Have The Lambs Stopped Screaming? ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ at 30

❉ Initially released in the UK at the end of May 1991, this movie remains a fascinating, brilliantly made piece of work.

“The film goes out of its way to make the audience see the world through Starling’s heroic eyes, anchored by Foster’s flawless, understated performance… Her bravery, ability, and integrity are never really in question for the viewer, with Foster’s nuanced, deceptively subtle work ensuring the character remains believable and sympathetic, without simply recreating macho stereotypes in female form.”

Despite fairly modest expectations, director Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs was a runaway success at the box office. It won five OSCARs (almost unheard of for a ‘horror’ movie), and turned the character of Dr Hannibal Lecter into a phenomenon. Such is the familiarity of Anthony Hopkins’ grandstanding performance as Lecter, it sometimes unfairly eclipses the more subtle complexities of the film itself in the popular imagination. Initially released in the UK 30 years ago at the end of May 1991, it remains a fascinating and brilliantly made piece of work.

Adapted from Thomas Harris’ 1988 bestseller, its story follows rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as she consults incarcerated psychopath Lecter to help her catch woman-skinning serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). The film’s popularity was matched by its controversies; the renowned feminist Betty Friedan denounced it as misogynist (Playboy, September 1992), and Bill’s sexuality and violent obsession with changing gender drew protest from many in the LGBT community.

Silence of the Lambs – 1991 – Original Movie Poster (source: Art of the Movies)

While it remains a matter of taste as to whether such grim material is ever suitable for casual entertainment, it cannot be said that Silence endorses Bill’s horrendous crimes (though its attitude to Lecter is certainly more ambivalent at times). Instead, the film goes out of its way to make the audience see the world through Starling’s heroic eyes, anchored by Foster’s flawless, understated performance. She is deliberately situated in a male-dominated world, encapsulated by the early shot of the character in an elevator surrounded by taller male FBI recruits, literally looking down on her.

Starling’s point of view is repeatedly emphasised as she navigates the inappropriate advances of Dr Chilton (Anthony Heald), the prejudice of a small-town sheriff’s department, and even reprimands her superior Jack Crawford (a rock-solid Scott Glenn) for undermining her in a delicate situation. The audience is irresistibly drawn into her world by Demme’s use of tightly-framed close-ups, alternating between characters directly confronting the camera, and watchful shots capturing Starling’s responses. Her bravery, ability, and integrity are never really in question for the viewer, with Foster’s nuanced, deceptively subtle work ensuring the character remains believable and sympathetic, without simply recreating macho stereotypes in female form.

Similarly, the kidnapped Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith) is not portrayed as a helpless victim, despite her dire situation, and her mother Senator Martin (Diane Baker) is presented as intelligent and strong, refusing to rise to Lecter’s grotesque jibes. The film carefully avoids sexualising Bill’s victims, presenting them as people rather than scantily-clad dolls, forcing us to empathise with them, even on the mortuary table. The sombre atmosphere (aided by Howard Shore’s brooding score), along with sensitively judged depictions of their bereft loved ones, ensures they remain more than just expendable bodies.

The portrayal of Buffalo Bill is unfortunately less well-rounded, remaining open to charges of transphobia (despite sterling work from Levine, portraying a monster without losing a sense of horribly damaged humanity). While Ted Tally’s script does attempt to differentiate him from other transgender people (who are clumsily described as “very passive”), it is certainly fair to see the film as part of a general trend in mainstream cinema to treat such characters with either horror or ridicule. To his credit Demme did take the criticism from the LGBT community seriously, trying to make amends with his next film, 1993’s Philadelphia (although that movie arguably has issues of its own, despite its sincere intentions).

In spite of the dark subject matter, Demme’s eye for detail and his fondness for idiosyncratic, quirky characters shine through. Regular collaborators including Tracey Walter, Charles Napier, co-producer Kenneth Utt, and the legendary Roger Corman (who produced the director’s earliest films) crop up in small parts, adding warmth and personality beyond their generic supporting roles. Although the film cemented Lecter’s place as a perverse pop culture icon, its sympathies remain largely with the victims of the two murderers (with the exception of Dr Chilton). Lecter’s electrifying escape sequence, which almost stands as a short film in its own right, emphasises the callous, barbaric psychopath he is beneath the sinister charm, with his victims doing nothing to deserve their atrocious fates.

Of course, no essay on this film can avoid discussing Hopkins’ Lecter, so large does his influence loom. Hopkins is more restrained than you may remember, far less broad and florid than in the grand guignol sequel and prequel. While it remains intriguing to imagine how Brian Cox’s more understated interpretation of the character from the earlier Manhunter (1986) might have worked in this setting, there is no denying the impact of Hopkins’ unnerving if somewhat scenery-chewing turn. However, it seems a shame to me that Lecter gets the final word at the film’s conclusion. As entertaining as it is, it seems a misstep considering the more balanced, serious tone established previously.

Bolstered by superb performances, moody cinematography by the great Tak Fujimoto, a tight screenplay by Tally, and assured direction from Demme, The Silence Of The Lambs has generally weathered thirty years extremely well. If you have understandably lost sight of the original in the flood of inferior follow-ups and imitators over the intervening years, it is well worth revisiting.


❉ ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991) was released on Blu-Ray in 2009 by MGM Home Entertainment as a Standard Edition Blu-ray, RRP £7.99. BBFC Cert 15. Approx. running minutes 118m.

❉ Johnny Restall writes and draws inky pictures. You can find him on Twitter @johnnyrestall.

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