Retrospective: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s post we’ll be going over The Big One, The Silence of the Lambs. I mentioned in my review of Manhunter that that film felt dated, in part because it came before this landmark follow-up. Does Silence hold up better? Read on to find out…

I love this poster. It doesn’t give you any information about the film itself, it only gives you the title, a chilling mood and some symbolism to go off of, leaving your imagination to fill in the blanks. Also, if you look closely enough, you can see that the Death’s-head Moth’s skull has been replaced with a photograph of naked women arranged in the shape of a skull by Salvador Dali, further hinting at the film’s themes.

PRODUCTION
Sometime after completing Red Dragon, Thomas Harris began work on his next novel, which he decided would revolve around a strong female character. While not initially conceived as a sequel to Red Dragon, Harris’ female lead was almost instantly drawn to Lecter and the story developed out from there. The Silence of the Lambs was published in 1988 and was another success for Harris, winning him accolades and once again drawing the attentions of Hollywood. In 1987, prior to the novel’s release, prestige production company Orion Pictures (which were coming off a string of Best Picture winners, Dances With Wolves, Platoon and Amadeus) and Gene Hackman secured the rights to adapt the novel, despite Harris’ disappointment with Manhunter. However, they also had to negotiate to Dino De Laurentiis to get the rights to use the name “Hannibal Lector”, since he still owned these (which makes the fact that they spelled it “Lecktor” in Manhunter even more baffling). Disillusioned due to Manhunter‘s failures, De Laurentiis lent the rights to Orion and Hackman for free. Perhaps due to Manhunter‘s underwhelming reception, The Silence of the Lambs would be produced as its own stand-alone film, with references to the events of Manhunter/Red Dragon which were present in the book being omitted. Hackman was initially set to direct and star in the film, but halfway through the first draft of the script he dropped out and the studio had to step in to finance the film and find a replacement director. The job went to Roger Corman alum Jonathan Demme.

Jodie Foster had expressed great interest in the role of Clarice Starling, but was initially turned down by Demme, who approached Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan and Laura Dern instead. However, when these choices didn’t work out, Foster secured the role. For Hannibal Lecter, Demme originally considered casting Sean Connery, but he turned the role down (a pattern for Connery, who might be the most comically stupid actor in Hollywood for turning down projects he doesn’t understand). The role instead went to Anthony Hopkins. The role of Buffalo Bill went to Ted Levine, who was largely unknown at the time, having played mostly bit parts up until that point.

The FBI cooperated with the production, providing consultation with the actors and even allowing the crew to film at the FBI Academy in Quantico. Hopkins drew inspiration for his iteration of Lecter from studying criminal case files, visiting prisons and presiding during several court cases. Meanwhile, Ted Levine focused on Buffalo Bill’s queerness, visiting gay and trans bars and taking as much inspiration from David Bowie as he did from murderers like Ed Gein and Gary Heidnik. This led to the book and the film receiving criticism and protests from feminist, gay and trans activists over the portrayal of Buffalo Bill, who was viewed as demonizing gay and trans people, a reputation which still sours appraisal of the film to this day. In spite of the controversy, The Silence of the Lambs proved to be wildly successful, grossing $272.2 million on a $19 million budget and winning a number of accolades including sweeping the “big five” at the Oscars (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay), only the third film in history to do so.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
Clarice Starling, a student at the FBI Academy, is recruited by Jack Crawford to interview the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter – outwardly, to try to profile his behaviour, but secretly because they suspect that he may have insight on a serial killer who has been kidnapping, murdering and skinning women. Hannibal finds Clarice intriguing, but tires of her questioning. However, when a fellow prisoner flings his semen at Clarice, Hannibal decides that he will give her a lead. This leads Clarice to an abandoned storage locker, where she discovers the severed head of one of Hannibal’s former patients, a man named Benjamin Raspail. Lecter reveals that he believes that Buffalo Bill murdered Raspail many years prior and that he will help to try to catch Bill if they will move him to a more accommodating institution.

While this is occurring, Bill kidnaps his latest victim, who happens to be the daughter of the state senator. Knowing that time is short for this latest victim, Jack and Clarice craft a deal with Lecter for his cooperation, with him demanding insight into Clarice’s childhood before he will accept the deal. However, it is soon discovered that Clarice betrayed his trust as the deal was entirely falsified. A new deal is made between the institution’s overseer Dr. Chilton and Lecter, which is agreed upon with the senator herself. However, Clarice realizes that the information Lecter gave her was misleading and confronts him at a holding cell in a Tennessee courthouse for more information. After providing more details about her childhood, including a traumatic event where she tried to save the spring lambs from being slaughtered, Lecter tells Clarice that everything she needs to know to solve the case is included in the case files. Clarice is escorted out of the building and soon after Lecter escapes by killing his two guards and then cutting one of their faces off, disguising himself as an injured officer as the paramedics rush him out of the crime scene.

