The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Director: Jonathan Demme

By Roderick Heath

Jonathan Demme’s death last week at the age of 73 sent a shock through the film world. Demme was one of the many talents to graduate from Roger Corman’s school for no-budget auteurs in the early 1970s, chalking up his first feature credit with 1973’s Caged Heat, a women’s prison flick that collected a studious cult following in the next few years for its oddball take on a seamy genre. 1977’s Citizens Band was a movie made according to a Corman precept, exploiting the CB radio craze, but started its director on his rise up the Hollywood ranks thanks to Demme’s gift for creating witty, humane movies sporting woolly characters, facilitated by Demme’s love for actors. 1981’s Melvin and Howard confirmed his talents in that regard as he shepherded Mary Steenburgen’s performance to an Oscar. As the ’80s progressed, Demme increasingly satisfied his love for music and exploring the culture at large with a sideline in documentaries, whilst making a string of movies that are the core of his cineaste following: pop comedies often sporting a dash of the violent and tragic, including Swing Shift (1984), Something Wild (1986), and Married to the Mob (1988). After he gained an Oscar himself and was set as one of Hollywood’s reigning filmmakers, he started plying a more conscientious brand of prestige cinema with the sententious but brilliantly made Philadelphia (1993), but hit a reef with the luckless Toni Morrison adaptation Beloved (1998). Amidst a sprawl of further documentaries and music films, Demme recovered his mojo with two little-appreciated but entirely winning remakes, The Truth About Charlie (2002) and The Manchurian Candidate (2004), and vibrant revisits to his everyday comedy-dramas with Rachel Getting Married (2008) and Ricki and the Flash (2015).

A quality most everyone loved about Demme’s films was his big-hearted awareness of the world immediately about him, his sense of life and people as a cornucopia even when abutting grimmer facts of existence, and his unforced, celebratory delight in America’s diverse makeup. Considering such qualities, it’s both a glaring irony and a fitting twist that the one movie he made that everyone knows was his discursion into a dark and morbid annex of the modern imagination via a virulently intense and violent horror film. That film somehow became an instantaneous fixture in the pop culture firmament and was the first of its genre to win the Best Picture Oscar, on top of awards for Demme himself and his stars. This was chiefly the result of Demme’s canniness as a hardy and tested director who knew how to shift and vary his style according to the rhythms of his material and the energy of his actors. The Silence of the Lambs was based on a novel by Thomas Harris, a former journalist who had broken through as a novelist with the terrorist thriller Black Sunday, filmed smartly by John Frankenheimer in 1976. But Harris had found his real metier with his 1981 novel Red Dragon, a tale depicting an obsessive FBI agent’s attempts to track down a serial killer, which he accomplishes in part by seeking the advice of another killer he caught, the entirely mad, insinuatingly wicked, yet often bizarrely composed and helpful, cannibalistic former psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Red Dragon was filmed superlatively by Michael Mann in 1986 under the title Manhunter, but that film proved a surprise bomb. Meanwhile, Harris composed a follow-up that recycled several elements of his first book, but with the inspired idea of substituting for Harris’ first hero Will Graham a young FBI trainee named Clarice Starling, launched in verbal combat with the still-caged but relentlessly scheming Lecter.

Most studios had passed on the rights to Harris’ book, in part because of Manhunter’s flop, but also because it seemed floridly unpleasant and left field, at a time when horror cinema was in a deep rut. The quality of Tally’s script attracted Demme, who was on a hot streak, as well as a battery of stars who normally bypassed such a grim project. They soon had the services of recent Oscar winner Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins was long a British actor of great repute on both screen and stage. Since the early 1970s, he seemed in constant danger of becoming a major star, but just never quite got there, from his sub-James Bond action hero part in When Eight Bells Toll (1971) to his kindly doctor in The Elephant Man (1980). One peculiar freedom allowed Demme on The Silence of the Lambs was the fact that although there was a recent film sporting some of the same characters and essentially the same plot, he didn’t have to worry about trying to meet any expectations. Nonetheless, his approach couldn’t have been more opposed to Mann’s if he had set out precisely to counter it. Mann had presented Harris through the prism of his terse and stripped-down modernist stylistics, his Lecter played by Brian Cox as a nerveless pervert whose sense of humour is colder than the surface of Neptune. Tally, Demme, and Hopkins instead presented him as a larger-than-life figure armed with Hopkins’ sibilant, slightly alien-sounding vocal mannerisms and an array of blackly comic quips that make him as much the film’s comic relief as its representative from darkest Hades.

Demme’s canniness in handling the material is quickly evinced in the film’s opening moments, depicting Clarice called off the obstacle course at the FBI training school to perform a peculiar errand for senior serial killer tracker Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). He captures Clarice hauling herself up a slope by ropes, literally coming up the hard way, before his camera tracks her with hungry precision through the woods, establishing the way the camera moves throughout the rest of the film, constantly tugged along, usually by Clarice’s stride in all her alternations of confidence, intrigue, and timorousness. She’s presented as a tiny figure getting into an elevator with a bunch of other, hulking trainees. Many films, both before and after this one, would waste reams of dialogue on a point Demme makes with swift, telling cinematic blows. By the time she’s seated in front of the wiry, paternal yet enigmatic Crawford, we know who Clarice is and what she’s up against. Her mission, given her by Crawford but with unspoken, ulterior motives, is to interview Lecter to learn more about his psychopathology. She does so, followed by the warnings of both the FBI honcho and Lecter’s smarmy psychiatric keeper Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) that Lecter is a dangerous being in the extreme. Chilton even entertains Clarice by showing her a photograph of the awful damage he did to a nurse’s face when she failed to keep him restrained.

Clarice’s trip to see Lecter is shot as a journey into subterranean wells, gaining a briefing for a descent into hell from Chilton and the sturdy attendant Barney (Frankie Faison) on the way before she’s ushered into a murderer’s row, in a sequence reminiscent of Val Lewton’s Bedlam (1946). Except that’s it not just clasping hands of the repressed reaching out from the bars but handfuls of sperm, tossed by the resident whacko sex fiend “Multiple” Miggs (Stuart Rudin), representative of the masculine character reduced to its most bestial, counterpoint to Lecter’s equal and opposite monstrosity of the same spirit lurking under the façade of the perfect civilised man. Here the walls are all suggestively medieval brickwork, matching the swirling autumnal hues of the opening for situating the film squarely in a neogothic state of fragrant, fecund dissolution. Lecter himself hovers behind a modern barrier of thick glass, standing straight and unnatural as some kind of lawn ornament when Clarice, and the camera, first glimpses him. Lecter, an irresistible mixture of great mental aptitude mated to unconscionable will, quickly discerns something Clarice has (deliberately?) not thought too hard about. Crawford has another motive for tapping his brain, the possibility that Lecter might be able to provide an insight into another serial killer currently perplexing Crawford and the rest of national law enforcement. That killer has been dubbed “Buffalo Bill” in a pitch-black piece of cop humour because “this one likes to skin his humps,” leaving his female victims in rivers missing patches of skin.

Demme’s often subjective camerawork and use of close-ups represent film technique at its most easily parsed and recognisable, and accomplishes the important task not merely of animating the film’s intense, headlong experiential quality, but also in inhabiting the driving notion behind the psychosis of its villains and the method of its heroes. As Lecter prods Clarice to realise, Buffalo Bill covets what he sees, most immediately, the skins of women and more existentially, their identities, like some corporeal incubus sucking in their beings to give himself solidity. Lecter himself covets freedom and achieves it through a careful and relentless process of keeping an eye out, most specifically demonstrated when he sets eyes upon Chilton’s pen. Clarice and Crawford meanwhile are obligated to look at things almost impossible to look at for the sake of their jobs and their motivations, allowing the evil of others, in essence, to colonise their own minds and emotional reflexes. Thus Crawford has pictures of Bill’s victims decorating his walls, and Clarice discovers the clue of the moth chrysalis by peering at a snapshot of a bloated and stinking corpse. Like Hitchcock, Demme tethers his deepest cinematic reflexes to this interplay of looks, although lacking an obvious analogue in the story for visual obsession, unlike what Hitchcock provided in Rear Window (1954) and in Harris’s own Red Dragon, where the killer was a photographic processor who gazed at the home movies of others and wanted to write himself into their hermetic perfection. Seeing is a source of power in The Silence of the Lambs, particularly for Clarice, whose ability to look at life’s worst facts in raw, corporeal form, is her key to success. Her viewpoint creates her reality, but also creates its own distortions. The pathetic and tragic photos of Bill’s dead victims spur her sense of offended sympathy, but she needs Lecter to point out the fact that Bill “kills women” is purely incidental to her quarry. Chilton’s punishment of her for failing to respond to his chat-up line is to be shown that totemic photo and also informed as to part of the reason she’s being sent in, as a pretty face to turn the monster on.

