The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs is a 1991 psychological thriller film directed by Jonathan Demme based upon the second novel in the Hannibal Lecter series by Thomas Harris. Though not a sequel, the first novel in the series, Red Dragon, was previously adapted to film in 1986 with Michael Mann’s Manhunter, which may explain why it’s sequel was chosen to be readapted as the first entry in what was to later become a film franchise. The Silence of the Lambs stars Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and Scott Glenn.

Before this film, Jodie Foster was known as child prostitute Iris in the famed 1976 psychological thriller Taxi Driver, and not much else, so her role here as rookie federal agent Clarice Starling was a transformative one in her career. Anthony Hopkins had already been established as one of the world’s greatest living actors at this point, having been performing on stage since 1960 and receiving praise and attention since his film breakout in 1968 playing Richard I in The Lion in Winter.  In 1980, he played Dr. Fredrick Treves alongside John Hurt as John Merrick in the David Lynch film The Elephant Man. Lynch’s first mainstream success  following the 1977 cult classic horror film Eraserhead, The Elephant Man also cast the established Hopkins and Hurt into even further fame. Hopkins was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1987. His role in Silence of the Lambs as Hannibal Lecter would come to be, to this day, his most well-known film role, eclipsing all previous works, and for good reason.

Following the events of the opening of Red Dragon, Doctor Hannibal Lecter, famed psychiatrist, ametuer gourmet chef, art patron, classical music lover, and high-class society figure, is serving consecutive life sentences in a maximum security psychiatric institution after it is revealed he was, in fact, The Chesapeake Ripper, a cannibalistic serial killer who cooked his victims and would serve them to unsuspecting patrons as a gourmet meal prepared by a exceedingly well-mannered and well-educated medical professional with a love of fancy food. The head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, Jack Crawford, sends the inexperienced and young but brilliantly gifted trainee Clarice Starling to interview and survey Dr. Lecter for a “psychobehavioral profile” of all serial killers currently in custody.

Unbeknownst to Starling, this is a ruse. Crawford actually wants Lecter’s assistance in capturing Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who captures overweight women and skins them. Crawford lied to Starling because if she went to see Lecter with an actual agenda, he would have toyed with her, chewed her up and spit her out, and sent her back with jack squat. Unfortunately for both of them, Lecter realizes Crawford’s true agenda straightaway and does just that, leading to one of the best conversations in film history.

I hate horror films and admittedly haven’t seen many. (No, I don’t like roller coasters, either.) Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite films of all time, however.I dislike classifying it as a horror film. This film as well as Seven (also a favorite) isn’t all that graphic on camera. All the violence, gore, and disgusting stuff either occurs off screen or the camera is angled in such a way that the viewer doesn’t see it. I have no idea why this choice was made, it was already a rated R film. Sure makes it easier for me to sit through, though. Like Black Mass, this film is made on the strength of its actors. Anthony Hopkins only has about 15 minutes of screen time, but he owns every single minute. Watching these two actors go back and forth, one a seasoned veteran with more than 40 years of acting under his belt, the other a 29-year-old former child actress struggling  to transition to adult roles, is something marvelous to watch, and also draws parallel to the nature of the characters in the film.

Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs have almost an identical setup. Red Dragon follows FBI profiler Will Graham. After being nearly disemboweled after realizing Dr. Lecter’s true nature, the veteran agent is coaxed out of retirement by Crawford to hunt “The Tooth Fairy.” He realizes he must go to Dr. Lecter for insight. The primary difference between these two stories comes from the primary difference between the two protagonist. Graham has done this for years and knows how the game is played, whereas Starling has absolutely no experience at the beginning of the story.

Another standout here is Scott Glenn. Glenn’s getting there in age and I haven’t seen him in too much aside from this, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Stick in Daredevil, but I’ve always liked him. He plays a great Jack Crawford. He’s manipulative, but for the right reasons. He wants to get his man and he bends rules to get him, but he also cares about Starling and you never get the sense he would do anything too skeevy. One interesting fact is that, when Glenn was preparing for the role, he consulted with real-life former BAU chief John E. Douglas, one of the very first criminal profilers who has written several books on the subject. Douglas was the model for Crawford’s character, as well as that of Jason Gideon on Criminal Minds. While researching his role, Glenn was given audio tapes of two serial killers raping and murdering a victim in a van. When Glenn asked why on God’s Green Earth Douglas gave him the tapes, Douglas simply said, “You’re in my world now.” Glenn refused to reprise the role because he never wants to be put in that mindset again. He has nightmares and anxiety about it to this day.Dude just wanted to be in a movie, jeeze.

The Silence of the Lambs is the best film of its genre.It is a truly disturbing psychological thriller backed up by truly amazing performances that have since become a part of cinema history. Its sequels sucked, but we can always go back to the original.

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