Talk about staying power — Jonathan Demme’s riveting, ultimately humanistic horror thriller raked in a full house of Oscars and is still scaring new viewers. Even those that chose to avoid it know what it’s all about. My review bows to the film’s superiority and remarks on some of its finer points of cinematic splendor.
The Silence of the Lambs
The Criterion Collection 13
1991 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 118 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date February 13, 2018 / 39.95
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith, Tracey Walter, Kenneth Utt, Paul Lazar, Adelle Lutz, Obba Babatundé Diane Baker, Roger Corman, Ron Vawter, Charles Napier, Chris Isaak, George Romero, Kasi Lemmons, Lauren Roselli.
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Film Editor: Craig McKay
Original Music: Howard Shore
Written by Ted Tally from the novel by Thomas Harris
Produced by Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt
Directed by Jonathan Demme
“I’ve got you … under my skin / I’ve got you … deep in the heart of me.”There’s no need to heap added praise onto Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, as a full quarter century later it’s still acknowledged as a superb thriller, undiminished by time. Its creepy atmosphere and shuddery frights are generated not by outrageous gore or shocking sights, but by the utter dread of same. The last fully intelligent, non-exploitation horror picture had been 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, a similar class act that approached the unthinkable with a full range of compassion. Tomas Harris’ horrid story of clinical serial killers encompasses all manner of icky realities, but in the end has the mercy to see modern terror in a humanist light. The leering arch-villain Hannibal Lecter is described at one point as ‘some kind of monster,’ yet he occupies only a few minutes of screen time. The film proper belongs to the feisty but vulnerable Clarice Starling, who comes across as a heroic little bird. She has to face down vicious fiends while working in a professional world that devalues her gender.
In 1991 Lambs offered a convincing look into the darkest corners of the F.B.I.’s studies of serial killers. The show stands out from a morass of (likely) thousands of mostly lazy movies and TV shows in which fearless investigators catch serial killers by ‘getting into their heads.’ Rookie Starling is given the big case because her humorless supervisor Jack Crawford perceives her special qualities. To ferret out an atrocious killer named Buffalo Bill, Starling must interview a man gifted with unnerving powers of intimidation: a psychiatrist who uses his knowledge of human vulnerability like a butcher knife. There’s no bogeyman remotely like him.
Lambs has something to rattle everybody, and seeing it under the right circumstances helps. Since theatrical screenings are unlikely now, I recommend getting up at 2 a.m. and watching it in the dark. The show is so well known that even a partial synopsis feels unnecessary. I’ll take the balance of my ‘review’ to point up some things about Demme’s movie that strike me as especially pertinent, and finish with a personal, wholly tangential experience cutting various promo materials for it. One piece I did for a company called Film Impression is an extra on the disc.
Jonathan Demme never subscribed to the ‘homage’ school of filmmaking frequented by his contemporaries Spielberg and Lucas, and overdone by Brian De Palma. Demme doesn’t copy scenes or effects, but instead reaches into the cinematic underpinnings that made older classics work. In Lambs he gets especially good mileage from a Val Lewton / Mark Robson idea from The Seventh Victim. The film’s key confrontations between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling are direct verbal exchanges, in a dungeon prison with a gothic vibe, and a Fritz Lang– like prisoner cage set up in a courthouse. Alternating close-ups creep ever closer, tight in on Clarice, and so close to Lecter that the screen is filled with his limpid eyes, nose and mouth. These passages are intimate, claustrophobic, and creepy.
It’s the same technical gambit used in The Seventh Victim, in a brilliant trucking shot that slowly creeps up on the face of a suicidal woman (Jean Brooks) as she describes her own Bates-like private hell. Moments like that one work so well in Victim that they completely override the film’s few negative aspects. In Lambs, the partial soliloquies are riveting. It’s the opposite of the dissipation of interest in Apocalypse Now when Marlon Brando uses long pauses to try to add gravity to his ‘heart of darkness’ speeches. Demme’s ‘interviews with the Devil’ hold audiences spellbound with a power seldom seen in modern movies.
