THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (DIR: JONATHAN DEMME) (SCR: TED TALLY, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY THOMAS HARRIS)
In 1991 the Academy broke precedent by naming THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS as the best picture of 1990, the first horror film to ever win, giving the much maligned horror genre some long overdue credit (THE EXORCIST in 1973 and JAWS in 1975 were both nominated for best picture, but didn't win). It's easy to see why: despite containing gore, violence and some truly terrifying moments, director Jonathan Demme skillfully kept the film from ever seeming exploitive or disgusting. In fact it is a polished and classily made film, with beautiful cinematography and terrific acting. Despite the subject matter, this was no grind house cheapie! And, most significantly of all, it made an overnight star of a then 54 year old journeyman actor named Anthony Hopkins, whose striking performance as cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter would quickly become iconic. Hopkins's excellence in the role is remembered even as numerous parodies, rip-offs and disappointing sequels and prequels (some of which Hopkins himself starred in) diminished the character a bit. In fact, 12 years after this film's release, the character was voted the number one movie villan of all time by the American Film Institute, clearly showing the lasting impact of Hannibal Lecter.
It all began in 1981 when novelist Thoman Harris published RED DRAGON, a horror thriller novel that first introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter to the world. In 1986 it was made into a glossy, entertaining film called MANHUNTER by Micheal Mann, with Brian Cox portraying Lecter for the first time onscreen, and he is actually very good in it. But the film underperformed at the box office, so his role in the development of the character is mostly forgotten. In 1988 Harris wrote a sequel to RED DRAGON, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which brought back the Lecter character, and introduced a young FBI cadet named Clarice Starling. It's critical and commercial success led to interest in a film adaptation despite the disappointment of MANHUNTER. Actor Gene Hackman initially bought the rights, and worked with the Orion studio on getting funding. He wanted to direct it and star as Lecter, but the dark subject matter eventually turned him off. Eventually, Demme was hired to direct; at first he may have seemed an odd choice, since at that time Demme was mostly known for quirky comedies like 1986's SOMETHING WILD, but he began his career writing and directing exploitation films like CHAINED HEAT for Roger Corman, so he knew how to shock an audience. Former play write Ted Tally was hired to adapt the novel. Demme wanted Michelle Pfeiffer for the role of Clarice, but she found the film's subject matter distasteful. Jodie Foster, who had wanted to buy the rights to the book herself, lobbied hard for the part and eventually got it. For the role of Lecter, many names like Jeremy Irons and Patrick Stewart were thrown around before Demme, who liked Hopkins's work in 1980's THE ELEPHANT MAN, picked Hopkins for the part. Foster researched her role by spending time with real FBI agents, while Hopkins studied real life serial killers. The film's shoot went smoothly, and it quickly became a word of mouth hit, grossing over $130,000,000 dollars on a budget of only around 20. And, along with winning Best Picture, it would also win Best Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay, placing it alongside 1934's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and 1975's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST as the only films to win those top five awards.
Its story begins with Clarice Starling (Foster), a young FBI trainee, is assisting in the pursuit of a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who kidnaps and skins young women. She is sent to interview imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) for possible insights, and eventually discovers that Lecter knew Buffalo Bill; before he was captured, Lecter was a psychiatrist and Bill was one of his patients. When Catherine, a senator's daughter (Brooke Smith) is kidnapped by Bill, Lecter offers a deal to help the FBI capture Bill, but only if he gets to meet the senator. This leads to Lecter making a daring escape, while Clarice confronts Bill.
Demme made this film so skillfully that you can see why it became a word of mouth hit, with people who normally don't like horror films seeing and enjoying it. It could have so easily gone wrong, with its grisly story dealing with innocent women being skinned, but Demme made sure that the audience is always on Clarice's side and that the gore and violence are not lingered on. (For example, when Bill kidnaps Catherine, Demme keeps the camera out of the van when he hits her, so that we just hear the attack without seeing it.) Tally's superlative script keeps the story moving quickly and logically, and treats the story with dead seriousness, with occasional dashes of dark humor (like some of Lecter's lines to Clarice).
