It’s fun now, in retrospect, to list all the reasons The Silence of the Lambs should have failed. True, it was based on a bestseller — then again, so was The Bonfire of the Vanities (similar title, too), whose movie adaptation had just died mere months before. True, Jodie Foster was in it — but the movies she’d done after her first Oscar win (for 1988’s The Accused) were hardly audience favorites (anyone remember Stealing Home or Backtrack?). And the director, Jonathan Demme — great director of underattended films, most recently Married to the Mob, which had shriveled up and died in theaters in 1988. (Demme’s only previous attempt at a thriller, by the way, was 1979’s tedious Hitchcock rip-off Last Embrace.) And that release date — who puts out a horror movie in February? On Valentine’s Day?
Anthony Hopkins? Oh, sure, he’d been great in The Elephant Man, but that was ten years in the past. Just prior to Silence he’d been in stuff like A Chorus of Disapproval and Desperate Hours — remember how much you loved those classics? It’s almost impossible now to conceive of how hot he wasn’t. That dependable, somewhat boring Welsh actor. Yeah. This is the guy you want to cast as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the biggest thing to happen to psycho fiction since Norman Bates? The movie had “noble failure” written all over it. If they didn’t screw up Thomas Harris’ book too much, it might be a decent Saturday-night thriller. Maybe.
Well, we all know what happened. Silence of the Lambs happened, and it happened big. People went and kept going back. It was the rare thriller that hit an emotional chord. (The Sixth Sense, another “this is probably gonna suck” movie before anyone saw it, was a runaway hit for the same reason.) It swept the Oscars — becoming only the second film ever to win in the five major categories — in the face of predictions that Nick Nolte would win Best Actor for The Prince of Tides, Susan Sarandon was a lock for Thelma & Louise, Oliver Stone had a strong shot for JFK, and Bugsy and Beauty and the Beast were the front-runners for Best Picture. Silence would be one of those great movies that don’t win anything. That was the consensus in early 1992. Remember that whenever the Oscar-prediction pundits weigh in about the year’s nominees.
Silence changed the face of Hollywood thrillers, though it was hardly the first to do what it did — 1986’s Manhunter, also based on a Thomas Harris novel (Red Dragon) and featuring Hannibal Lecter in a much smaller role (played by Brian Cox), laid some of the groundwork. But Silence broke ground in other ways. It’s difficult these days, in the era of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tomb Raider, to imagine how unheard-of it was for a woman to carry a major motion picture and be the strongest person in the story, not defined sexually or romantically but simply as a smart, courageous woman doing her job. This was in 1991, mind you, not 1951. (Then again, roles for women, despite their frequent innate sexism, were a hell of a lot juicier in the ’40s and ’50s than they were in the ’80s and ’90s — or now. Today’s Hollywood, as has been tirelessly noted, is not an atmosphere in which a Bette Davis or a Joan Crawford could survive, let alone thrive.)
Clarice Starling was the undisputed hero of the story, but America didn’t buzz about her, didn’t quote her or do imitations of her, didn’t warm to her as much as they fell in love with a psychopath who is nearly immobile behind Plexiglass for most of his limited screen time (sixteen minutes out of the 118-minute film). Some commentators have found this bothersome. I find it entirely understandable. Good is the rock, the ideal, what we aspire to be. Evil is mesmerizing, the worst-case scenario, what we fear we could be. Aside from all that, Hannibal Lecter is actually very good company (at least as seen from a safe distance). He’s witty, charming, polite, brilliant, and shows moments of intense insight and compassion. If not for the inconvenient fact of his cannibalism, he’d be perfect. One could argue that he’s hardly polite to the people we see him hurting, physically and psychologically, in the film, such as the two unfortunate cops and Senator Martin; but a case could be made that, since “discourtesy is unspeakably ugly” to him, he is merely callous towards those who show disrespect or distaste towards him first. Clarice, in opposition, never speaks to Lecter with anything less than courtesy, which is important to him: “You were doing fine — you’d been courteous and receptive to courtesy,” he tells her while regretting that she almost blew it with her “ham-handed segue.”
Silence is about as unflashy a thriller as you’ll find — so much so, in fact, that a few snot-nosed Ain’t It Cool News “talkbackers” have slammed it for being a TV movie. Working with Ted Tally’s faithful script, Jonathan Demme allows the story to unfold against gray, drab, realistic backdrops whenever possible. The lurid inner world of Buffalo Bill therefore seems phosphorescent by comparison. Like William Friedkin in The Exorcist, Demme sets up a normal, everyday world — the cluttered American landscape of shopping centers, trailer parks, and offices (there are precious few exteriors in the film; this is one claustrophobic movie, though it begins with Clarice running and ends with Lecter strolling) — and then lets the demon loose. Buffalo Bill himself lives in a rather banal-looking house; you have to look in the basement to see anything wrong with this picture.