Anthony Hopkins’ showcase performance makes Hannibal Lecter a true horror original. Even the police are rattled, and nervously suggest that Lecter might have supernatural powers. Lecter takes on aspects of The Phantom of the Opera (theatricality) and Dracula (intimidating hauteur), combined with the deft moves of an outrageously brazen super-villain. His escapes are as daring as anything performed by Fantomas, and ruthlessly bloody. When at liberty, every move he makes leaves a trail of corpses.
Jodie Foster’s stalwart heroine Clarice is also a career highlight. Foster communicates dogged dedication but also an open mind. She steps bravely into every dark alley and disturbing crime scene. She sometimes errs on the reckless side (“He’ll not come after me!”) yet can muster real fortitude to stare down the penetrating gaze of her imprisoned nemesis. Clarice also has a sense of humor. When preparing to crawl into the totally unknown space of Lecter’s rented storage unit, she bids a nervous farewell to the owner who opened it up for her in the middle of the night: “If . . . heh heh … anything should happen, here’s a number at the bureau you should call.” (para) After that moment of vulnerability, anything she encounters inside is going to be a shocker. She also has to resist Hannibal Lecter’s mocking humor. Lecter is funny in the most wicked way possible; a number of his sardonic, hurtful comments are now classic movie dialogue lines. Clarice tries not to take Lecter’s bait — he jokes not to gain her friendship, but to overpower her, break her down.
Lambs’ scary thrills are not without a social element. To pursue Buffalo Bill, Clarice must enter middle America, both the humble West Virginia back country from which she escaped, and other neglected middle-American places where the American dream is on hold, opportunities are few and hopelessness reigns. We can feel the malaise in Stacy Hubka (Lauren Roselli), a young woman that Clarice interviews. Stacy is one of millions left behind by a bad schooling and lowered expectations. She works in a drugstore and looks lost. Her haircut is as sad as the resignation in her voice. To Stacy, the notion of a serial killer would be just another ‘can’t do nothin’ about it’ problem to place beside unemployment, broken families and blighted lives.
Actress Roselli was a progressive music figure in the late 1980s, when I was unaware that Jonathan Demme frequently gave bits and larger roles to musician friends. He is the director, after all, of Stop Making Sense, and his taste is eclectic. In 1991 I would not have recognized Chris Isaak in a bit part, had it not been pointed out to me. But I was aware that Demme maintained his own stock company of supporting actors, like Ron Yawter and Obba Babatundé. Charles Napier has a nice role, and Roger Corman and George Romero get salient bit parts.
To me, the most brilliant filmic construction in Lambs is a moment of cinematic deception that mocks the standard conventions of ‘race to the rescue scenes. When Clarice is unknowingly closing in on the object of her pursuit, deceptive cross-cutting gives us the idea that Jack Crawford’s F.B.I. cavalry is right behind her. As Clarice is beginning to realize that she’s in a trap, in the villain’s house, parallel editing even makes us think that Crawford’s finger is pushing the doorbell above, and that she is close to being saved. It’s a perverse trick — Crawford is at a different house, the wrong house, half a state away. Clarice is suddenly revealed to be in much deeper jeopardy than we thought. It’s one cinematic ‘cheat’ that to my memory Alfred Hitchcock never tapped, a twist of visual assumptions that heightens the suspense to panic level.
The Silence of the Lambs plays the ‘dread’ card without losing its sense of humanity. All roads seem to lead to bloody death, and we experience the horror of being a potential victim. But it’s not like Psycho or even Peeping Tom. Movies that engage heavily in director-endorsed wicked comedy (Hitchcock) or cinematic-intellectual riddles (Powell). Lambs also doesn’t punish us for empathizing with the characters, as does the wholly abusive The Exorcist. Buffalo Bill’s victim fights like the Dickens to survive, and even turns the tables on him momentarily by threatening to hurt his dog. The victim’s mother, a Senator (star Diane Baker) holds up well under the strain, and even endures her own face-off confrontation with the trussed and gagged Lecter. Clarice’s true-blue devotion to justice is strong enough to prevail, like a wary Dorothy in an annihilating new American Oz. Her vigilant determination is such that even Hannibal is impressed. Lecter all but declares Clarice too precious to kill — a horrifying compliment if there ever was one. This horror picture transcends the genre on multiple levels.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Silence of the Lambs is a stunning encoding of one of the top films of the waning months of Orion Pictures. It’s been out before on Blu-ray, but this transfer duplicates the look I remember from preview screenings — many scenes are appropriately darker than on previous home video presentations. MGM did the transfer at a company called EFILM. I can also hear some of the near-subliminal base ‘tones’ used in the Lecter confrontation scenes. Sub-Lynchian machine noises (the sound of a heating furnace?) were added for psychological effect, or so I was told by Orion’s head of post production. The green smear of Buffalo Bill’s night vision binoculars, with their nervous whine, is another extremely effective sound-visual combination.
