On Valentine’s Day 1991, The Silence of the Lambs had its premiere in New York. It took several months to reach the other side of the Atlantic and didn’t open in Dublin until May 1991 – a particularly dull, chilly month. It was one of those event movies that everyone says you have to see. As with The Exorcist and Fatal Attraction, it dominated the media for weeks. There were TV panel discussions on the hysteria for this new phenomenon – the serial killer (they were common or garden psychopaths before that.) It was the last film that I missed out on seeing because the cinema was full. With so many multiplexes everywhere, you get in to see whatever film you want now. Having to make a second attempt to join the lengthy queue and get in made it more enjoyable, I found.
The other Hannibal movie from five years earlier, Manhunter, got a boost from the huge success of Silence. It had slipped under the radar pretty much as there were no big names starring in it. People caught up with it in 1991 and a new fanbase for that film emerged. It’s also superb.
I found my seat in the auditorium and the lights went down. I had no idea what I’d let myself in for. I saw Silence in the Savoy, at the time the biggest screen in Dublin. Silence features extreme close-ups of the faces of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as they stare directly into camera at each other but also at the audience. Audiences are used to being voyeurs and watching the actors, not having them stare back. As Lecter unpicks Starling’s psyche, he does the same to the audience. I felt like a baby in a pram with these massive faces looming down at me. I was pressing back into my chair to get away from them. That’s never happened to me with any other movie before or since. On television, with the faces shrunk, it has none of that power (if you ever get the chance to see Silence of the Lambs on the big screen, take it.)
That wintry May in Dublin was significant, as I can’t think of another movie that depicts the ravages of winter so well. The first sound you hear is the clarinet of Howard Shore’s brilliant score. It sounds like birdsong and then you hear it again. It perfectly sets the scene as we see FBI trainee Clarice Starling jogging alone on a deserted assault course with brown Autumn leaves still in evidence. The film later shows what winter does to the soft flesh of a dumped female victim in the mortuary scene.
Unusually, for a film written, produced and directed by men, it has a pro-feminist bent. The males, like Doctor Chilton and Miggs, are all sleazy pervs to a man who only want get into Clarice’s pants (even Hannibal has a go at innuendo until he’s put in his place by Clarice). This is not just a serial killer thriller (although you get your fix of that too). It touched on many important themes that movies in the early 90s just didn’t; gender, sexuality, the relationship between fathers and daughters, even how we judge people based on their height. You got your criminal profiling layer too. Despite Clarice saying that “transsexuals are very passive,” the movie (along with Basic Instinct in 1992) was picketed by LGBT groups. It was a tradition dating back to Psycho to have a “deviant” villain. It’s one reason Silence of the Lambs could never be made today in the form its in right now, which makes it such an honest film. Director Jonathan Demme agreed with the protestors and made the apologetic Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer dying of AIDS. Demme won the Academy Award for Silence as best director but his career since has been patchy to say the least.
You could see the film as a battle for the soul of Clarice Starling between the “good” father figure, her boss Jack Crawford, and the “bad” father figure, Hannibal Lecter. Clarice has to break free of them and her childhood trauma (her policeman father was murdered and the killer never found) and grow up and become a woman in her own right.
The sound design is brilliant; just listen to how the sound grows more menacing as Clarice Starling essentially enters into the bowels of Hell to confront Hannibal Lecter in his plexiglass cell. There are atonal, womb-like noises. It’s got probably the most effective sound design since Alien in 1979 which does a similar job of setting the scene and unnerving the audience.
The rich photography by Demme regular Tak Fujimoto is exemplary, particularly the ending in the basement with no light during Clarice’s fight-to-the-death with the serial killer Buffalo Bill. (Every woman in the audience screamed when Bill reached out to touch Clarice’s hair when she couldn’t see him in the pitch darkness.)
Ted Levine played Buffalo Bill in the movie and he is probably the unsung hero of the whole thing, not even being Oscar-nominated for his terrifying performance while everyone else won Academy Awards.
There are so many great lines of dialogue. Anthony Hopkins had given up on a Hollywood career and moved back to the UK to appear in theatre. Hopkins got a call in his dressing room from his agent saying there was a script called Silence of the Lambs and would he take a look at it. Hopkins thought it was a children’s film based on the title alone. Director Jonathan Demme came to see him and offered him the part because he’d seen him play an intelligent doctor with a heart in The Elephant Man. Even though Anthony Hopkins is only in Silence of the Lambs for around 14 minutes, he dominates the whole thing, even when he’s offscreen. It won him the Oscar and changed his life and career.
Indeed, the film became only the third film after It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to win all five big Oscars – Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Adapted). To date, it is the only horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. That was an incredible achievement at the time and it only grows even more impressive as the years go on.
There have been other Hannibal books and movies (the sequel Hannibal opened on Valentine’s Day 2001, exactly 10 years later. 2001 was appropriate as Hopkins had based the voice of Hannibal on Hal, the computer from Kubrick’s 2001). None of the new material ever really recaptured the greatness of Silence of the Lambs. It is one of the best thrillers ever made with career-bests from all those involved on every level. There are great twists that you don’t see coming. Even that ending, which refuses to tie things up in a neat bow is daring (it so freaked out one couple in America, that they apparently refused to leave the cinema afterwards). It’s got everything you could ask for really. So, this Valentine’s Day, when you get sick of all the predictable rom-coms, put on that magnificent dark Valentine, The Silence of the Lambs, and luxuriate in a masterclass of acting, filmmaking, screenwriting, photography and production, sound and costume design. You will never see its like again.
© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.