Friday Film Focus: Silence of the Lambs

Silence of the Lambs is involving, frightening, and completely disturbing.

I first saw this film at a very young age, and was transfixed by it immediately. The secret of Silence is that it doesn’t start with the cannibal. Rather, it arrives at him through the eyes of a young woman. Silence of the Lambs is the story of Clarice Starling — the FBI trainee played by the incredible Jodie Foster. Dr. Hannibal Lecter lurks at the very heart of the film. He’s a malevolent but somehow likable presence. He appears likable because he likes Clarice, and ultimately helps her. But Lector, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, is the sideshow. Completely unaware to the situation, Clarice finds herself in the center ring.

The superbly crafted suspense thriller slams you like a sudden blast of bone-chilling, pulse pounding terror. At the beginning of the film, FBI figurehead Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) seeks the assistance of a bright young agent, Clarice Starling. Starling is on the trail of a serial killer. Still at large, the killer is known as Buffalo Bill for reasons that can’t be reported here. Bill’s habit is to skin his victims. Silence of the Lambs is not merely a thrill show. It’s about two of the most memorable characters in movie history, and their strange, strained relationship. “People will say we’re in love,” Lecter cackles. They share so much. Both are completely ostracized by the worlds they want to inhabit. Lecter is demonized by the human race because he is cannibal and serial killer. Clarice faces push-back within the law enforcement profession due to the fact she is a woman. Both also feel powerless. Lecter is locked in a maximum security prison (and was bound/gagged like King Kong when he is moved). Clarice is surrounded by men who tower over her, and fondle her with their eyes. Her assignment involves interviewing Hannibal Lecter. She wants to secure his help in drawing a psychological profile of the new killer.

Lecter — nicknamed Hannibal the Cannibal — once liked to feast on his victims in a meal designed to complement the particular nature of the main dish. He would, for example, choose a “nice” Chianti to accompany a savory liver. The principal concern of Silence of the Lambs involves the entrapment of Buffalo Bill before he can kill again. Yet, the heart of the movie is the eerie and complex relationship that develops between Clarice and Hannibal during a series of prison interviews. These are conducted through inch-thick bulletproof glass.

Clarice is slowly able to persuade Dr. Lecter to aid her in the search for the new serial killer. Hannibal is a most seductive psychopath, a fellow who listens to the “Goldberg Variations” and can sketch the Duomo from memory. It’s not his elegant tastes that attract Clarice, and certainly not his arrogant manner of his deaths-head good looks. His eyes never change expression and his smile is frosty. It’s his brilliant mind that draws her to him. It pierces and surprises. Hannibal is one movie killer who is demonstrably as brilliant and wicked as he is reported to be.

In their first interview together, Hannibal sizes up Clarice quite nicely. He notices her expensive bag, cheap shoes, her West Virginia accent, and her furrow-browed, youthful determination in not wanting to appear intimidated. Hannibal isn’t unkind to her; he actually grows quite fond of the young Clarice. When Hannibal finally agrees to help Clarice, it’s with the understanding that for every bit of information he gives her, she will tell him something about herself. Because Hannibal, by nature and by profession, is an expert in prying, the questions he asks both frightens and soothes the young woman. For Hannibal, they are a turn on. Both share similar childhood wounds.

Lecter is touched when he learns Clarice lost both her parents at an early age. She was shipped off to her relatives, and was essentially an unloved orphan. Lecter himself was a victim of child abuse. Clarice has the charm of absolute honesty. It’s a quality not often seen in movies — or for that matter — in life.

During this time, Buffalo Bill has just kidnapped his sixth victim. Her name is Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). She’s the daughter of a U.S. senator (Diane Baker). Bill isn’t interested in rape or political favors. He wants something else from Catherine, who he has trapped in a pit dug fifteen feet into his cellar floor. As he lowers a basket on a thin string, the camera picks up the bloody finger tracks of other women who have tried and failed to claw their way out. In basket is a tube of lotion. Bill keeps his captives alive for three days, making sure their skin stays supple for a hideous objective unfair for me to reveal.

The brutality in Silence leaves you shaken because it’s meant to seem painful instead of playful, terrifying instead of titillating. However, Foster’s Clarice Starling and Smith’s Catherine Martin represent something unique in slasher movies: Women who won’t play the victim. Foster and Hopkins won Oscars for best actress and actor (the movie also won for best picture, among other nominations). Hopkins’ performance has much less screen time than Foster’s. All the same, he made an indelible impression on audiences. His “entrance” is unforgettable.

One key to the film’s appeal is that audiences like Hannibal Lecter. That’s partly because he likes Starling, and we sense he would not hurt her. It’s also because he is helping her search for Buffalo Bill in order to save save the imprisoned girl. But it may also be because Hopkins, in a still, sly way, brings such wit and style to the character. He does not bore, he loves to amuse, and he has his standards. For all the unbridled savagery on display, Silence of the Lambs is shrewd, significant, and hopeful. It proves a movie can be mercilessly scary and mercifully humane at the same time.

Image Source: Tyneside Cinema