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The Silence of the Lambs
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The Silence of the Lambs

Ever since movies like Halloween (1978) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) sparked a horror-film renaissance in the 1970s, audiences have cheered for the "final girl," the last survivor of a serial killer's mayhem--usually a young woman, stuck with the grim job of subduing the slayer and returning home to tell her story. Of the many offbeat touches in Jonathan Demme's legendary thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991), none works more effectively than the decision to let the final girl also be the original girl and the only girl, matching her wits against the murderer's from beginning to end.

Not that Clarice Starling is exactly a girl. She's a smart, no-nonsense woman, and she's played by a smart, no-nonsense actress: Jodie Foster, who won an Academy Award for her work. Oscars® also went to Demme for Best Director, Ted Tally for Best Adapted Screenplay, Anthony Hopkins for his chilling performance as Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, and the movie itself as Best Picture of 1991. The film's editing and sound were also nominated. It was almost unprecedented for an R-rated film to sweep the top five Oscars®, and the triumph was taken as a welcome sign that Hollywood was growing up at last-able to embrace a tough, challenging story told in a tough, challenging way.

The first main character we meet is Starling, who's earned a psychology degree and joined the FBI as a trainee. She's assigned to help a senior FBI agent, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), track down a serial killer called Buffalo Bill because he skins his (always female) victims as if they were so many bison on the hoof. Crawford's idea is to figure out Buffalo Bill's thought processes with help from Hannibal Lecter, M.D., a former psychiatrist and world-class fiend who's serving life in prison for his crimes. In their first conversation, Starling mentions that serial killers often keep "trophies" from their victims' bodies. Lecter points out that he never did, and Starling stands corrected. "No," she accurately replies, "you ate yours."

Her urgent goal is to locate Buffalo Bill before he kills and flays Catherine Martin, a U.S. senator's daughter who's his latest victim. Starling has about seventy-two hours to accomplish this, since after kidnapping a woman BB keeps her for three days in a home-made dungeon, starving her so her skin will better suit his purpose-which is to tailor himself a "suit" that will enhance his hoped-for transformation into a female version of himself. Lecter can help if he wants to, but he'll do it only on his own psychotic terms.

Starling plunges into the case, assisted by enigmatic clues from Lecter that are almost as mystifying as BB's whereabouts. One of the film's most engrossing elements is the contrast it strikes between two different senses of time, as critic Yvonne Tasker points out in her book on the movie. All the characters are passing through a three-day period that will end with victory for either the FBI or the killer. By contrast, Lecter is already in prison, which frees him from the clock and calendar. He never speaks or moves with undue haste, savoring the suspense he's inflicting on Starling by handing her puzzling hints in exchange for personal information about herself.

Hannibal Lecter was born as a secondary character in the 1981 novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, a former crime and police reporter known for his reclusive personality and meticulous attention to detail; he'll spell out the difficulties of working with disembodied skin, for instance, or the condition of a "floater" corpse eaten away by the water it was dumped into. Red Dragon has been filmed twice-as Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann in 1986, and under the novel's title, with Brett Ratner directing in 2002. Brian Cox plays Lecter in the 1986 picture, oozing the same understated weirdness that Hopkins brings to The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, the sequel directed by Ridley Scott in 2001. French actor Gaspard Ulliel plays him with a more aggressive, less effective kind of menace in Hannibal Rising, the 2007 prequel. More actors may take on Lecter in years to come, but Hopkins will always own the character; it's been that way since the moment we and Starling first saw him behind the cannibal-proof glass that shields Hannibal's jailers from his deadly grasp. This is the role that made Hopkins a full-blown star, and deservedly so.

The Silence of the Lambs performed well at the box office, becoming the last hit released by Orion Pictures before the company went into bankruptcy the following year. The film's popularity, due in part to the superb cast and crew, may also have been boosted by real-life associations that audiences brought to it. Many moviegoers remembered that would-be assassin John Hinckley said he tried to kill President Ronald Reagan in 1981 as a way of getting Jodie Foster's attention after he saw Taxi Driver (1976) umpteen times; and the real serial killer Ted Bundy wore a cast on his arm to appear harmless, just as Buffalo Bill does on screen.

Not everyone hailed The Silence of the Lambs. It sparked controversy in the gay community for portraying Buffalo Bill as a wannabe transsexual with stereotypical gay mannerisms, and some reviewers found it too violent. Chicago critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that "the purposes to which it places its considerable ingenuity are ultimately rather foul....For creepy, sicko kicks, I'd rather watch the evening news." By contrast, many feminist critics praised it as "a slasher film in which the woman is hero rather than victim, pursuer rather than pursued," in Amy Taubin's words.

One of the factors that put Harris's novel onto bestseller lists was the careful, almost affectionate precision he uses to bring horrific scenes alive. Drawing on research with the FBI and painstaking study of real serial-killer cases, he lends even the goriest matters a morbid fascination that's hard to shake. Demme provides a movie equivalent via gruesome crime-scene photos, graphic filming of a blood-drenched jailbreak scene, and lots of ghoulish dialogue. "A census taker once tried to test me," Lecter tells Clarice in one of his jovial moods. "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." Lines like this passed instantly into the pop-culture hall of fame, helping the movie become a classic of its genre as well as an Oscar®-winning hit.

It also did a lot for Demme, previously known as an art-minded director (Melvin and Howard [1980], Stop Making Sense [1984], Swimming to Cambodia [1987]) with a liking for quirky subjects and performances. The Silence of the Lambs made him a major Hollywood auteur, and remains the defining work of his career. Foster and Hopkins have also reaped great rewards from its success. Whatever they might accomplish in the future, the may never outdo their unique achievements in this remarkable thriller.

Producers: Ron Bozman, Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenplay: Ted Tally, based on Thomas Harris novel
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Film editing: Craig McKay
Art direction: Tim Galvin
Production design: Kristi Zea
Music: Howard Shore
Cast: Jodie Foster (Clarice Starling), Anthony Hopkins (Dr. Hannibal Lecter), Scott Glenn (Jack Crawford), Anthony Heald (Dr. Frederick Chilton), Ted Levine (Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb), Frankie Faison (Barney Matthews), Kasi Lemmons (Ardelia Mapp), Brooke Smith (Catherine Martin), Diane Baker (Sen. Ruth Martin), Roger Corman (FBI Director Hayden Burke), Ron Vawter (Paul Krendler).
C-118m. Letterboxed.

by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt

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