As a cinema fan of all eras, I’m familiar with the universal themes apparent in a predictable fashion in a great many films. The protagonist is the good guy symbol of tough, moral fortitude and there is usually a pretty female role vying for his romantic attention as he battles whatever conflicts, evil doers or challenges that besiege them. Then came along FBI agent Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) and she flipped that formula right on its ear. I couldn’t love a character more.
Based on the novel by Thomas Harris with a screenplay by Ted Tally, celebrated director Jonathan Demme brings us an Oscar-winning crime thriller with unforgettable performances by Jodi Foster as FBI agent Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as her incarcinated, cannibalistic serial killer and partner-of-sorts, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. There’s a lot to love for the morbid thirst in you to savor.
The tale begins in the isolated woods in Quantico, Virginia. FBI student-in-training agent Starling is running all alone in the woods. This imagery is more insightful than you realize. We see her as a loner of sorts, of petite stature, yet hard-working and determined- doggedly so; carving out her own righteous path. She stands out from her peers. Hold on to this image- it will serve well in understanding her character later.
She is called in to her superior’s office. He’s hand selected her to interview famed cannibal psychologist Dr. Lecter. He claims it’s a mere formality of low expectations to create a profile via a standard set of questions. We think it’s just a test to check her career readiness, but even Starling’s too smart to not see past his veil. She immediately asks if this is related to the serial killer of current headlines, “Buffalo Bill” known for skinning his plump female victims. After all, twisted minds surely think alike, right? The hunt begins, with an unlikely protagonist quietly and assuredly forging ahead with a strange and dangerous partnership to assist her along the way.
There’s a great deal that works well in this film and the final results show it in a parade of awards, including five Oscars. It’s a hypnotizing plot that includes a healthy heaping of macabre and the pace is perfect. It’s not just a murder mystery, it’s a serial killer hunt. Buffalo Bill. He’s not just a serial killer, he’s an atypical trangender, moth and poodle-loving, seamstress nazi that makes dresses out of women. And of all the unusual investigation partners, he’s not just an informant in the serial killer field, Cannibal Hannibal is the supreme being of serial murderers (how common can cannibalism be, even among serial killers?) AND he’s a brilliant, cultured, highly educated psychiatrist. Not your run-of-the-mill partnership on the investigation trail. Of casting Hopkins as Dr. Lecter, director Jonathan Demme said, “I thought that in that movie “The Elephant Man,” that he was the ultimate good doctor, just the greatest doctor of all. So my thinking was, what happens if the greatest doctor of all goes wrong?”
The editing, directing and character development is sublimely suited. One of the most suspenseful scenes of the entire film translates masterfully thanks to clever editing. The scene shows a parallelism of Starling visiting a candidate in the interview process, just as her boss and his team swoop in to greet the killer hundreds of miles away. The editing is vital to building and revealing tension in the story. The end result is pure brilliance.
We get to know these characters thoroughly and as unique individuals, as we should. Even the small, brief roles have individual points of view. Then there’s the stand-out performances of Jodi Foster and Anthony Hopkins.
Sir Anthony Hopkins has a long and successful career in acting, performing on stage and screen with some of the greatest in the business. And yet, if you were to poll hundreds of folks on the street, this role will be guaranteed as his most memorable of them all. “I knew it was one of those parts. Lecter was that guy at the top of the stairs, the guy in the corner, the boogeyman — those things that frighten you in your nightmares.” – Anthony Hopkins.
Hopkins performance remains forever etched in our brains (brains that his character would serve with fava beans and a nice chianti). When we are first introduced to him, he stands like a pillar in the center of his cell. Starling is nervous and out of place yet does her best to compensate. In the cell, he reveals himself to be part primitive animal (confident in himself, no apologies for who he is- like an animal that does not choose to eat the gazelle, it’s his instinct to do so) and part brilliant mind. What a frightening combination and yet Hopkins nails it.
In their initial exchange, we can’t tell who is leading the interview. Who is the teacher and who is the student? They are both analyzing each other in a game of psycho-intellectual cat-and-mouse. He remains in a constant state of calm. The only deviation from that quiet calm is right before we see him strike to kill, later in the film. In that moment we see pure euphoria release and rush across his face. It’s chilling. Every now and then we also see his patronizing arrogance, a by-product of his high intellect. “Goody, goody” he’ll sarcastically coo. And yet, despite her thickly monotone accent (which sounds more Oklahoma than West Virginia to me) and her poor, rural background he becomes a big fan of Clarice Starling. He respects her and you get the impression that is a rare offering for him. They’re an odd pair to say the least.
Jodi Foster as Clarice Starling is the highest-ranking heroine on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villians, and the sixth greatest protagonist in film history. I must concur. Along with Marge Gunderson in FARGO (1996), Foster’s Starling is my favorite female character in film. She is tough and fearless, yet in a understated, realistic, sometimes vulnerable way. Her toughness has come from a lifetime (although she is still a young woman) of real-life survival. Yet miraculously, she’s not that jaded. There’s still some vulnerability to her, which she is surprisingly willing to share with-of all people- Dr. Lecter. Obviously, she’s smart so it’s strategically to her advantage to open up to him, to get him to do the same. But he’s certainly no idiot either and he’d see right through her if it was an act. She keeps it real, always professional, and she never boasts or postures.
In the end, she gets the job done. After following her instincts and sticking to the hard work and due process, she takes on the enemy… all alone. Like a full-circle back to her run in the woods when we first met her, she’s carved out her own path. And as Dr. Lecter says, this world is a far more interesting place with her in it.
“Oh, I think it’s a great American classic. It will stand out for years to come, there’s something very timeless about it. All of us probably did the best work of our life in that movie and our great fear is that we will never be as good.” – Jodie Foster
Released on Criterion in 1993 yet now no longer in print, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) offers some unique features to this ‘new classic’ thriller. Some of the supplements that can only be found on the Criterion release, which was not made available on the later MGM/Fox releases, are discussed in detail and reviewed at CriterionForums.org:
*This article was my contribution to the CRITERION BLOGATHON, November 16-21, 2015. Hosted by Aaron at Criterion Blues, Kristina at Speakeasy, and Ruth at Silver Screenings. Check out all six day re-caps for cool entries!