Lecter and Starling.
The Silence of the Lambs is a bit of a legend around our house. My brothers and I have a tradition of doing a Oscar bet every year. When The Silence of the Lambs was nominated, we all picked other films to win, as a horror movie is not traditionally an award winner. My wife liked this movie and picked it to win every award. She never fails to remind me how she bested the threemoviebuffs that year, every time The Academy Awards are given out. Although it's wins may have been a surprise to Patrick, Scott and I at the time, it certainly deserved all the awards it received.
FBI agent in training Clarice Starling is sent to a maximum security prison for the criminally insane to interview serial killer Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter. The FBI needs his insight into a rash of killings by another serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Lecter comes to like Clarice and the mind games they play with each other.
Although there are some truly scary moments and some gory ones, the best parts of the film is the dialogue between Lecter and Starling. The best being Clarice's story about the ranch, "And what did you see, Clarice? What did you see?" "Lambs. The lambs were screaming."
The Silence of the Lambs has some truly memorable lines. The creepiest is, "It rubs the lotion on its skin. It does this whenever it is told." As said by Buffalo Bill to his captured victim. The most famous line is given by Lecter, "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." My personal favorite is when Clarice Starling asks Lecter, "If you didn't kill him, then who did, sir?" and he responds, "Who can say. Best thing for him, really. His therapy was going nowhere."
This is the movie that reinvented Anthony Hopkin's career. He had acted on film and television since the late 1960s, but was only known in The United Sates for playing opposite Mel Gibson in The Bounty (1984). He has made nearly 50 films since. It was his idea to have Lecter standing in the middle of his cell as Starling first approaches. It is a small but effective gesture.
Foster earned her second Academy Award here. Her performance is brilliantly subtle. She has an accent that Lecter comments on, "And that accent you've tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia." She effectively plays Starling as nervous most of the movie. She awkwardly handles Dr. Chilton flirting with her. She politely tells her boss that he acted sexist in front of her. This movie is firmly planted in a fantasy world, but Foster plays Starling as a very real character.
Credit has to also go to Demme. He takes such simple scenes as talking through glass and makes them scary. He has Lecter in shadows and then moves closer. The mask on Lecters face is truly haunting. The entire film is in drab tones, taking place in the fall or early spring. Death and depression seems to linger in every corner.
I am not a horror movie fan, but I can expand my taste when they are made as well as The Silence of the Lambs. If my wife is going to tease me about her being right and me being wrong, it might as well be about this.
Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs.
I realize I’m probably in the minority on this one but I think The Silence of the Lambs is vastly overrated. I vividly recall the 64th Academy Awards ceremony that Eric mentioned. Perhaps I am still bitter that Barbra Streisand didn’t win the top prize for The Prince of Tides that night. Don’t get me wrong, Silence of the Lambs is a decent enough thriller with a top notch cast, but just why it is widely considered to be one of the all time great horror movies is beyond me.
It made history that night, becoming the first (and to date only) horror movie to win the movie industries most coveted award. It also became just the third movie in history (after It Happened One Night and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) to win the big five: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. Not bad.
Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal Lecter with a maniacal gleam in his eye and a witty one-liner at the ready for any occasion. He is revered as one of the great movie villains but I find him a bit too campy to be truly frightening. Hopkins himself has described the voice he used as “a combination of Truman Capote and Katharine Hepburn.” And that ridiculous slurping sound has only gotten sillier with time.
Jodie Foster was perfect for Clarice Starling. She had just the right mix of toughness and vulnerability. She is believable as an intelligent and intuitive opponent for the brilliant Lecter. Her slight “white trash” accent that comes through on occasion is also perfect.
Buffalo Bill, as played by Ted Levine, is one of the creepiest villains ever to grace the screen. To me he is far scarier than Hannibal Lecter. His nude preening with his mangina on full display is quite a disturbing sight (see photo). Likewise his repeated line that Eric mentioned, “It puts the lotion on its skin” is horrifying because of the complete lack of emotion with which it is said. Brooke Smith deserves a mention as Catherine Martin, Buffalo Bill’s long-suffering victim. She makes the terror real by her intense acting but she isn’t a helpless female. She bravely continues to struggle and fight for her life.
I agree with Eric about the dialogue. It is well-written and memorably delivered. My favorite line is when a doctor shows Clarice a picture of one of Hannibal’s victims and tells her, “The doctors managed to reset her jaw more or less. Saved one of her eyes. His pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.”
The directing is fine but Silence of the Lambs suffers from the same inherent flaw that all horror movies do. It relies too much on shock value, which only really works the first time you watch it. Repeat viewings reduce the impact and make the story seem more and more contrived. The Silence of the Lambs is a legendary movie. No one can deny that. It is, however, far from the masterpiece the industry claims it to be.
Photos © Copyright Orion Pictures Corporation (1991)