I also greatly enjoy how the movie pulls the rug out from under the audience on two separate occasions: once, when Lecter is escaping and he finds a way to hide in plain sight, and again, later, when what we think is an FBI raid on Bill's hideout turns out to be an unknowing Clarice. Both of these switches work because they play fair, with the scripting and editing coming together to upend audience expectation in a way that is true to the story (unlike, say, in the movie FIGHT CLUB, in which a similar trick is pulled on the audience, but it makes no sense).
As well done as the story is, it's the character of Hannibal Lecter that audiences remember most of all from the film, and its no surprise that Hopkins won a best actor award even though he is only in the movie for around seventeen minutes. While Hopkins has given many other fine performances over the years, this is still the role he is mostly identified with. With his silken voice, (based, according to Hopkins, on a combination of Truman Capote's and Katherine Hepburn's) that rarely rises in tone, and his piercing, hawklike gaze, Hopkins makes Lecter downright mesmerizing. I love the way that when we first see him, he is standing upright, looking right at Clarice, expecting her and already studying her. And he is a fascinating bundle of contradictions: here is an educated, erudite psychiatrist who enjoys classical music and drawing, and who eats innocent people. Not only that, he still lashes out at others verbally while imprisoned since he cannot physically. It's chilling how he brilliantly (but believably) sizes up Clarice after talking to her for just a few minutes, just by looking at her clothes and listening to her southern accent, and then he spits his knowledge right back at her in the harshest way possible. Or when he later torments senator Martin (Diane Baker) verbally before finally telling her Bill's name. And when he eventually is in a position to commit physical harm on others, he becomes even more frightening, wearing a completely blank expression on his face as he beats a police officer to death. Yes, Lecter is a seemingly impossible mix of insanity and intelligence that makes him both terrifying and kind of admirable, (one can't help but be impressed by the way that he masterminds his escape from a building filled with police) and some audiences even cheered as he walked away at the film's end! Credit for the character must also be given to cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, whose beautiful lighting perfectly captures the predatory gleam in Lecter's eye. Also production designer Kristi Zea should be mentioned because it was her idea to have Lecter's cell be behind glass instead of iron bars, which gives the interactions between Lecter and Clarice a frightening intimacy.
While it's easy to praise Hopkins's performance, equal credit must be given to Foster who carries the film excellently. Her Clarice is smart (she figures out Hannibal's word games with ease), brave, likable and capable, and the film hits a nice feminist tone by showing her excel in the mostly male world of the FBI. Foster strikes just the right tone in her conversations with Hannibal, answering his questions and letting him get into her head without wavering or letting him know how much he's hurt her, and her unflinching attitude towards Lecter impresses both him and the audience. (It's appropriate that she cries after first meeting Lecter but makes sure that she holds her tears until after he can see them). And Demme gets great performances from the whole cast, with Scott Glen a real standout as Starling's FBI mentor Crawford.
The film was protested by some because the Buffalo Bill character is a gay man who thinks he is a transsexual, and that he is played by Ted Levine as an over the top freak. In the film's defense, Clarice clearly states that Bill is not a real transsexual, and that transsexual men are usually passive, but this distinction may be lost on the audience given the scene in which Bill puts on makeup and dances in front of the mirror. While I can understand some people's anger at such an unflattering portrayal (unlike Lecter, we have no admiration for Bill, who seems like a dimwitted lowlife along with being a serial killer), the film is so well made, and his character's homosexuality such a small part of it, that it doesn't bother me personally. And in the years that have followed more sympathetic portrayals of gay men have appeared in many movies, so that this negative portrayal seems far less representative and offensive now then it did in 1990. Demme himself was aware of the criticism, and that was partly why he made the film PHILADELPHIA three years later, which had Tom Hanks playing a likable gay man with AIDS.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
It's clear that THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS had stood the test of time and is still an excellent horror film; if it is to go down in history as the only horror film to ever win the best picture award, the Academy could have done a lot worse. I'm tempted to say that I wish Disney's charming animated BEAUTY AND THE BEAST would have won (that's about a million miles away from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS!), and I also enjoyed Oliver Stone's slightly crazed JFK, but I certainly have no problem with the Academy's choice.