It’s useful to look deeper into Buffalo Bill, too. At the time, Silence took a lot of heat for being homophobic, or at the very least transphobic: Buffalo Bill exhibits all the stereotypical gay mannerisms, and, as many critics fumed, “even has a poodle named Precious.” And if he wasn’t gay, then he was transsexual, and either way, do we need a blockbuster movie telling millions of people that gays and/or transsexuals are rabid flayers of women? I would sympathize with the charge if it had a basis in fact; problem is, it doesn’t, though I can understand why some viewers might not take Lecter’s word for it when he emphasizes that Buffalo Bill isn’t transsexual. He’s not gay either; he isn’t anything, really. His sexual preference, if he has any conventional sexuality (y’know, of the sort that involves another live person), has nothing to do with his particular psychosis, which is all about changing into something other than what he is — which happens to be male. Buffalo Bill doesn’t have gender dysphoria; like Francis Dolarhyde, he has a fixation on Becoming. In Silence and also in Red Dragon, Thomas Harris gave us boogeymen whose mania was rooted in self-loathing. Hannibal Lecter, by contrast, could hardly be said to hate himself (perhaps another reason for his popularity — the man has unearthly aplomb and self-assurance, if nothing else). The homophobia charge troubled some people involved in the film, including Demme, whose next film, as if to make up for it, was the gay-friendly Philadelphia; and in the next Lecter film, Hannibal, the loutish Justice Department official played by Ray Liotta grunts about Lecter, “I always thought he was queer,” and this inane remark is meant to be as laughable as his other inane remarks.
When Harris wrote Hannibal, and played Cupid for Lecter and Starling, the outrage from many readers didn’t make much sense to me. The dynamic between the two, as seen in Silence, is loaded with sexual tension, or at least mutual fascination. Lecter is used to people being fascinated by him; he’d never expected to find someone else fascinating. Their first encounter follows the standard romantic formula — they get off on the wrong foot. Clarice sends her questionnaire through after some parrying (his expression after she says “No, you ate yours” has “Touché” written all over it), and he ridicules it and rattles off a cruel capsule review of her life. He dismisses her — “You fly back to school now, little Starling” — and turns her back to her, a rudeness he did not commit in the novel (“Hannibal Lecter, polite to the last, did not give her his back”). When Multiple Miggs lobs a handful of semen at Clarice, Lecter calls her back and gives her a useful clue. “I would not have had that happen to you,” he says, and then, of course, “discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me.” The point is, if that had happened to someone he genuinely disdained (like the ludicrous Dr. Chilton), he would probably have laughed himself sick. He is offended on her behalf for the same reason he was cruel to her just moments before: he finds her interesting, and we feel that she has passed whatever test he was administering.
Clarice has a backstory worthy of Batman; she lost her father when he was shot by a couple of thieves, and between her daddy complex and her saving-the-lambs complex, she’s got one big need to impose order on a chaotic world. If she is order, Lecter is chaos; they’re a perfect fit — opposites attract. Throughout the movie, Clarice has to stare down at morgue tables and examine girls who, unlike her, didn’t make it out. There’s great emotional cruelty in the idea of heavy girls charmed by a man who seems interested in them despite their size — charmed until they find out he’s interested in them because of their size, and for a very practical purpose. Buffalo Bill’s agenda takes misogyny about as far as it can go, and Clarice focuses her nausea and anger onto the case. Being appalled is a human reaction, but isn’t going to do much to stop Buffalo Bill before he kills again.
The Silence of the Lambs moves at a clip, but a smooth clip; the mission is urgent, but we never feel rushed through the narrative. Demme has the control of a born master of suspense, though in a couple of instances he moves the camera in for a close-up when it’s not really necessary: once when Dr. Chilton doesn’t have his pen and we dolly in on Lecter silently gloating about it, and again when drops of blood fall onto the gurney sheet in the elevator. In both cases, I think the effect would be more chilling without the camera’s saying “Look!” It’s also never made quite clear how Lecter gets his hands on the pen Dr. Chilton leaves in the cell; we seem to be missing a brief scene of Lecter being unshackled, breaking the pen down to the tiny piece he uses, and hiding it in his cheek. Otherwise, though, Demme’s direction is restrained and crystal clear. The violence is never there for a cheap thrill, and in any event we mostly see only the sad aftermath — the heavy girl on the slab, with remnants of glitter polish still on her fingernails. The detail of that glitter polish is more devastating than any gut-wrenching gory close-up Demme could show us; the detail gives us a sense of a girl interrupted, a girl who’d put on some new polish that day for whatever happy or hopeful reason, never knowing that Buffalo Bill was watching and waiting.