Criteron’s extras, offered on a second Blu-ray disc, recycle the best of earlier added-value items, made before Jonathan Demme’s untimely passing. Of immediate interest is an intense commentary with Demme, Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, writer Ted Tally and the F.B.I.’s John Douglas. Deleted scenes and older interviews precede two long-form disc docus, one by Laurent Bouzereau and another by Jeffrey Schwarz. A third more conventional promo for the original theatrical release is missing its text titles; it was produced by Film Impressions and edited by me. A 56-page illustrated insert booklet has more critical input plus essays by Thomas Harris.
The film’s original trailer is here. I favor the extremely efficient original teaser trailer, cut by the fine editor Les Kaye, which may be viewable on older editions of the movie. Les helped refine the trailer style, creating arresting effects with text insert titles, cuts to black, and jarring music punctuation.
Lambs was originally one of Criterion’s earliest DVD offerings (number 13) and has been upgraded more than once on that format. This new Blu-ray is a major release.
I came to the trailer boutique Film Impressions late in 1989 to help craft promos for a massive Orion reel for Showest, an exhibitors’ convention. I was assigned the promo for Lambs. As shooting on the film was just beginning, I thought I’d have to rely on narration and use mostly animation artwork. An artwork of a death’s head moth was commissioned. But Mr. Demme took Showest seriously and spent extra time to help us promote his film. He sent along dailies of the earliest scenes shot. That emboldened my producer Richard Smith to ask for special recordings by Anthony Hopkins, of some of the key lines in the screenplay. Demme instead filmed a custom mastershot for our exclusive use. It made the promo a sensation. It begins with Demme clacking the slate behind a dungeon gate. He says something like, “He’s waitin’ for you,” and the gate opens, allowing the camera to creep down the corridor to Hannibal Lecter’s cell. Hopkins has almost but not quite settled on his final characterization for Lecter. He greets the camera (us) in high style, makes some sick jokes (“Hello exhibitionists — I mean, exhibitors!”) and launches into a spiel in which he eventually invites the audience for dinner, with a cannibalistic grin. The whole promo can be seen (I think) on an earlier disc release; its beginning can be seen in Jeffrey Schwarz’s long-form making-of docu, on this disc.
I also had a number of rewarding telephone calls with producer Edward Saxon. Frankly, most filmmakers routinely insult the lowly advertising producers and editors trying to promote their movies, but Saxon and Demme embraced us as legit allies and collaborators from the start. Saxon called to ask where I got the needle-drop music I found for the Lambs promo. He said that Demme loved it and thought I ‘got’ what his movie was about — another unexpected boost. It was a quiet cue from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Sisters. To my surprise, Howard Shore’s final main music theme sounds very much like the Herrmann cue I chose. There I go again . . . film fans working on the ‘fringe of the fringe’ of important movies will go to any length to associate themselves with greatness.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Silence of the Lambs
Supplements: Audio commentary from 1994 featuring director Jonathan Demme, actors Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, screenwriter Ted Tally, and former FBI agent John Douglas; New interview with critic Maitland McDonagh; Thirty-eight minutes of deleted scenes; Four documentaries featuring hours of interviews with cast and crew; Behind-the-scenes featurette; Storyboards; Trailer. Illustrated booklet with an introduction by Foster and an essay by critic Amy Taubin, and (Blu-ray only) pieces from 2000 and 2013 by author Thomas Harris on the origins of the character Hannibal Lecter and a 1991 interview with Demme.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-ray discs in keep case with booklet in card sleeve
Reviewed: February 14, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson