By Marc S. Sanders

Everyone remembers Anthony Hopkins’ memorable turn as the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of Lambs.  He was “Hannibal The Cannibal;” a renowned and brilliant psychiatrist who was eventually captured for being the one who ate his victims with sophisticated glee.  The real attraction, though, is how director Jonathan Demme delivers the film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ best selling novel through a lens that only finds one strong heroine amid a sea of intimidating men.  The heroine is the intuitive, but petite Clarice Starling.  The men are nearly everyone else cast in the film, and I mean everyone all the way down to the extras; the extras, here, are a perfect example how necessary they are towards any film’s palette.

Ever since the film was released in 1991, the dialogue of Ted Tally’s script is worthy of repeating and mimicking in social circles.  Lecter remains spoofed in nearly every pop culture medium.  Hopkins’ character is unforgettable and he’s been ranked among the greatest film villains of all time with the likes of Darth Vader and Harry Lyme.  It’s a worthy honor.  His timing is subtle and mischievous while he remains silently dangerous.  You can’t take your eyes off the actor and you can’t erase the devilishly fun and evil character from your sub conscious.  Opposite this performance though is Jodie Foster in a top billing role as an FBI trainee named Clarice Starling, assigned to interview and maybe study Lecter as a means to a solid lead in finding a serial killer that has been identified in the media as “Buffalo Bill.”  Bill has been skinning and killing girls with large physicalities, around the east to mid-west portion of the United States.

So, there is a detective story at play here as Hannibal aids Clarice in her search for the killer, but only under his rules.  Demme paints the film with Clarice ably performing her job no matter the towering strength or perverted fantasies found in nearly any man.  An outstanding image early on shows her small frame entering an elevator.  She has been summoned to her supervisor’s office from the outdoor obstacle course.  She is sweaty, and looking tired.  The elevator is full of a dozen men in red uniform polo shirts that hug every muscle; they are strong, fit and healthy.  Clarice stands front and center and she has no reluctance to stand among this exclusive group.  Later in the film, Clarice is invited by her supervisor, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn in a deservedly dark and quiet performance), to investigate one of Bill’s victims that turned up in the swampy waters of West Virginia.  The coroner’s examination room is filled to the max with sheriffs who believe they serve a purpose to stay there to witness what’s uncovered.  The strength of Clarice is really shown here as she shoos them away.  The men’s facial expressions tell us they don’t care for this request, but Clarice isn’t going to allow them to remain.  Most importantly are her encounters with the head of the Baltimore psychiatric ward that houses Lecter.  He is known as Dr. Chilton played by Anthony Heald.  Chilton – a great character name that clearly colors in the twisted perversion of this guy.  Chilton is happy to boast of his prized attraction, Lecter, as if he’s a rare tiger and he has no reluctance to hit on Clarice when she comes to visit with Lecter.  Always, Clarice will not allow herself to be succumbed, patronized or victimized by any of these towering figures of masculinity in what is unfairly regarded as a man’s world in law enforcement, crime or psychiatry.  Starling easily reminds Chilton that she was a student at the University of West Virginia, not a charm school.  With Tally’s script, Jodie Foster uses these deflective techniques of her character without effort.  Her methods of fencing with these men are a natural ability.  Even when she’s in film transition periods of training at the Academy, Clarice can maintain her stance against a hard-hitting male boxer pounding away at her boxing shield.  She just won’t fall over. As well, she doesn’t wince as the male students give her a glance from behind when she’s jogging on the grounds. 

Demme is an outstanding director who uses these interpretations of this woman to drive his film.  This very same year, 1991, Ridley Scott directed Thelma & Louise.  In that film, the title characters had to realize that they didn’t have to take any shit from a man.  They started out weak, though, and had no choice but to eventually get stronger.  Here, it’s already part of the woman’s instinctive nature. 

Hannibal Lecter is shown to be well versed in the finer things of art, literature, music and, forgive me, cuisine.  At one point, Demme focuses on a picture Lecter has sketched depicting Clarice in an almost angelic nature.  I’ve never forgotten that image.  Nearly all of the settings in The Silence Of The Lambs include stairways that always lead us in the down direction, to an assortment of various hells.  Clarice, the pure angel with nary a fault beyond limited experience as an FBI agent peels the onion away on her quest for a killer by entering into the treacherous depths beneath her; pits of hells.  The opening shot of the film has Clarice pulling herself up with a rope on an obstacle course as if she is ready to enter the heavens, ready to stand above everything, but then she is summoned to Crawford’s office located at the Department of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI.  She has to take an elevator down and then various stairways further down into a labyrinth of claustrophobic offices with no windows, surrounded by cinderblock and populated with men in uncharacteristic suits that don’t appear warm or cuddly.  Crawford may seem like her ally, but really, he’s using her as a sacrificial pawn on a chess board putting her in an arena with psychotically dangerous prisoners, in particular, the worst of them all, Hannibal The Cannibal. 

When Clarice goes to visit Hannibal, she is escorted by Dr. Chilton, who relishes in describing how careful he handles his prized thing, and willingly shows what this monster is truly capable of by providing an unwelcome photograph of how Lecter brutalized a female nurse.  This conversation is played upon a much more frightening descent of unlimited stairways and bars that clang loudly and are painted red and rusted, eventually leading to a stone walled dungeon for these unimaginable beings of death and perversion.  Clarice is left all alone to navigate her way down a long corridor until she reaches Lecter’s cell.

Yet, an even more frightening third descent into hell occurs in the final act as Clarice’s pursuit leads to Buffalo Bill.  Bill’s home is dark, lurid, filthy and maze like; but always seeming to go down further and further into one doorway after another and down one staircase after another, including a deep well where his latest victim is kept.  Like the other descents, Clarice uses her femineity as a tool of strength to survive.  I can claim without any hesitation that Clarice Starling is one of the greatest heroines in the history of film. 

The one man who rattles her, and weakens her, though is Hannibal Lecter.  Watch their tete a tete when they meet for the first time.  Starling demonstrates some overconfidence against Lecter’s seemingly polite demeanor.  With her white trash Virginia dialect, she even gets a little smarmy with the Doctor, but then he disarms her immediately with a comeback that shakes her very core.  Demme’s reliance on close ups for both characters serve this scene and others so well.  Clarice’s encounters with Hannibal are the most important and vital moments in the film because they are the only opportunities for Jonathan Demme and Ted Tally to show the main character’s weakness.  Every hero has to have a weakness if they are to remain compelling.  Clarice is not, in fact, undefeatable. 

The film could have simply worked as a basic detective story.  Put up the clues and the narration of the picture will eventually assemble all together for a resolution where the bad guy is captured.  Yet, Thomas Harris’ character creation uses Hannibal as a defiant obstacle blocking the path for Clarice.  Hannibal lacks much stimulation in a cold, specially designed prison cell.  He’s maybe only honored with impenetrable plexiglass to contain him as opposed to traditional bars.  He needs to be enthralled.  On the surface, Clarice appears as a frail prey that he can take his time munching on.  He’s happy to help Clarice catch Buffalo Bill with the case files she provides, but in exchange he wants to uncover what haunts her psyche.  Such a strong character Clarice is, but she has to be willing to weaken and expose herself to desperately find a dangerous killer.  Can she do it?  She’s never allowed herself to do that before.  And thus, we come to comprehend the obscure title of this film and the book it stems from.  (Anthony Hopkins actually thought it was a children’s fantasy when he was sent the script to read over.)

This write up is not necessarily a review, but a means to honor the careful film and storytelling technique that Jonathan Demme strives for with The Silence Of The Lambs.  You might say, yeah, there’s a lot of walking in this picture, but pay attention to the direction of the walking.  Always going down, somewhat reminiscent as Little Red Riding Hood entering a dark and spooky forest and encountering the biggest and baddest wolf.  Jodie Foster might be in a company of men here, but the film works as a dual of femineity vs masculinity.  It’s strange to believe that Demme actually had Michelle Pfeiffer in mind for the Starling role initially, a more than capable actress, but one who at the time was more glamourous (The Fabulous Baker Boys and The Witches Of Eastwick).  Beyond the silly Disney films, Foster was known for lurid pieces like Taxi Driver and her first Oscar winning role as a rape victim in The Accused.  Clarice Starling is a character beyond a pop culture appearance of the time, and Jodie Foster emanates that portrayal.

The writing of The Silence Of The Lambs is so intelligent.  There’s a witty, yet deliberately poor taste, of sarcasm to Hannibal Lecter as he thrives off his superior intellect over Jack Crawford and the FBI.  It’s only enhanced when he’s dealt a lowly, formally white trash female student to play with.  Ted Tally offers precise timing in the dialogue with Clarice and Hannibal.  Thomas Harris’ drive to further a cameo appearance of Lecter in a prior novel (Red Dragon) with this book is a gift to readers and eventually movie watchers.  The Silence Of The Lambs doesn’t follow formula with a Law & Order technique of ballistics and witness interviews.  It drives into other directions to feed its development. 

Jonathan Demme’s film is pioneering.  I recall seeing it in theatres with other high school friends.  I was not enthused to see it.  The title was too odd.  The picture was primarily a talking piece.  There were gross and unwelcome images within the film.  It’s very ugly at times.  I was frankly accustomed to the likes of Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon films for my cops pursuing the robbers ideals.  I recall not even liking the film when we left, and I couldn’t comprehend its appeal that followed for the remainder of nearly an entire year, all the way up to when it was awarded the five main categories of Oscar wins (Actress, Actor, Screenplay, Director and Picture).  I definitely wasn’t accustomed to a strong character like Clarice.  Later that year, I saw Thelma & Louise and fell in love with their eventual triumph.  I needed to be spoon-fed their initial weaknesses at first.  Who was this Clarice in this picture, though?  I could not identify her strength that displayed right from the get go.  I wasn’t even 18 years old at the time and now I can say I just wasn’t mature enough for this film back in 1991.  Now, it’s thankfully clearer, though I still appreciate its subtlety so much. Jonathan Demme had such a clear vision of where he was taking this film and because it’s not dated, The Silence Of The Lambs stands as thriller, and an intelligent thought provoking piece that stays with you for a long time after each viewing.

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