So much has been written about and so many awards given to the two lead performances that it seems a little pointless now to discuss them further; their excellence is a given, like the elements. Jodie Foster, as befitting her character’s name, has been compared to countless small but resilient mammals; Anthony Hopkins has been likened to however many deadly animals in repose until they strike (tiger, cobra, etc.). Lecter himself is either Moriarty to Starling’s Sherlock, or an evil Sherlock to Starling’s Watson, depending on one’s mood. What grows between them is mutual respect, and, in Lecter’s case, affection. For Starling’s part, she even grows to trust him somewhat: “He won’t come after me,” she says after he has escaped. “He would consider it rude.” She certainly trusts him more than she does the dolt Dr. Chilton, a glory hound who at one point can be heard making sure reporters get his name right. I cherish individual moments between Foster and Hopkins, such as when Lecter says “Was it a butterfly?” and Starling is almost bouncing in her seat as she recognizes she’s getting warmer, or when Starling shrugs off Lecter’s needling questions about Jack Crawford as “something Miggs would say,” and Hopkins’ delivery is all the more funny and chilling for being so quiet: “Not any more.”
Hopkins and Foster have fine moments independent of each other, too. Foster flashes through about ten different moods when Starling is examining the girl on the slab; she goes from revulsion to sadness to rage at the killer to a businesslike list of the wounds inflicted, and finally to excitement when she sees a clue. In the book, Harris writes, “She felt she could look at anything, if she had something positive to do about it. Starling was young.” Foster gets that across wordlessly (the words she’s saying in the scene have nothing to do with how she’s feeling). Hopkins, too, is fascinating to watch away from Starling; you feel that he would never harm Starling but has no problem savaging anyone else, either verbally or physically. His brutality during his escape comes as a sharp reality slap after we’ve come to see him almost as Starling’s kindly confessor (“Thank you, Clarice,” he says — “caught in the moment when he did not mock,” writes Harris). I particularly like Hopkins right before he gets out of his cuffs, a placid expression on his face as he hums along with Glenn Gould; the camera (this is a brilliant touch) pans away from him carelessly, sharing the inattention of the guards, as if he constituted no threat.
One other performance bears mention but hardly ever gets it: Ted Levine as Jame Gumb, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill. The comical timbre of his voice as he explodes at Catherine Martin (“Put the fucking lotion in the baaasket“) makes the scene funnier than it’s supposed to be — you’re supposed to be seeing that even this monster is touched for a moment by the pain of a human being he has carefully programmed himself to think of as “it.” Levine had the great fortune and misfortune to play a vividly sick killer in one of the biggest critical and financial hits of all time; I’ve seen him in other roles, mainly on TV or in the kinds of movies that usually go directly to video, playing a cop or something. He was brave not only to throw his career away by defining his screen image so strongly as the killer (try to think of ten other actors who’d have the balls to play the “I’d fuck me” scene and play it without irony), but also to try so many faces on as the killer and still, somehow, have it cohere into Buffalo Bill: now he’s the guy moving the couch with a cast on, now he’s the effeminate-acting sicko staring down into the pit (pulling at his shirt to mimic breasts is a particularly contemptible gesture and a credit to whoever thought of it), now he’s a sort of fantasy figure performing for his camcorder (the song is “Goodbye Horses” by Q. Lazzarus, which is also on the Married to the Mob soundtrack), now he’s playacting the role of the hick (“Oh wait, was she a great big fat person?”), now he’s on the hunt in the dark, wearing those infrared goggles that make him look like the basement-dwelling insect that hasn’t yet become the moth. Levine is best in the moment when he gives Starling the once-over and can’t quite restrain his glee: he’s used to overpowering big-boned girls; this tiny one he could snap in half.
Much has been made of the ending — slightly changed from the novel, in which Lecter sends Dr. Chilton (under federal protection) a note promising to pay him a visit. In the movie, we see Chilton, the idiot, getting off a plane, apparently on some vacation — not the smartest move when one’s flesh-eating nemesis is on the loose. How Lecter knew Chilton would be there is inconsequential — it’s a fine, macabre note to end on. (In Ted Tally’s earlier drafts, the movie ended with Chilton tied up while Lecter loomed over him, saying “Shall we begin?”) Lecter, like Michael Myers at the end of Halloween, is Still Out There Somewhere, but oddly we don’t feel much anxiety about it. We don’t seem like the sort of people he would bother with, or at least we’d like to think so. After all, he tends to feast “only on the rude,” as his former caretaker Barney points out in Hannibal. So as long as we’re polite and intelligent, and don’t threaten to blow his cover, we should be safe. That’s the movie’s final, funniest joke — that we’ve devolved so much that we should need the fear of an elitist cannibal to coerce us into being courteous. Discourtesy, after all, is unspeakably ugly to him.