The Myth & Mystery of “The Silence of the Lambs”

Silence of the Lambs Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs (Orion Pictures)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For February, we’re celebrating acclaimed genre-bender Jonathan Demme. Read the rest of our coverage here.

It’s been nearly 30 years since filmmaker Jonathan Demme made The Silence of the Lambs. Based on Thomas Harris’ terrifying followup to Red Dragon, Silence was originally slated for an entirely different director: Gene Hackman, who was also to play the role of Jack Crawford. Serendipitously, Hackman’s daughter read the book and discouraged her father from trying to get the movie made, and Orion tapped Demme—hot off his quirky hits Something Wild and Married to the Mob—to direct. 

It wasn’t the first adaptation of a Harris work. Red Dragon had already been adapted by Michael Mann as the slick thriller Manhunter, with Brian Cox filling the role of Hannibal Lecter in what amounts to a glorified cameo. While Cox is a very fine actor, his portrayal of Lecter didn’t quite stick the landing. Enter Sir Anthony Hopkins. In what might be the greatest character introduction—certainly the greatest villain introduction—of all time, Hopkins’ Lecter stands perfectly still in the center of a glassed-in cell. There are no bars for this criminal. Lecter is instead taunted with the illusion of freedom, no doubt at the behest of his petty, ambitious warden, the deliciously revolting Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald). The role would earn Hopkins his first of four Oscar nominations, and remains his only win for Best Actor. The performance looms so large, you forget he shares only four scenes with Jodie Foster’s agent-in-training, Clarice Starling. 

At its core, The Silence of the Lambs can be viewed as an allegory, a modern twist on Hades and Persephone, an ode to desire and temptation. From the opening shots we see Starling running the Quantico obstacle course by herself, marking her as uniquely solitary for someone who wants so badly to be part of the larger whole, in this case the FBI. This shorthand character work runs through Ted Tally’s brilliant screenplay, giving us everything we need to know about a character in first glances. We can see Jack Crawford’s ambition and obsession before Scott Glenn ever steps into his cluttered office, and with a few charcoal sketches of the Duomo in Florence we know that Hannibal Lecter is highly intelligent, cultured, and creative and—like Starling—solitary. 

At its core, The Silence of the Lambs can be viewed as an allegory, a modern twist on Hades and Persephone, an ode to desire and temptation.

Her solitude establishes itself not just in her interactions (or lack thereof) with others but in the way that those interactions are framed. In elevators, in helicopters, in funeral parlors, in cars, Starling stays apart from her companions, something which enhances the feeling that she (and the audience with her) are the Other. We only see her engaged in semi-personal conversations with a handful of people, and in those exchanges Starling is still, as always, focused on work.

Clarice only looks directly into the camera twice through the whole movie: when she’s speaking to classmate and roommate Ardelia (Kasi Lemmons) about the Buffalo Bill casefile, and again when she’s reliving her childhood trauma for Lecter. Both intense and important moments, it’s the closest she comes to having an actual conversation with anyone. Demme and Tally’s shorthand works to demonstrate her solitude as well; at Starling’s graduation ceremony, she socializes with only three people, all of whom she has come to know due to work: Ardelia, and Pilcher and Rodan, the two entomologists whom she met during the course of the Buffalo Bill case. 

“We begin by coveting what we see every day,” Lecter tells Starling. “Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice?” She does. And so do we, courtesy of Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, Demme’s long-time collaborator. Their use of over-the-shoulder shots puts the viewer right in line with Starling’s moving point-of-view. We experience the close-talkers, the prolonged stares, and Lecter’s unblinking intensity in the same way that Starling does, helping us to identify with her. It would be easy to make Starling the object of the audience’s gaze, to set the viewer back from the action as observers, but Demme and Fujimoto don’t offer that out. When Lecter or Crawford or even Pilcher (sweet Pilcher) speak to Starling, they speak to us, and there’s nowhere to look except right back at them. It is voyeurism at its most relentless. 

Coveting is what Silence is about at its core…taut desire and the lurid appeal of the truly repellent. The serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) covets change above all else. He needs to be something else. His desire for the feminine is both at odds with and perhaps owing to a hatred of women. The women he captures aren’t even people to him—the repetition of “it” as a pronoun, the mocking screams in answer to his captive’s terror all drive this home. In the final, terrifying scene we once again get to experience the naked voyeurism of Buffalo Bill watching Starling fumble in the dark labyrinth of his basement. It is a place birthed out of nightmares, cluttered with arcane detritus and horrifying trophies; a place so large and confusing it seems to defy the laws of physics (enough cannot be said of Kristi Zea‘s production design in this film). Starling shivers, panting in terror, swinging her gun wildly. Bill reaches for her, yearning, and it’s that compulsive act that seals his fate. 

Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs (Orion Pictures)

Ambition, compulsion, and need are the thread that runs through this movie, stitching all of the characters together like paper dolls. Jack Crawford wants the professional notoriety of having put away yet another infamous killer. Lecter covets freedom—and the chance to plumb the depths of Clarice Starling’s psyche—while Starling wants nothing more than to be taken seriously. She’s a pawn being passed between Crawford and Lecter, somewhat subverting feminist messaging of having a female cadet be the one that ultimately catches a killer of women. 

Not to say the film hasn’t drawn it’s share of criticisms. It faced backlash for its portrayal of Buffalo Bill as a transsexual. Demme brought more nuance to the issue than Harris’ source material provided, but in 1991 gay and trans representation in film was sparse and seldom positive. Those objections are not so easily dismissed by the 2020 viewer as they might have been in 1991, and while Demme did try to subvert the trans-as-criminal stereotypes (Starling dismisses the notion that Buffalo Bill is trans, objecting that trans people are nonviolent. Lecter later confirms that Bill isn’t trans, but is adopting that identity in his quest for self) it is entirely reasonable for the community to object on the grounds that more could have been done. Because trans men and women are statistically at a higher risk of death by violence, it’s a dicey proposition to show them in such a malevolent light. 

If there is a flaw to be had in Demme’s superlative direction, it would be that the character’s sexuality and identity were so ambiguous. In spite of that (or for some, because of that) The Silence of the Lambs has entered the popular consciousness on a level that few movies manage. Why has it stuck with us all these years? While it boasts a few moments of shocking gore, Demme wisely chose to limit the on-screen violence. What’s left is what we’re able to imagine…the photo of the nurse Chilton shows Starling, or Buffalo Bill cutting his patterns, our minds rush to fill that empty space, to make it ours. Even if you haven’t seen it, you probably feel like you have.

This might be why subsequent films from Thomas Harris’ series have fallen short of the mark. Both Hannibal and the prequel Red Dragon never enjoyed the success The Silence of the Lambs saw. Even the character of Hannibal Lecter seemed diminished in other films, though Anthony Hopkins returned for both movies. For audiences, Silence seems to still be the perfect distillation of the source material, and a near-perfect mix of horror and mystery. Imitation doesn’t always feel like flattery if the original loses its luster as a result, but luckily, The Silence of the Lambs has not.

Silence of the Lambs Trailer:

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