The Silence of the Lambs is technically a sequel in that it follows characters introduced in 1986's Manhunter, the adaptation of Robert Harris' first Hannibal Lecter novel Red Dragon. As much as The Silence of the Lambs is seen as a horror film or psychological thriller, after revisiting it I think the film is really a much deeper and richer commentary on women as both victims and heroines.
Novice FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is tasked by her superior Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to try to convince or con a brilliant but dangerous psychologist/psychopath to help the FBI in profiling a serial killer known as "Buffalo Bill", who skins his victims.
Said psycho is Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), known as 'Hannibal the Cannibal' for having killed and eaten his victims. Currently imprisoned and controlled by inept prison psychiatrist Dr. Fredrick Chilton (Anthony Heald), Lecter is so dangerous he is kept behind glass to avoid him touching anyone.
The ambitious Starling and the brilliant Lecter soon begin an intellectual pas de deux, one attempting to outwit the other to get what they want. For Lecter, it is to get away from Chilton, whom he detests. For Starling, it is a chance to get ahead in her career.
Things take on a greater urgency when "Buffalo Bill" (Ted Devine) has taken a new victim: Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). She fits Bill's targeted victims: female, overweight, young. She is also the daughter of Senator Ruth Martin (Diane Baker), bringing greater attention to the case. As Lecter continues to toy with everyone, Starling continues the investigation despite Lecter's false clues and wild goose chases, driven by her own haunted past to save Catherine.
Lecter has a few tricks up his sleeve, putting everyone at risk. As Starling's investigation comes to its shocking conclusion, she finds that Hannibal Lecter, now a fugitive, will keep away from her out of courtesy, but as for his nemesis Chilton...
I got from Jonathan Demme's film that Clarice was the 'lamb' and that her 'silence' was that of many a competent woman forced to watch herself among the various 'wolves' that surround them. Over and over through Demme's various close-ups and Ted Tally's screenplay we see how Clarice, this small woman, has to endure that nefarious male gaze.
That male gaze takes two forms. There's the gaze of desire which comes from the revolting, arrogant Chilton but also from some of her colleagues like FBI scientists Roden (Dan Butler) and Pilcher (Paul Lazar) and perhaps Crawford himself. As Pilcher talks to Starling, he clumsy asks her out.
"Are you hitting on me?", Clarice almost jokingly asks. Without missing a beat Pilcher says, "Yes". This metaphorical lamb, however, stays silent.
The other gaze is that of contempt, best shown when Crawford and Starling go to examine the body of another victim. Crawford tells the police chief that they cannot talk about certain aspects because essentially 'there's a lady present', and later on the various officers seem irritated when Clarice asks them to leave the autopsy room.
The Silence of the Lambs, in my view, is a strong allegory about how women are victimized by men in ways large (murder, torture) and small (dismissed, harassed, ogled). I think we can see this at the very beginning of the film, where we see her running out of the very spooky, almost haunted woods. It's almost an archetype: the damsel in distress fleeing from the deep, dark forest. However, in this Gothic horror take on Little Red (or in her case, Grey) Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, the girl is seen overcoming all the obstacles.
Clarice is in her own way a lamb though a strong one, surrounded by wolves who would devour her with their eyes and with their bodies if they could; these hungry wolves range from the mentally ill prisoner Miggs (Stuart Rudin) who literally flings his cum at her, to 'Buffalo Bill' himself who would slaughter her. Chilton is the worst in that he has both desire and contempt for Starling, seeing her as both a sex object and an incessant irritant and intellectual inferior despite the evidence to the contrary.
Even Jack Crawford, who would appear to be a mentor, can be seen as both contemptuous of Starling and perhaps harboring some sexual desires.
It is never really overtly spoken, though Demme shows us how Clarice is often mistreated by the men she is around in various ways save perhaps one: Hannibal Lecter himself. Unlike just about every other man, he sees Clarice for her mind. He is rather courtly and polite, who sees in Clarice not as a thing but as a person.
Lecter is manipulative and in his own way tortures Clarice by having her delve into her traumas, but he would do this with anyone regardless of gender. There is a very brief shot of him caressing Starling's hand with one finger, which suggests sexual desire, but I am not convinced Lecter ever wanted Clarice sexually.
The lion's share of fame in terms of performances has gone to Anthony Hopkins as Lecter. What makes him a truly frightening figure is in how Hopkins plays him: as a man fully in control, brilliant, contemptuous of everyone save perhaps Clarice. Even as he literally devours people he does not seem to lose control. I think that is what makes Hopkins' performance so brilliant. He plays Lecter as someone who is always five steps ahead, taking every opportunity presented and whose very calmness masks his murderous and evil ways.
His charming, courtly manner allows for us almost to cheer when he bids Clarice farewell via telephone. As we see a frightened Dr. Chilton arrive in the Bahamas, Lecter coolly informs her, "I do wish we could stay and chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner," the double meaning a mixture of menace and mirth.
Hannibal Lecter, thanks to Hopkins' performance, has become a cult figure, the center of a cinematic universe with television shows and film sequels/prequels. Poor Brian Cox: whatever the qualities of his version of Lecter in Manhunter, is all for forgotten. However, it is to me a terrible disservice to focus so much on Hopkins and Lecter when The Silence of the Lambs has an equally brilliant performance.
Jodie Foster, I think, has gone not fully appreciated for her performance in the way Anthony Hopkins has. Her performance is absolutely pitch-perfect. Foster's Clarice Starling is an authentic character. She is strong and competent but she is also vulnerable. She does not hide that she is a woman by attempting to be 'masculine' and she certainly would never think of being coquettish. Her gender is part of who she is.
However, she is someone who is capable of being hurt. A brief scene of her crying after leaving her first interview with Lecter, where she has endured having cum flung at her and crazed men screaming at her, shows that she is not above having emotions. She also has something that the male investigators do not have: empathy for the victims. Starling does not see these women as mere corpses or subjects in an investigation but instead she sees them as real people.
The Silence of the Lambs does not have a bad performance in it, a credit to Demme as a director and the various actors in the film. Levine for good or ill is now seen as 'Buffalo Bill', his crazed 'drag act' never slipping into camp but a genuinely creepy being. Even small roles, such as Baker's fearful mother, Kasi Lemmons as Starling's fellow trainee Ardelia Mapp or Chris Isaak as the SWAT commander and even independent film legend Roger Corman in a cameo as the FBI director all have strong moments.
There are also other elements that contribute to the film's great success. Howard Shore, inexplicably not nominated for his score, creates music that is eerie and melancholy. Of particular note is when Clarice is remembering the trauma of her childhood. One can hear what sounds like the wind echoing that dark morning when her young life came apart. I think it was actually music, but it was so well-crafted that one senses the score elevated the scene. The use of the song Goodbye Horses also makes for frightening effect.
Craig McKay's editing is excellent, particularly when balancing the tension between a wrong raid, Catherine striking back against her captor and Clarice's imminent danger. Tak Fujimoto's cinematography works well in setting the eerie nature of the story, though I did question the set-up for when the police storm where Lecter is housed. It did strike me as slightly illogical that Lecter would take so much time with such an elaborate piece but that's being a bit nitpicky.
The Silence of the Lambs is a magnificent film: horror mixed with intelligent yet subtle commentary on gender roles and standout performances particularly from Foster and Hopkins. An extraordinary yet terrifying film, The Silence of the Lambs continues to hold a macabre fascination to this day.
1992 Best Picture Winner: Unforgiven