The Silence of the Lambs

The superbly crafted suspense thriller that director Jonathan Demme has made from Thomas Harris's taut best-selling novel The Silence of the Lambs slams you like a sudden blast of bone-chilling, pulse-pounding terror. Clarice Starling, played with heartfelt tenacity by Jodie Foster, is an FBI trainee on the trail of a serial killer. Her search ends in the suburban home of dressmaker Jame Gumb (Ted Levine). It is Gumb's cellar workshop – the place where he shoots and skins his tall, fleshy female victims – that Demme transforms into a harrowing vision of hell.

Gumb, jokingly dubbed Buffalo Bill by the cops in homicide because of his skill at flaying, has just kidnapped his sixth victim: She's Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), the daughter of a U.S. senator (Diane Baker). But Gumb isn't interested in rape or political favors. He wants something else from Catherine, whom he has trapped in a pit dug fifteen feet into his cellar floor. As Gumb lowers a basket on a thin string, the camera picks up the bloody finger tracks of other women who have tried and failed to claw their way out. In the basket is a tube of skin lotion. Gumb keeps his captives alive for three days, making sure that their skin stays supple for a hideous objective unfair to reveal (let's just say that the death's-head moth – featured in ads for the film – is involved, along with too much dime-store psychology). "Rub the cream in or you'll get the hose," says Gumb, tenderly holding a white poodle he calls Precious as he shouts his orders to Catherine. "Yes it will, Precious," says Gumb, referring to Catherine as an object, not a person. "It will get the hose." That exchange is followed by the sound of Catherine screaming in fear, again and again.

Taken out of context, these scenes could provoke protest from such forums as the National Organization for Women, whose L.A. chapter recently threatened a boycott of the publisher of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho because of the novel's graphic depictions of women being tortured. Few could question the rise in crimes against women or the rise of misogyny in movies. In the Hollywood of the Nineties, the next best thing to making a movie about Jack the Ripper is hiring someone like him to write or direct. But Silence of the Lambs does not merit censoring (free expression is still a constitutional right) or even censuring.

Demme and Ted Tally, the playwright (Terra Nova) turned screenwriter (White Palace), have set out to turn the exploitation genre on its empty head and fill it with ideas and purpose. There's none of the all-in-fun disfigurement and dismemberment that you get in the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th gorefests. There's none of the cheerleading for male sexual hostility that you get in The Rookie when Clint Eastwood blows away Sonia Braga and in Total Recall when Arnold Schwarzenegger does the same thing to Sharon Stone. The brutality in Silence leaves you shaken because it's meant to seem painful instead of playful, terrifying instead of titillating. Foster's Clarice Starling and Smith's Catherine Martin represent something unique in slasher movies: women who won't play victim.

Whenever possible, Demme and ace cinematographer Tak Fujimoto take the point of view of Starling, an FBI trainee whose "Yes, sir" reserve around her superiors doesn't disguise her ambition. The camera sees what Starling sees: a patriarchic society that deserves the acid ridicule it gets. Fittingly, the movie begins with Starling running an obstacle course at the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia. She will confront many other obstacles as the story hurtles along, the vast majority of them erected by men. Her cagey boss, Special Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), admires her grit. But he's not above using her as bait for a psycho. Crawford assigns Starling to do a behavioral profile on Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a former psychiatrist imprisoned in a Baltimore asylum for carving up nine people and cooking his favorite bits. Dr. Lecter, known as Hannibal the Cannibal, prides himself on having once eaten the liver of a census taker with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Crawford suspects Lecter may know the real identity of Buffalo Bill and thinks that a gander at the attractive Starling, the first woman Lecter has seen in eight years, may inspire him to talk. After rebuffing the sexual advances of the asylum's chief administrator, Dr. Frederick Chilton – played to smarmy perfection by Anthony Heald – Starling is allowed access to Lecter's cell but only after being warned not to give him any personal details about her life. Chilton also advises Starling to use the sliding food carrier in the cell to pass files to Lecter. It seems a nurse leaned too close to Lecter nearly a decade before. "His pulse never got over eighty-five," says Chilton, smiling, "not even when he ate her tongue."