Looking is also an act bound up with erotic wont and prelude, although here the erotic is always being channelled into other pursuits, or mangled via deeply weird psychological dynamics. Clarice, with eyes straight ahead, is engaged in her ambition to quiet her own sense of wrenching detainment by her past, wilfully oblivious to concerns others would love to impose. Demme notes the way Clarice and her pal and Academy roommate Ardelia Mapp (Kasi Lemmons) attract massed glances from other recruits, and fascinates the men in her life, even Crawford, a paternal figure who rivals Lecter for post of father-mentor and also with hues of potential lover, a point with which Lecter enjoys teasing Clarice. Demme makes a visual rhyme out of two moments of the most gentle physical communion (in a tale where that’s a very wide gamut indeed), those when Lecter contrives to touch his finger to Clarice’s and when Crawford shakes her hand in congratulations. Both moments have layers of import, especially from Lecter, who deduces things about Clarice purely by her smell where others only see, laying claim to Clarice in just about every way except physically until that moment. Lecter’s own olfactory brilliance is again linked to Miggs’ cruder immediacy: “I can smell your cunt!” are the words with which he greets Clarice’s entrance to the ward, and Lecter offers Clarice a compensating clue setting her on the path to Bill in part as compensation for Miggs’ offensive behaviour, just before Lecter somehow contrives Miggs’ death, killing off, at least temporarily, his bestial other.

Clarice follows Lecter’s clues and learns to decode his riddles through an affinity of intellectual seriousness in a generally much less attentive world. This affinity allows Clarice to understand immediately his advice to look “deep inside yourself” not as a pop-psychological bromide but a direction to an actual place, a storage facility where the weird paraphernalia of Lecter’s life resides, including, bobbing in a jar of preservative, a severed head. This sequence is grand, from Clarice’s exchanges with the elderly mogul (Leib Lensky) who owns the facility to the exploration of this zone and her uneasy laugh before venturing into the dark place, a territory that works like Lecter’s mind as a compartment of stored information, complete with hearse and mannequin without a head, and echoes back to the septic American gothic of Psycho (1960) and also to the baroque hideaways in Mario Bava’s films, staged during a heavy downpour for extra flavour. The head, Lecter protests, is not from one of his victims but from a patient who died shortly after reporting his male lover was starting to show signs of hatching lunacy and intense fetishism for the skin of others. Clarice realises that Lecter suspects he knows the killer, but is soon distracted when she’s roped in by Crawford to help him when another of Bill’s victims turns up in a river. Clarice notices a vital clue, a rare insect cocoon jammed into the victim’s throat during the post mortem, and learns from a pair of pleasantly nerdy experts (Dan Butler and Paul Lazar) that the cocoon houses a Death’s Head Moth, a suggestive clue that has to bide time for unpacking when Bill (Ted Levine) snatches another woman. But this one, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), brings troublesome portents for the killer, who imprisons her in a pit in his basement. The terrified Catherine nonetheless has enough nascent spunk to try to find ways to escape, and she also happens to be the daughter of a senator, Ruth Martin (Diane Baker), stoking law enforcement into paroxysms of impotent action and giving Lecter a very good reason to help.

