(Clarice Starling), Anthony Hopkins (Dr Hannibal Lecter), Scott Glenn
(Jack Crawford), Ted Levine (Jame Gumb), Anthony Heald (Dr Frederick
Chilton), Brooke Smith (Catherine Martin), Kasi Lemmons (Ardelia Mapp),
Diane Baker (Senator Ruth Martin)
Jonathan Demme, Screenplay – Ted Tally, Based on the Novel by Thomas
Harris, Producers – Ron Bozman, Edward Saxon & Kenneth Utt,
Photography – Tak Fujimoto, Music – Howard Shore, Makeup – Carl
Fullerton, Production Design – Kristi Zea. Production Company – Strong
agent Clarice Starling is assigned by the FBI’s Behavioural Science
Director to interview Hannibal Lecter, a former psychiatrist of genius
intelligence with a predilection for cannibalism where he is locked away
in a maximum security cell. It is hoped that Clarice can bring Lecter’s
understanding of the psychopathic mind to bear on the serial killer
nicknamed Buffalo Bill who is skinning the bodies of women across the
country. As time draws near for another victim who has just been
abducted by Buffalo Bill, the fascinating, urbane Lecter draws Clarice
into his web, taunting her with clues in return for personal information
about her past.
is to thrillers what Stanley Kubrick was to cinema. Both were recluses;
both were exacting perfectionists who only produced one work a decade it
seemed – there is an average of seven years between Thomas Harris’s
novels; and when each work did appear it was a masterpiece of its form.
Thomas Harris has only produced five books so far – Black Sunday (1975), Red Dragon (1981), The Silence of the Lambs (1988), Hannibal (1999) and Hannibal Rising (2006). All of these have been filmed – as Black Sunday (1977) and the Hannibal Lecter tetraology, which is listed at the bottom of the page.
The Silence of the Lambs
is generally regarded as a landmark and a modern masterpiece. It won
that year’s Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Adapted
Screenplay, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins) and Best Actress (Jodie
Foster). Without a doubt, The Silence of the Lambs
was influential – it made the career of Anthony Hopkins who had a
substantial body of work mostly as a supporting actor before this but
rarely as a lead. (Ironically, despite coming to fame as a genius
cannibal here, Anthony Hopkins then found himself cast as a latter-day
Laurence Olivier in various costume dramas).
The Silence of the Lambs
was perhaps the single most influential genre film of the 1990s,
producing hordes of imitators about people going to visit psychopathic
geniuses locked in cells – Beyond Bedlam/Nightscare (1994), Angel Dust (1994), Just Cause (1995), The Ugly (1997), Instinct (1999), Oxygen (1999), The Cell (2000), Antibodies (2005) and Cold Blood
(2005-6). Moreover, its model, wherein Thomas Harris had drawn upon the
FBI methods of psychologically profiling serial killers, developed a
fascination with the public, with the term ‘serial killer’ entering
popular parlance, even becoming an object of cultish veneration. A
number of films rushed to copy The Silence of the Lambs’s model of detectives tracing criminals using forensic psychology – the likes of Slaughter of the Innocents (1993), When the Bough Breaks (1994), Se7en (1995), Copycat (1995), Kiss the Girls (1997), Postmortem (1997), The Bone Collector (1999), Resurrection (1999), The Watcher (2000), Murder By Numbers (2002), Mindhunters (2004), Taking Lives (2004), Twisted (2004) and tv series such as Prime Suspect (1991– ), Cracker (1993-6), Millennium (1996-9), Profiler (1996-9) and CSI: Crime Scene Investigators (2000– ) and its spinoffs.
Although, for all their use of the forensic psychology model, The Silence of the Lambs
and its successors seemed to oddly repudiate it. Certainly, there is an
intense fascination to this new genre – what one might call the
forensic psychology psycho-thriller – as one watches a detective story
being built up out of patterns and tiny behavioural clues. Prior to The Silence of the Lambs,
the psycho movie genre’s view of psychology and behaviour had been
rooted in absurdly outmoded and melodramatic forms of Freudian trauma – Psycho (1960) and successors – or where killers were stripped of human motivation and seen as incarnate faces of evil – Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th
(1980) and various sequels. The forensic psychology psycho-thriller
gave the psycho film psychological motivation – it took a glimpse inside
the heads of psychopaths at what made them tick behaviourally.
Oddly and with
recurrent regard, these films, upon introducing the image of the
forensic psychological profiler, then repudiated what it stood for.