Meanwhile, Clarice studies the case file in greater detail and realizes that Buffalo Bill must have known his first victim, which gives her a new lead to start from. After tracking down this lead she realizes that Bill is skinning the women because he’s using them to make a woman suit. Clarice begins tracking down acquaintances of the first victim and comes across Buffalo Bill himself. Quickly realizing that he is the killer, she confronts him and discovers that the senator’s daughter is still alive, trapped inside a well. After a tense chase, Clarice shoots Bill to death and the case is closed. Later, at her FBI graduation ceremony, Clarice receives a phone call from Lecter to congratulate her before he tells her that he’s “having an old friend for dinner” and hangs up, stalking an anxious Dr. Chilton into a crowd…

REVIEW
I’ve grown a lot in the decade since I last saw The Silence of the Lambs and watching it again has given me a newfound appreciation for just how overtly feminist this movie is. (What’s that, we’re talking about feminism on IC2S? Shocker!) Like, if this film came out today, completely unaltered, you’d have chuds whining about how it’s unrealistic, agenda-pushing propaganda. Conversely, it feels very timely for its release year of 1991, when films were still grappling with the idea of women having careers. The film isn’t even subtle about it, within the first couple minutes we get a shot of Clarice walking into an elevator at the FBI Academy surrounded by men who are all nearly twice her height and size, visually symbolizing her upward struggle. We also see several instances of Clarice being hit on and objectified by the men around her when she’s just trying to do her job – when she meets Dr. Chilton, when she tries to do research on the Death’s-head moth and when she is doing her morning jog and all the male recruits check her out after she passes. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning the fucking sexual assault prisoner Miggs subjects her to and the sexually explicit taunts Hannibal directs her way. Clarice always brushes these encounters off, but it’s obvious that they all make her uncomfortable at the very least and undermine her attempts to be taken seriously as an FBI agent on the basis of nothing more than her sex. This theme is woven throughout the film’s narrative, as Buffalo Bill is also exclusively preying on women, making their lives even more difficult and dangerous. Similarly, it is later discovered that Bill is, himself, trying to become a woman while Clarice is trying to shed the prejudice that comes with her gender (I’ve seen some critics say that she wishes she was a man, but I personally don’t get this sense, she just wishes that men wouldn’t objectify her). Clarice even delivers a haunting line near the middle of the film which is straight-up a declaration of the film’s message: “If he sees her as a person and not just an object, it’s harder to tear her up.” Clarice knows the feeling of being objectified by men constantly, but she is determined to achieve her goals in spite of these prejudices and prove that everyone is underestimating her capabilities. All the problems I had with Will Graham in Manhunter? They don’t apply here. Clarice is a fantastic emotional core to the film and she’s played wonderfully by Jodie Foster, who plays up Clarice’s strength, determination and desperation flawlessly. My only slight criticism about her character would be that Clarice’s goals stem, in part, from the well-worn female protagonist daddy issues trope (her father was her hero, a cop who died when she was young). This isn’t a major issue, but it might have been nice if the character’s motivation was just a tad bit more original.

If Clarice is the emotional core of the film, then Hannibal Lecter is the spellbinding agent of chaos, the true antagonist of the piece. Hopkins’ portrayal is truly electrifying. Whereas Cox played the character as a smug dickhead, Hopkins instead aims instead for a more theatrical portrayal, an irresistible mixture of charming and dangerous. His introduction has to be one of the greatest in film history, with Jack Crawford and Dr. Chilton both hyping up just how overwhelmingly dangerous he is to mind and body alike for nearly five straight minutes before we get to meet him. Lecter himself seems to follow a pattern with his playthings – he starts out charming, asking questions politely, reeling the subject in to make them interested. Then he says something shocking or repulsive just to see how the person reacts. In Clarice’s case, she stands her ground and even goes along with Lecter, in the senator’s case she becomes insulted and leaves him. However, Lecter then reels them back in again with a promise of something that they want. In Clarice’s case, he dangles the promise of helping her solve the Buffalo Bill case, making her career and some clues on Bill’s whereabouts, while in the senator’s case he provides details on Bill’s appearance. It’s a pattern that always sees Lecter in control, even though he’s in shackles for nearly the entire film. In spite of this, he does display moments of sympathy and honour, such as when he first agrees to help Clarice after she is sexually assaulted by Miggs. In retaliation, Hannibal convinces Miggs to kill himself in retribution, even though it results in him having all of his privileges stripped away. One particular detail that I found fascinating is Hannibal’s eyes. He spends the entire movie staring like a predator, fixated intently on the things that he wants. Initially we only really see him with Clarice, so it’s not particularly notable when he spends all their time together staring at her. However, later when he is being transported to meet with the senator, he spends most of his time staring forward, blankly… that is, until he sees something he wants, a pen which he plans to use in an escape attempt. Whenever this pen is on screen, Hannibal’s eyes dart to it and he stares with intensity at it. It’s a detail which makes his interactions with Clarice even more interesting. Like the other men in the film, Hannibal is fixated on Clarice’s body but there seems to be more to it than just simple lust. Clarice and Hannibal play off each other with fantastic chemistry, making for two phenomenal leads to the film.