The Silence of the Lambs casts a very long shadow over today’s pop culture, as the seeds it planted soon sprouted hundredfold in film and television. Its success immediately disgorged nasty wannabes like Copycat and Se7en (both 1995), and now TV, in particular, is still filled with police procedurals where grisly, often misogynist fantasies are indulged via the actions of fictional serial killers only to be safely caged by swashbuckling law enforcers. That’s one reason The Silence of the Lambs has also often suffered from blurred genre definitions, existing at once on the level of horror (intense, phobic images, a dark, near-surreal visual palette, sustained fight-and-flight sequences, monstrous figurations, and episodes of primal violence) and thriller (puzzle narrative with a proactive hero figure engaged in pursuit and detection). The film’s success in this regard was not simply because of its ineffaceable pictures and catchphrases, but because, although hardly the first horror-thriller with the chase for a murderous fiend at its core, it took the serial killer to be the authentic embodiment of contemporary anxiety, a source of danger all too real but readily translating into the image of a beast from the id.

One of the ways the film achieved this was in bifurcating the image. Buffalo Bill, whose actual name is Jame Gumb, is closer to the squalid reality of the serial killer, a misfit preying on the vulnerable whilst subsisting through a series of borrowed guises in a depressed and drearily fallow corner of the American landscape. Hannibal Lecter is a fantasy version of the same, deliberately removed from the normal realm of psychopathology (“They don’t have a name for what he is.”) and incarnating the idea of the casual thrill killer at an ultimate extreme, at once Renaissance man and man-shaped tyrannosaur, capable of doing extreme damage only with words, smart enough to fool and defeat law enforcement, finally becoming something like the bogeyman as he escapes into the world at large. Clarice’s narrative involves the defeat of the former monster, but the latter is soon unbound. Like a vampire held in check by physical and cultural demarcations, Lecter’s worst ravages can be held off in part through social graces – courtesy, attentiveness, intellectual engagement. Clarice Starling, for her part, was the kind of heroine 1991 needed very badly. Hollywood already had Ellen Ripley and a handful of other tough cookies, but most of those were in fantastic fare. Whereas Clarice was notable for her immediacy and solidity, whip-smart but not omnicompetent, focused but not a hard-ass, connecting to the case not just through professional commitment but from deeply personal motives rooted in the death of her policeman father. In short, an actual character and not a symbol or a contrivance.

Lecter’s easy job disassembling her poised veneer to diagnose her life history and motives shakes her up enough to make her think of her father, pictured by Demme in flashback along amidst memories of an idyllic small town where neighbours wave to each other and young Clarice’s father is the literal and figurative embodiment of paternal protection. The absence of love interest is in part a function of her focus – one of the film’s best jokes is that after just about everyone strikes out with Clarice, the one guy who gets a charmed smile from her is one of the museum entomological nerds, except that he himself is instantly distracted by an exciting development relating to his own field of obsession – and also because the real romance is between Clarice and Lecter. It’s a clue that Starling grips Demme as a heroine, not simply as a small woman in a big man’s world but because she’s a fallen citizen of the kind of world he preferred, the one where human connections, no matter how evanescent, are enormously powerful. Clarice struggles to regain her right to live in such peace but is drawn into a labyrinthine netherworld filled with monstrosities worthy of any Greek hero like Theseus or Oedipus, with Lecter suggesting both imprisoned Minotaur and riddling Sphinx, and Buffalo Bill as lurking Procrustes (cross-reference: the visual kinship between Mario Bava’s Hades in Hercules in the Center of the Earth, 1961, and Demme’s depiction of Gumb’s basement, with its earthy walls and invading roots). Clarice’s journey is marked in a series of met tests, from being easily rattled in her first interview with Lecter to her confident rebuffs of his later attempts to wrong-foot her, building her poise on her path to an ordeal.

