On the 5th June, we’re holding a free crime classic cinema screening to celebrate the launch of the videogame Murdered: Soul Suspect. You can find out details of the screening, and how you can vote for the film you most want to see, here.
For now, here’s our look back at the first of the films you can choose from: The Silence Of The Lambs.
NB: This article contains spoilers.
“I ate his liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti”.
If anything, The Silence Of The Lambs became a victim of its own success in the 1990s.
Unlike Manhunter – Michael Mann’s stunning 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris’ previous novel, Red Dragon – Silence Of The Lambs was released to immediate acclaim. Where Manhunter failed financially (largely due to poor marketing and distribution), Silence Of The Lambs soared at the box office. Where Manhunter gradually acquired a cult following and slowly seeped into movie fans’ subconscious, Silence Of The Lambs became a popular phenomenon, with references and parodies appearing on our televisions within months of release. That Chianti quote above became one of several lines from the film quoted constantly throughout the rest of the 1990s.
It’s a testament to The Silence Of The Lambs’ storytelling, therefore, that its popularity has done little to diminish its strength. Chunks of its script and the composition of entire scenes may be familiar to moviegoers of a certain age, yet Jonathan Demme’s film remains as watchable as it ever was.
Silence Of The Lambs’ plot is one seen in a legion serial killer thrillers since. There’s a murderer at large in America’s Midwest, dubbed Buffalo Bill because of his nasty habit of cutting the skin from his female victims. As a wider search is undertaken, trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is assigned to interview Doctor Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a former psychiatrist imprisoned for his equally nasty habit of devouring his own patients. Starling’s boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) has a hunch that Lecter’s fractured mind might be able to cast some insight into Buffalo Bill’s way of thinking; in fact, Lecter has more than a passing connection to the rampaging serial killer, something he only gradually reveals to the wide-eyed Clarice Starling.
Where Michael Mann’s Manhunter was a clean police procedural drama which disturbed through its sheer spooky sterility, director Jonathan Demme takes a grubbier, perhaps even more dreamlike approach to the same genre. A sense of horror and black malaise remains present throughout his film, which, like Lecter himself, is fond of playing subtle little games with its viewers.
Take, for example, the opening sequence, where we meet Starling for the first time. At first, we appear to be looking at a woman running for her life through the woods. It’s only after a minute or so that we realise we aren’t watching a would-be victim, but a tough agent in training in a woodland obstacle course. Demme takes a similar approach through the rest of the film, building up a sense of foreboding and dread but only occasionally letting us off the hook with relatively subtle jabs of horror: a grim discovery in a garage, perhaps, or a pathologist’s removal of a moth’s pupa from a corpse’s mouth.
The Silence Of The Lambs‘ true power lies in the way Demme, along with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, stages his scenes of dialogue. Anthony Hopkins was rightly praised for his predatory performance as an unblinking version of Lecter, but it’s the way his scenes with Jodie Foster are composed that makes them so endlessly watchable. Characters repeatedly speak directly into the camera, as though addressing not just the other person in the scene, but also the audience. It’s a technique Demme employs in his other films, but never as effectively as here: by forcing us to study the characters’ faces, we can see at a glance who is dominating whom in any given moment.
Starling’s face is full of uncertainty, yet unmistakeably humane, too. We can’t help but contrast this with Hannibal Lecter’s gaze: it is empty, the stare of a lizard. Each scene in The Silence Of The Lambs is about the power interplays between people: between Lecter and Starling, between Starling and the largely male FBI agents around her, and between Buffalo Bill and his unsuspecting victims.
It’s worth pausing here to praise a vital part of Silence Of The Lambs’ success that is easily overlooked: Ted Levine’s performance as the murderer. Levine brings a feral, almost indescribable eeriness to the part, making the few scenes he has just as terrifying as those filled by the overbearing presence of the more urbane Hannibal Lecter. There’s a late moment where Starling meets Buffalo Bill for the first time, and the interplay between Levine – bristling, smirking, his mood almost impossible to read – and Foster – her eyes widening as her suspicion turns to terrifying realisation – is a masterpiece of suspense and physical acting.
There are one or two flashes of violence and genuine terror in The Silence Of The Lambs, but Demme’s greatest achievement, surely, is how much fear and loathing he can draw from having two people in a room sit or stand opposite one another and talk. It’s this underlying simplicity which, despite all the years of quotable lines and familiar moments, makes The Silence Of The Lambs still so perennially mesmerising.
We’ll be looking back at the other crime classics you can vote for – Minority Report, Silence Of The Lambs – over the next few days.