Rounding out the main cast is Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill and… well, this is where the only substantial complaints I have about this film lie. Before I get into this analysis though, I just want to make it clear that I’m going to refer to Buffalo Bill as a man here, mainly because the film tells us that he isn’t transgender and that it seems to be the actual intent that he is not (as opposed to, say, Ace Ventura which portrays a trans woman but then acts like she’s a man). I definitely feel like there are issues here, but based on what we’re given I feel like this is the reading we’re supposed to come away with. Anyway, with that said, the portrayal of Buffalo Bill is fucking problematic. On its surface, the idea of having a character kill women because he wants to become one is ripe for reading as transphobic. I’m actually kind of impressed that Thomas Harris was aware of this and tried to go to great pains to avoid this interpretation, working a couple scenes into the novel of characters explaining that Bill is not a trans person, but rather has so much self loathing that he wants to become someone as far away from himself as possible. The film struggles even more with this, only including one scene where Hannibal states that Buffalo Bill isn’t really a trans person, which isn’t exactly the most reliable source. That said, considering that Harris was aware that this was an issue, it prompts two questions:

  1. If you know that this character is going to read as problematic, why are you bothering to include the problematic parts?
  2. If you’re insisting on going forward with it, why not get consultations from trans figures to ensure that you make it as respectful as possible?

Harris may have at tried to cut off any potential criticisms, but it didn’t seem to work because the popular perception became that Buffalo Bill was a villainous trans character and the explanations were forgotten. It also doesn’t help that the film tries to leave Bill’s queerness ambiguous, but Ted Levine plays the character so stereotypically gay (he’s got a goddamn bichon frise named Precious for Christsakes) and we’re clearly meant to find his “otherness” to be a monstrous aspect of the character. Levine is quoted saying “I think [Bill] at one point thought that he might be a rock star in the mode of a David Bowie, those guys who were really masculine but feminine at the same time”, denoting that we’re meant to be disturbed by Bill’s androgyny. The infamous “tucking” scene is also indicative of this (and, notably, was improvised by Levine), only really existing to make us think how strange and fucked up queer people are. I feel like the film might have gotten away with its explanations that Bill wasn’t really trans and avoided backlash from the LGBTQ community, but the tucking scene and the unambiguous queer coding push it way too far, especially at a time when positive queer representation was in a noticeable dearth. Buffalo Bill’s entrance a half hour into the film is truly chilling, with him preying on his victim’s sympathy to lure her into his clutches, it’s just too bad that he turns into an offensive stereotype from there. Luckily, his screentime is fairly limited, but it’s unfortunate that his portrayal is a permanent black stain on this film.

While the characters are the beating heart of The Silence of the Lambs, they’re greatly aided by a top-tier screenplay and direction. The films story is tense, exciting and lean, giving the audience the clues to solve the mystery on their own while not wasting a moment of screentime. Aiding this is Jonathan Demme’s expert direction, which allows the actors to get the most out of their performances. I noticed that Demme frames his characters in closeups and extreme closeups constantly throughout the film, giving us more insight into the characters’ unspoken emotions during all of the tense exchanges of dialogue. It’s a simple technique, but it’s utilized masterfully throughout the film to convey more than is said and helps to get around some of the issues translating a book to screen. There are all sorts of great moments utilizing these closeups, most notably during any scene with Hannibal and Clarice, but I was particularly impressed during the scene where Clarice inspects the body of one of Bill’s victims. The body itself isn’t shown, except in bits and pieces, and the focus is instead on Clarice’s face as she records the details. A lesser film may have revelled in the chance for some squeamish gore, but The Silence of the Lambs places the focus squarely on Clarice and all of the emotions that she clearly has just roiling beyond the surface, since this is what’s truly important in this scene. Demme also pulls out some truly thrilling sequences, such as Lecter’s grand escape (I can still remember the first time I saw it, piecing together what happened as I watched and being amazed when the big reveal was made) and the voyeuristic and claustrophobic night vision sequence at the end of the film. All-in-all, it’s little wonder that the film swept the Oscars, because nearly everything here is top notch.

I’ve always regarded The Silence of the Lambs highly, but I was curious to see how it would hold up nearly a decade after I last saw it and with a more critical eye directed towards the film’s representation issues. While I have to say that I’m disappointed by the problematic LGBTQ representation, if you’re able to look past this issue, everything else about the film is engrossing. I was also particularly impressed by the film’s feminist themes, which I hadn’t appreciated in previous viewings of the film. There really isn’t much more to say, The Silence of the Lambs is still a great, if flawed, film and definitely my favourite movie in the franchise.

9/10

Be sure to tune in again soon when we look at the next entry in the franchise, Hannibal!

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