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Dissecting the Classics – The Silence of the Lambs

May 3, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Today’s film was always on the list of films to cover on this column, but with Jonathan Demme passing away last week, it seemed fitting to move it up to this week. Demme is also known for directing films like Philadelphia, Rachel Getting Married and the remake of The Manchurian Candidate. But this will always be what he is best known for.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


The Silence of the Lambs

Wide Release Date: February 14, 1991
Directed By: Jonathan Demme
Written By: Ted Tally
Produced By: Kenneth Utt, Edward Saxon and Ron Bozman
Cinematography By: Tak Fujimoto
Edited By: Craig McKay
Music By: Howard Shore
Production Company: Strong Heart/Demme Production
Distributed By: Orion Pictures
Starring:
Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter
Scott Glenn as Jack Crawford
Ted Levine as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb
Anthony Heald as Dr. Frederick Chilton

What Do We All Know?

The Silence of the Lambs was instantly iconic; the fourth highest grossing film of 1991, and one of the most successful Oscar winners ever. Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lecter is one of the most well known in film history, with the American Film Institute naming him the all-time greatest film villain. It’s also the defining role of Jodie Foster’s career, and while Clarice Starling isn’t as transcendent a character in pop culture, she is one of the all-time great film heroes. And to top it off, this has a reputation as being the greatest horror film of all time.

With that sort of reputation, The Silence of the Lambs really does feel like a recipe for a film that won’t live up to expectations or stand the test of time. I had put off seeing it for years simply because I didn’t want to be let down. Fortunately, it exceeded my expectations, and multiple viewings have cemented its place as one of my all-time favorites. It gets better with every viewing and deserves it’s status as both a pop culture institution and one of the greatest movies of its era.

What Went Right?

Well, to start with, Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel of the same name is pretty great source material to work from. But it doesn’t hurt that the film was a passion project for screenwriter Ted Tally, and that director Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster were heavily invested in the film when they signed on. Foster was riding high after her Oscar win for The Accused, and while Anthony Hopkins was not the first pick for the job of Hannibal Lecter, he proved to be perfectly suited to it.

So having good material to work with and two great performers in the lead roles certainly helps. Foster is astonishingly good in this. Clarice Starling is put in situations that are out of most people’s depth, and she has to be professional and commanding in situations that are accommodating to neither. Foster perfectly balances the strength and vulnerability of the character, making for one of the all-time great protagonists. And Hopkins… what else can be said? He’s hypnotic, he’s demanding, he’s over the top yet subdued, and he’s utterly terrifying. Despite his evil, he also has just enough humanity to almost be sympathetic. These two performances really do make the film something truly great.

But I also have to give credit to the director and his crew. Jonathan Demme has a distinct style that can also be seen in Philadelphia, with one of his signature techniques being that of close ups to let us know when to pay attention closely. But perhaps the real MVP is editor Craig McKay, who displays masterful use of the artform to elevate the flow of the story. Scenes like Clarice’s descent into metaphorical Hell to meet Hannibal or the intercutting of Buffalo Bill answering his doorbell as the swat team enters another building are particularly showy, but he also adds a crucial element to the dialogue scenes between Clarice and Hannibal.

The Silence of the Lambs is both a highly effective mystery and an engrossing character study, and it rarely has a scene that isn’t memorable. But if you need proof that it’s a classic, rewatch the first meeting between Clarice and Hannibal; it’s an example of acting, script, set design, shot composition, editing, music and directing all working perfectly in sync to make the absolute most of a scene.

What Went Wrong?

The film is not without its detractors, with many condemning what they consider excessive violence. But perhaps the most controversial element of The Silence of the Lambs is the use of apparent transgender villain Buffalo Bill. I say “apparent” because context is everything and the script goes out of its way to describe transgender women as being typically peaceful, and to say that Bill is not a true transgender woman. Anything beyond a surface level analysis of the situation refutes the argument that this is a transphobic film. And while the film does use some dated terms, for a 1991 movie, it actually handles the material better than it can reasonably be expected to.

That said, Jonathan Demme did acknowledge during the initial accusations of transphobia and homophobia that there was a lack of sympathetic protagonists that were LGBT, etc. I don’t think it was a coincidence that his next project was Philadelphia, one of the landmark films for the community. So hey, whether the controversy was merited or not, something good did come out of the discussion.

What Went Really Right?

Having one of the all time great villainous performances in your movie never hurts. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter transcends the film; people know who he is and can quote him even if they haven’t seen the movie. But a great villain needs to play off a great hero, and the more I watch this film the more I find myself connecting with Clarice. And that isn’t by accident; the vast majority of the film is presented from Clarice’s point of view. She is the character we experience the film through, and the personal attachment enhances everything from the chilling fear of Buffalo Bill to the empathy we develop for Hannibal.

What this connection means as far as how I experience the film is certainly interesting. Clarice is almost always framed in a way that makes her seem smaller and more vulnerable in comparison to the other characters. With the film’s focus on conversations, we understand that how we other characters is how Clarice sees them. Demme’s penchant for close ups makes the characters Clarice interacts with seem in her face and vaguely threatening. And not just the serial killers, but Dr. Chilton, and even her level-headed good-aligned boss. If one pays attention, one can see that almost every scene has someone flirting with Clarice or looking her over. You might not have noticed the first time since she’s pretty chill about it, but even Hannibal asks what it’s like to always have someone looking at her. Notable exceptions? Hannibal and Bill. If anything, it’s almost easier for Clarice to confront her monsters than the more ordinary people. Make of that what you will.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park
Back to the Future
Chinatown
Taxi Driver
The Matrix
Batman (1989)
Casablanca
Goldfinger
X2
King Kong (1933)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The Dark Crystal
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Godfather
The Godfather, Part II
Ghostbusters

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include Hidden Figures, Disney’s Brother Bear, and DC’s Teen Titans: The Judas Contract.

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