Lecter’s insidious delight in penetrating the minds of people and sadistic spectacle, counterbalanced by a psychiatrist’s remnant ethos that sees a curious cleansing in the process of baring all, soon demands its own price from Clarice. The pair engage in a quid pro quo arrangement, Clarice offering up fragments of her traumatic experience after her father’s death, including a time when she was sent to live with some farming relatives where she made a hapless attempt to save a spring lamb from slaughter, a symbolic rescue that had the powerful effect of leaving her even more rootless and rejected. There’s a facetious facet to all this, derived from Harris, in the underlying faith that a great hunter of psychopaths must be a little mad themselves, but it’s the powerful engine of the drama nonetheless. In these sequences, which undoubtedly won The Silence of the Lambs its acting awards, Clarice and Lecter are filmed in delirious close-up investigating every nuance of feature. Where the film becomes less certain is where Harris’s material diverts from espousing its best aspect, the theatre of psychological warfare, for more familiar bestseller business of wailing cop cars and low-grade political tussles. The venal Chilton, fully aware of what’s going on between Clarice and Lecter thanks to his eavesdropping, outflanks her and Crawford by convincing the senator to give Lecter an authentic deal for better treatment. Lecter endangers his own good luck for the sake of his own sadistic gratification when he taunts the senator, but eventually, he gives up all the accurate details about Gumb except for his real name. Meanwhile, Clarice and Crawford catch stentorian protests from on high, rebuking Crawford for his methods (although Demme wittily cast Corman as the voice of such authority). When one examines the narrative, it’s actually built not on Lecter’s brilliantly intuitive understanding of another bird of the same feather but on coincidence, the fact that he encountered Gumb’s handiwork in his practising days. Only that crucial act of coveting is explicitly revealed as Lecter’s insight, in part because it is the motif of his own Tantalus-like existence.

Demme’s filmmaking, in spite of such narrative hesitations, retains a remarkable mixture of control and propulsion, and in particular his attentiveness to mood and atmosphere. Like the way he creates a cordoned hush around Clarice as, left alone in a small-town funeral parlour for a moment, she hears soft organ music, and slides into a sad reminiscence of her father’s funeral, seeming to drift out into the service with a fixated purpose before reverting to her child self to kiss her father’s cheek. This moment is again rhymed towards the end when Lecter’s phone call to Clarice at her FBI graduation party again seems to cleave her out of the same reality as other people, reduced to spying back on a bash that was her seeming elevation. There’s enormous craft in the intricate dance of actions and reactions in the post-mortem scene, Demme’s camera leaning close to catch each face, in isolate character and their reactions to atrocity, as a universe in itself. Even the most off-hand gestures have meaning, like the smile Tracy Walter’s character, one of the local coroner’s aides who also doubles as organ player, gives to Clarice when he sees her peering in on the funeral – a moment that supplies a charge of friendliness to proceedings even as both these people go in to inspect a bloated, partly-skinned corpse. Demme’s use of such controlled and sometimes deceptive perspective leads to more spectacular effects later, like the cunning cross-cutting between Crawford leading a SWAT team to what he thinks is Gumb’s house and Clarice ringing the doorbell of his actual home.

The most ostentatious sequence comes when Lecter finally springs his long-anticipated escape plan, segueing from the soft lilt of Bach piano music to face-eating and brain-smashing and then back again. Demme holds his nerve even as he grazes the outer edges of authentically Sadean imagery – a policeman’s face sliced off and used as a mask, another hung from Lecter’s cage, eviscerated and used as a prop in an act of psychological terrorism that renders Lecter’s all-too-human adversaries too blinded by their own feelings to see what’s in front of them. Several major American auteurs would follow Demme’s example in trying their hand at horror in the following decade, but most, from Scorsese to Coppola to Zemeckis, would never reveal the kind of sure hand Demme seems to wield so effortlessly here. Demme himself had hoped to make a work equal to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and smartly followed its lead in avoiding gore except for when absolutely necessary, on top of the already fitting connection between the two films, both being based in part on the legend of the “Wisconsin Ghoul” Ed Gein. Part of Demme’s legerdemain lies in how his camera notes all the important aspects of Lecter’s design and yet carefully elides vital aspects and the total concept until Lecter arises from his hospital gurney, strips off his gory disguise, and grins hungrily at the hapless medic sharing his ambulance. It’s a little like that famous The Twilight Zone episode about the man who accidentally unleashes the Devil and an age of calamity begins.

