Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and director Jonathan Demme magically combine with Thomas Harris’ novel to create the killer cinematic classic THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
It’s only the third time it’s happened. A movie willing all five Oscars in the major categories – picture, directing, screenplay, leading actress and leading actor. But even before it joined the illustrious company of 1934’s It Happened One Night and 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was already a winner.
Thomas Harris’ novel had topped the bestseller lists since its publication in 1988 but it took brilliant director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally to make the film a killer classic in 1991. The movie has now past its 25th anniversary, topping movie polls once again. Following its star Jodie Foster’s recent visit to the BFI for an honorary screening, it seems a fitting moment to revisit one of the greatest films ever.
Clarice Starling – one of the most original character names in literature surely and in Jodie Foster’s peerless portrayal, one of cinema’s true heroines – is a young FBI officer in training at Quantico. Her goal when she graduates is to go and work for her eminent superior Jack Crawford (a superbly wily Scott Glenn) in the behavioural science division. But her wish is granted sooner than she expects as Crawford summons her to his office to bestow on her an important task in the investigation he’s running. Clarice has to question an inmate in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in the hope he may have an insight into the crime.
When Foster then utters the immortal line “Hannibal the Cannibal” you have an intake of breath that you don’t release for the rest of the movie’s 1 hour 58 minutes running time. It’s the most sublime introduction to a character that doesn’t disappoint when you meet him a few moments later.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter was a renowned psychologist but unfortunately, he’s also a psychopath who’s left a trail of bodies in his wake before being captured. In Anthony Hopkins’ magnificent performance you are firstly disconcerted to find a quietly spoken man, not at all like the monster you’ve heard about. But during the course of Clarice’s first meeting with Lecter, you are very aware of the immediate intellectual connection between the fledgling FBI officer and the convicted murderer.
However disturbing Lecter and his actions might be to Clarice though, he needs to be made to cooperate with the bureau if they are to have any hope in catching a potentially even more dangerous killer – the chillingly named Buffalo Bill. And so a monumental mind game between Clarice and Lecter begins in order to try and work out Bill’s identity before another victim surfaces.
These scenes between Foster and Hopkins are now legendary. But it’s not just the sheer dynamism of their acting – although that is mind-blowing. It’s also the exquisite idea of Demme and his cinematographer Tak Fujimoto for them, at times, to look right down the lens straight at us, creating a direct and implicit connection between character and audience. It’s a hypnotic experience watching these two people play their cat n’ mouse game and one that never loses its power despite all the years in between and countless viewings of the film.
Demme, whose work prior to this had ranged from documentaries, music videos with Talking Heads, the Oscar-winning comedy-drama Melvin and Howard and the brilliant Hitchcock thriller Last Embrace, brought an off-kilter sensibility to Harris’s material. Watching the movie always makes me think of the surrealist artists and their particular take on the world, as Demme uses with his camera framing and direct eye contact to unsettle and challenge you. The film also has a very gritty quality in its palette, there’s a coldness that chills you to the marrow whether you’re outside or inside, in a supposed place of safety or in the dragon’s lair.
And so Clarice goes on her own ‘heart of darkness’ journey, a lone female warrior in a world of men, to save another woman and the next intended casualty of Buffalo Bill – senator’s daughter Catherine Martin (a faultless Brooke Smith). But she has her work cut out as Bill, in Ted Levine‘s masterful creation, is a force to be reckoned with.
If you’ve seen THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS you’ll know what transpires. If you haven’t, see it now!!! Will it give you nightmares? Maybe. Will it be an unforgettable movie experience? Definitely.