‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991) — A Meeting of Unlike Minds

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Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

“Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head,” cautions assistant FBI director, Jack Crawford (a bespectacled Scott Glenn), about his agent-in-training Clarice Starling’s upcoming interview with the brilliant but diabolical Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. Wise words, indeed, that unfortunately go unheeded by Clarice.

The worst horrors imaginable are, more often than not, those that reside deep within the recesses of our thoughts. And there’s nothing more frightening than someone who can read those same thoughts, while simultaneously spilling forth what they know about us.

In a sense, that’s the true monster to be found in the intense sparring matches — a meeting of unlike minds, if you prefer — between Clarice Starling (stalwart Jodie Foster) and the vicious yet genteel master criminal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (a particularly creepy Anthony Hopkins), in director Jonathan Demme’s superbly-crafted horror flick, The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

The film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Gothic novel delves ever so deeply into the minds and psyches of not only Foster and Hopkins’ characters, but also that of the serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), a transsexual wannabe who just happens to have a “way” with a Singer sewing machine. To be frank, this forlorn fellow is a bit of a letdown when compared to the fiendishly clever Dr. Lecter. For one, he lacks the “good” doctor’s intellectual heft, and for another he loses out badly to him in the charm department. I’m sure Buffalo Bill (whose tag line, “He likes to skin his humps,” is as awful as it sounds) was meant to be a lot more than the sum of his victims’ parts. But compared to our gentlemanly sociopath, he is far below — if not exactly in — Lecter’s exalted league.

Still, amid the sordid details of this lame killer’s crimes is the ensuing investigation conducted by rookie agent Starling. It’s a trip not every audience member is willing to make, but no matter. The rewards are high, as the film is decidedly more than your average rock-em, sock-em slasher-fest. If anything, it’s a masterpiece of finely calibrated tension — a real nail biter, as it were — never letting up for a minute, and never sensationalizing the crimes for their own sake, a definite plus as far as serial-killer pictures go.

To borrow a phrase from the movie’s dialogue, the plot is “simplicity” itself. Agent Starling is sent by Crawford on her first major assignment: to pick Hannibal Lecter’s mind (or as much of it as he’s willing to part with) in order to compile a criminal profile of Buffalo Bill.

Although given relatively brief screen time (contrary to popular belief, he’s only visible for a miserly quarter of an hour), Dr. Lecter’s presence is ominously, and irresistibly, felt throughout. Quite rightly, he remains the focus of everyone’s concern; a constant reminder of the menace lurking behind every corner, and in the farthest reaches of our subconscious — much like the Id Monster from Forbidden Planet (1956), only more terrifying because of the doctor’s apparently “benign” form.

Suffice it to say that the movie’s best moments occur when Hopkins and Foster are thrown together in a winner-take-all battle of wills that leaves both combatants (and us) begging for more. Demme knows the value of keeping this nonpareil team functioning at full tilt. He also pays careful attention to the story’s various locales and their connection to his main characters.

For example, there is Lecter’s subterranean prison cell — which feels, for all the world, like the lair of a venomous pit viper, a morbid mixture of Mozart with the macabre, highbrow sophistication and outright violence and brutality. This is made evident in the scene of Lecter’s escape where, even after clubbing to death one of the prison guards, he continues to play the part of a conductor, leading a “performance” of unseen pianist Glenn Gould in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

As the captivating Hannibal Lecter, Hopkins gives the performance of a lifetime. It’s shocking to learn that, in the same year, he also appeared in Merchant-Ivory’s prestige production of Howards End, so utterly dissimilar are his characterizations in each. In Silence of the Lambs, the Welsh actor’s cultivated voice has the modulated tone of a trained singer, rising to crescendos of fury, only to fall back again to a near whisper as he toys with his victim’s mind. But make no mistake: that lithe, aristocratic bearing of his masks a truly loathsome creature. (Watch out for his bite!)

Indeed, Hopkins gets under your skin right from the opening buzzer, so to speak. His physical reactions to Ms. Foster’s initial queries mimic those of a caged animal: all tautness and nervous tension — and ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. One gets the uneasy feeling that we’ve been caught eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between a noted shrink and his prized patient. It’s an unforgettable match-up that sets the stage for what’s to come.

Jodie Foster as Agent Starling
Jodie Foster as Agent Starling

And in the challenger’s corner, we have Jodie Foster, equally riveting as Clarice Starling. Keep a close eye on her, as she rises from her chair after the first of their several meetings is over, her legs almost buckling out from under her from sheer terror and the force of Lecter’s personality. His cutting remarks (“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a good Chianti,” and “You fly back to school, now, little Starling. Fly, fly, fly…”) are a thing of lyric beauty, in a chilling sort of way.

Lecter no doubt finds in Agent Starling a worthy adversary, his poor opinion of her wardrobe notwithstanding (“You’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you?”). She’s not being inquisitive for her health, but willing to do whatever it takes to pacify the mad doctor, in spite of the cost to her sanity.

With that, Clarice grows to rely on Lecter’s skill in criminal profiling, fully expecting him to come clean about Buffalo Bill’s motives (which he does, but in a most roundabout manner), in exchange for intimate psychoanalysis at a price — a quid pro quo to end all quid pro quos. All this, to help save a senator’s daughter from certain death at Bill’s hands. It’s a selfless act of blind trust, based on her knowledge of Lecter’s inflated opinion of himself, and the confidence she has in her ability to counter his bizarre mind games.

Gradually, their dialogue turns into mutual but wary respect. Some critics have even hinted at a possible “romantic” inclination, which is a bit hard to swallow but not above the realm of possibility. For Lecter, it’s an affirmation of his unequaled powers of seduction and deception; for Clarice, an emotional confrontation with, and release from, traumatic events in her past.

Hopkins’ fifteen minutes of fame as Foster’s surrogate confessor paid off handsomely at the box office, their terrific ensemble work garnering well-deserved Best Actor Oscars for both artists. It’s a shame the main “Buffalo Bill” plot keeps intruding on their priceless gab sessions, which are easily the highlight of the film.

Dr. Lecter "enjoying" a meal (craveonline.com)
Dr. Lecter “enjoying” a hearty meal (craveonline.com)

Others in the first-rate cast include Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith, Diane Baker, Chris Isaak, and Frankie R. Faison, who’s appeared in all the Hannibal Lecter movies, including Manhunter (1986). The legendary Roger Corman has a bit part as an FBI director — a nice touch, considering he was one of director Demme’s mentors. The cold, windswept photography is by Tak Fujimoto, while Howard Shore, who went on to greater glory with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, provided the moody music score.

Crisply edited, with nary a wasted scene to speak of, the film captured all the major awards categories in Los Angeles. Despite the honors it’s definitely not for the faint of heart, although the gore quotient is remarkably restrained for a horror thriller. See it at your peril. ◘

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Produced by Kenneth Utt, Edward Saxon and Ron Bozman; directed by Jonathan Demme; screenplay by Ted Tally, based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name; cinematography by Tak Fujimoto; edited by Craig McKay; music by Howard Shore; starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith, Diane Baker, Kasi Lemmons, and Frankie Faison; distributed by Orion Pictures; 118 min.

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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One thought on “‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991) — A Meeting of Unlike Minds

    Luisa Swango said:
    November 6, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    I always love the way that you clarify issues to other individuals

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