Demme provides Lecter with the kind of lurid, B-movie buildup the director cut his teeth on back in the Seventies with Caged Heat and Fighting Mad. And production designer Kristi Zea gives the snake pit of an asylum the medieval look of a Roger Corman horror show. But Demme isn't doing camp; he's aiming for a stylized hyperreality, and most of the time he achieves it. As Starling walks past the barred cells toward Lecter's glassed-in cubicle at the end of the corridor, an inmate named Miggs hurls himself at the bars and says, "I can smell your cunt." She barely flinches. Miggs pales before Starling's first sight of Lecter. Standing stone still, his close-cropped head tilted ever so slightly and the beams from his cold eyes sharp enough to pierce glass, he looms like a lion in his lair – glacial and lethal. It's the most frightening movie entrance in years, and Hopkins doesn't move a muscle. A brilliant stage actor (Equus, Antony and Cleopatra), Hopkins can sometimes be too much on film – check out his shameless hamboning in Audrey Rose. But this time he calibrates every nuance for maximum effect. Lecter figured in an earlier Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon, filmed as Manhunter in 1986 with Brian Cox as the mad doctor. As chilling as Cox was, his role was merely a cameo. Hopkins goes deeper. The polished, elegant evil of his Lecter surpasses anything he's ever done on the screen. He's a fiend for the ages.

The confrontation scenes between Lecter and Starling are the heart of the picture, and Hopkins and Foster – who is flawless in a performance on a par with her Oscar-winning work in The Accused – play off each other with enormous skill. Demme subjects them to long, searching close-ups. With lesser actors, such scrutiny could wreck the film by exposing theatricality and cant. But Foster and Hopkins don't make a false move. Starling knows Lecter is testing her, trying to wear down her self-confidence. Based on her West Virginia accent and "second-rate shoes," he tags her as "not more than one generation from poor white trash." This fiercely intelligent and witty monster brings out her deepest fears. But when Starling manages to regain control after Miggs pitches a handful of his semen at her face, Lecter is stirred. "Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me," says Lecter, shaking with rage over Miggs's action. He agrees to help Starling. But there's a condition. Lecter wants a transfer to another prison, and for every clue Lecter gives about Buffalo Bill, she must tell him something about herself.

And so to save Catherine Martin, Clarice Starling parcels out painful memories from her childhood. Lecter learns that Starling was orphaned at ten when her sheriff father was killed. She learns that Buffalo Bill, like herself and Lecter, suffered traumas in childhood. But before she can find out more, Lecter discovers that Starling and Crawford have been lying about the deal to move him to another prison, so he makes his own deal with Senator Martin. Later, Starling talks herself into a tightly guarded room in Tennessee where Lecter is being held in an iron cage pending transfer. In exchange for crucial information, Starling tells Lecter why she dreams about lambs screaming. The details aren't important. But Starling's full exposure of the frightened child inside her is. As she reaches between the bars to take the file on Buffalo Bill from Lecter's hand, their fingers touch. The moment is brief but electric – a shuddering intimation of the consequences of misplaced trust.

In the scenes that follow, Lecter goes on a murderous rampage, Starling tracks Buffalo Bill, and Catherine Martin devises an ingenious plan to outwit her captor. Newcomer Brooke Smith invests Catherine with a vital and touching spirit; she can make a line like "Come here, Precious, you little shit" ring out like a call to arms. It's a sensational performance, accurate right down to the full-out way she rocks along in her car to Tom Petty's "American Girl" just before meeting Buffalo Bill.

Attention to this kind of detail is a Demme trademark. At his peak (Citizens Band, Melvin and Howard, Something Wild), Demme – a true maverick among the herd of Hollywood hacks – can intermingle comedy and drama because he builds on a solid foundation of character. Silence is a powerhouse that shows Demme at his best and boldest. Even the tacky flashbacks and a sequence lifted from Wait Until Dark can't blunt the film's wallop. Demme celebrates his female warriors. You can feel his pride in Starling for rallying against her male demons. For all the unbridled savagery on display, what is shrewd, significant and finally hopeful about Silence of the Lambs is the way it proves that a movie can be mercilessly scary and mercifully humane at the same time.

From The Archives Issue 599: March 7, 1991