Almost all of the post-The Silence of the Lambs
films have created uber-killers – geniuses that are beyond normal
psychopathological motivation and who sit and toy with their pursuers –
Hannibal Lecter here, Ed Harris in Just Cause, the killer in Copycat, Jack of All Trades in Profiler, Brian Wicklow in Cold Blood – or who laugh at any attempt to analyse their motivation – Brad Pitt in Kalifornia (1993) and Machine in 8MM
(1999). In contrast, real forensic psychology brought serial killer
motivation into the open and explained what they did in terms of
psychological motivation where concepts of good and evil were moral
judgements that served little purpose. The forensic psychology film on
the other hand contrarily emphasises less the mundanity of their crimes
as it did moral horrors with the likes of Se7en, 8MM and Millennium even going so far as to tie killers to impending social collapse.
debate in forensic psychology thrillers is a libertarian vs determinist
one – are killers responsible for their behaviour? Real world forensic
psychology tends to see most killers as helpless pawns caught in
behavioural patterns caused by extreme childhood abuse, whereas forensic
psychology films to a person glimpse inside the madness and conclude
that not only they but by implication all social disease is down to
choice. It is a conservative viewpoint. To place this in perspective –
these are the same arguments used to justify the death penalty – that
every person is responsible for their actions, that all crime is
something that is morally chosen.
The Silence of the Lambs
may be one of those occasions where one feels out of step with general
critical opinion. Thomas Harris’s book is a genuine steel trap of a
thriller – a book that this author has read all in one sitting. The film
is a competent psycho-thriller but left one wondering what all the fuss
was about. There are times that the film is amazingly faithful to small
details of the book – the chess game timed by the beetle crossing the
board, Miggs’s ejaculating into Clarice’s hair, Gumb using a couch to
fool Catherine Martin to helping him, even some of the dialogue word for
word. Other time it cuts and drops wholesale and what screenwriter Ted
Tally substitutes is amazingly clumsy and ham-fisted – like Lecter’s
trail of clues leading Clarice to Raspail’s car, which gets concertinaed
down to a laughable clue about “Help Yourself”. Gone is Lecter’s
teasing game with Senator Martin about ‘Billy Rubin’. Most of all gone
is the book’s unfolding profile of Buffalo Bill. We have a few glimpses
given throughout of Bill skinning large-bodied women, Lecter’s hints
that he covets something and that he is not a real transsexual, some
clues about sewing – but gone are any of the book’s explanation as to
how Gumb built a coat of breasts. In its place, we see Ted Levine
looking like a gender-bender refugee from a Guns‘n’Roses concert.
Part of the problem with The Silence of the Lambs
is also Jonathan Demme. Jonathan Demme is a competent commercial
director, no more. Demme had made various weak comedies such as Something Wild (1987) and Married to the Mob (1988). Subsequent films such as Philadelphia (1994) exist more as sentimentality-heavy sermons aimed at the Academy Awards crowd, while his remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004) failed to take off. (The exception being the superb Beloved (1998), which should have won the accolades that The Silence of the Lambs
did). Jonathan Demme’s fundamental crime here is failure to have faith
in the ability of Thomas Harris’s story to tell itself. To express
points that do not need it, he resorts to caricature – the pompous
Chilton becomes a puffed-up cardboard character; there is no reason why
Gumb needed to be an over-the-top crossdresser when a single scene of
him dressing in a dead woman’s breasts or even describing such would
have had unforgettable impact.
of Hannibal Lecter and Anthony Hopkins’s fine performance have an
undeniable effectiveness (and went onto to become a cultural icon) but
again Jonathan Demme overstates the part and has to deck Lecter out in
pasty face and have him calmly conducting music in the air while covered
in blood and surrounded by dead bodies. The scenes between Anthony
Hopkins and Jodie Foster have their own creepy fascination but again
Jonathan Demme lacks it as a storyteller. The dramatic emphasis of the
film is on the obvious set-pieces – Lecter’s escape from prison, or
Clarice’s surprise turning up at Gumb’s house while the FBI trap closes
in another direction, her being hunted with a nightscope in the cellar.
While Jonathan Demme hypes the story in these places, there is none of
the sense you get in Thomas Harris’s novel of Hannibal Lecter sitting in
his cell controlling the entire game and having both the FBI and
Senator Martin’s running about and of the way that Thomas Harris would,
with breathtaking skill, pull the carpet out from underneath the reader.
The best one can say for The Silence of the Lambs is that it is a competent thriller for those who have not read Thomas Harris.
Hannibal (2001) was a direct sequel, featuring a return performance from Anthony Hopkins but not Jodie Foster. The less well-known Manhunter (1986), based on Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (1981), features Hannibal Lecter’s first screen appearance. Subsequent to the success of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, Manhunter was remade as a prequel and a Hannibal Lecter origin story with Red Dragon (2002) also featuring Anthony Hopkins. Hannibal Rising (2007) was a further prequel, telling the story of Lecter’s childhood. The Silence of the Hams (1994) was a parody. Parodies can also be found in Fatal Instinct (1993), National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 (1993), Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (2010) and Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil (2011).
Review: Richard Scheib
Images: Marcus Brooks