The Silence of the Lambs was controversial as well insanely popular in its time for some understandable reasons, for its violent implications and also for its portrait of Gumb, a would-be transsexual, at a time when cornball queer villains were appearing quite often in Hollywood thrillers as a big red button marked “malevolent other.” Less than reassuring portrayals of human behaviour are part of the territory with a horror film of course, and Demme and Tally still took care, perhaps spuriously, to use Lecter as mouthpiece to dispel the notion Gumb is actually queer, but rather a creature totally lacking in identity who tends to annex anything close at hand that gives shape to his unique drives. Nonetheless, Levine’s Gumb is one of the film’s less appreciated qualities, as is Smith’s terrifically convincing performance as the object of his bleak intentions. Gumb, first seen as a fusion of human and technology as he spies on Catherine, has to convince as the more immediate and genuine threat in the tale in contrast to such a florid scene hog as Lecter. Hopkins’ Lecter, with all his knowing, flashing-eyed deliveries and relish of a good laugh-line, comes on with calculated theatricality. Demme, whose usual playfulness as a filmmaker didn’t belie his more radical side but rather facilitated it, intuited the rebellious aspect to Harris’ dark fantasies, an aspect that gives The Silence of the Lambs connection to its only rival as a mainstream horror hit, The Exorcist (1973), which similarly offered an audience thrilling jolts of revelling in extreme transgressive behaviour viewed through rigid moral veils. Chilton represents authority at its most petty and sleazy, and Lecter whispers with serpentine appeal to that part of everyone who wouldn’t mind dealing out a little biting payback to such egotistical overlords.

Levine’s Gumb, by contrast, is a quieter, more authentically unnerving creation. Introduced play-acting as an injured man moving a sofa to lure in Catherine, Gumb seems eminently and terribly possible, the kind of bland, unremarkable figure who can dissolve amidst the background details even whilst he commits unspeakable crimes, longing for ascension to Olympian stature. Gumb confirms the howling void of human being under his surface as he mimics and mocks Catherine’s screams and literally objectifies her (“It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.”). There’s perverse humour, subtler than Lecter’s quips, and a charge of anxious eroticism running under the sequence when he makes himself up in a feminine form as prelude to furthering his aim of completing a woman suit composed entirely of harvested skin. So deeply ingrained is Demme’s humanism and his love of actors that he offers a certain pathos to Gumb here, seeing his frustrated and fervent creativity, his need to believe, like the insects he cares for, that he’s constantly becoming something. There’s a close kinship with Barbara Steele’s mean but frustrated prison warden in Caged Heat indulging her covert fantasies of being a chanteuse. The appeal of his twisted life becomes apparent in the rainy, depressed town he lives in, a secret bole of radical detachment from the everyday, a secret bohemian lair gone horribly wrong.

The crucial moment comes as climax not just to Demme’s careful deployment of setting and mood but also his attentiveness to his actors: when the penny drops and Clarice realises she’s standing in Buffalo Bill’s house, the man himself is before her, sniggering like a conspiratorial school boy, as Clarice tries to keep her cool, and her fate, foretold throughout the film, is to one who descends to the labyrinth, alone and unaided. This finale is particularly superb not simply in managing suspense effects well but in drawing the film’s consistent obsessions to a wicked point. Clarice is reduced a blind and groping interloper in a Stygian zone whilst Gumb, armed with infrared glasses, stalks her. But Gumb fatally forestalls his own chance to dispose of his enemy and elude capture because he must indulge his coveting, letting his hand hover over Clarice’s face, rejoicing in his power over her, until he makes the fatal mistake of cocking his weapon, giving her a split-second chance to retaliate. Even here there’s a strong visual gag, in the way Gumb curls up, shot full of holes by Clarice and still wearing his night goggles, making him look like a man-sized insect who’s just met his fated can of fly spray, his black abode suddenly filled with cleansing, diminishing sunlight. Clarice’s defeat of one dragon is undercut by the reminder that the other, more eternal one is still out there, planning a moment of revenge on the haplessly fleeing Chilton with impudent cool. Demme manages something rare with his blackly mocking coda, transmuting his blood-and-thunder show into a modern myth, finding strange and saucy delight in Lecter not simply as a sharp-tongued rogue but as the embodiment of something eternally insurgent beneath the human spirit, dissolving into the crowd to become the daemon of the world.

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