal” in 1999. The novel’s increased gore (among other things) led to Foster, Demme, and Tally all declining to participate in the film adaptation. With Hopkins still in tow, “Hannibal” the film is…increasingly gory.
- “Silence” has had two additional film prequels: “Red Dragon” and “Hannibal Rising”, both based on Harris’ novels. The story goes that Harris only wrote “Rising” because producer/film rights holder Dino De Laurentiis informed him that a prequel would be written with or without his participation.
- Another Hannibal prequel aired on NBC for three seasons with Mads Mikkelsen taking over the role. But show creator Bryan Fuller continued his unlucky streak with his TV endeavors, and “Hannibal” was cancelled before Fuller could explore the events of “Silence of the Lambs”.
- As for the original film, “Silence” has endured its share of spoofs and parodies over the years. Here’s one with Dom DeLuise for some reason.
- And here’s the parody musical that legally has to inform you it’s a parody.
- Oh, and one more really bizarre legacy: Seth Green based the voice of “Family Guy” character Chris Griffin on Buffalo Bill. Isn’t that the weirdest?
Further Viewing: The first film adaptation of “Red Dragon”: 1986’s “Manhunter”, directed by Michael Mann and starring Brian Cox as Hannibal. After the film’s box-office failure, Dino De Laurentiis gave Orion the rights to the Hannibal Lecter character for free for “Silence”. Once that film was a hit, Dino made sure to co-produce all future Hannibal outings, including another “Red Dragon”.