How ‘Silence of the Lambs’ used chilling efficiency to make a villain for the ages
Ultimate Movie Year finds the best released films from weekends past to build an all-star lineup of cinema.
“The Silence of the Lambs”
Released Feb. 13, 1991
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Over the Ultimate Movie Year, we’ll encounter some of the greatest screen villains of all time, including Darth Vader, Hans Gruber, Biff Tannen, and Daniel Plainview, but when it comes to minute-by-minute encounters that chill us to the bone, you’re not going to beat Hannibal Lector.
A brilliant psychologist turned serial killer who prefers treating his victims as the entree, Lector was introduced in the novels of Thomas Harris. He made his first film appearance in the 1986 Michael Mann film “Manhunter” and was portrayed by Brian Cox, but director Jonathan Demme made a choice to recast the part when he came on board to adapt the 1988 novel of “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Hannibal is introduced early in the film, after we encounter our hero Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Starling is pulled into a case by the Bureau’s Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), who wants her to interview Lector to consult on their ongoing “Buffalo Bill” serial killer case. After she is assigned, Starling is repeatedly warned by both Crawford, and Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Herald), the director of the facility Lector’s being held at, how dangerous “Hannibal the Cannibal” is. One chilling story details how Lector faked a heart attack to escape the cell and horribly disfigured a nurse, all the while keeping his heartbeat below 80.
Demme brings us into the perspective of Clarice in these moments, letting the camera show her point-of-view as she stands in the middle of this highly secured area filled with guards assigned to supervise only a handful of inmates. One guard, Barney (the great Frankie Faison), tries to reassure her, but Clarice is still petrified as she then walks down the long corridor to Lector’s cell. We can feel and experience Clarice’s fear as Demme keeps the camera with her point-of-view, slowly moving forward down the hallway as the other inmates yell and taunt her from behind their bars. Finally, Clarice and the audience reaches the destination together, as Lector’s illuminated cell comes into view behind a glass wall. Looking distinguished but standing still as a statue with a piercing stare, Lector greets his new visitor.
The build-up and reveal of Lector in this scene is similar to the way we encounter him during most of the next hour. Lector is wholly confined in these moments, either in his cell or strapped to a gurney apparatus during transport, but he is never, ever helpless. He is continually probing the boundaries and personalities of those around him with his genius intellect, using whatever volunteered and sensory information available to him without moving a muscle. Indeed, Hopkins portrays Lector with an eerie stillness, only moving his body with gentleness and grace when the occasion calls for it. Despite his confinement, the performance of Hopkins has Lector masterfully in control of every scene he’s in, a high-status character who everyone is attentive to despite the barriers in place to protect them, like a cobra placed in a lidded wicker basket. You never quite allow yourself to be at ease with the situation, because the snake may always get free.
After her first encounter with Lector left her shaken and holding back tears, Clarice builds a respectful relationship with him. They are playing games of verbal chess, as Clarice encourages Lector to continue offering insight and counsel about the Buffalo Bill case, and Lector probes her about her past and psychological motivations while wondering if she’s good enough to decode the clues he’s already given her. As they go back and forth, one could almost be forgiven, as audience members of allowing Lector to become familiar, no worse than a particularly prickly English professor. As Lector continues to assist in the case, he is moved to a slightly more inviting containment facility, where he can be served two full meals of lamb chops while listening to classical music.
The guards, however, forgot that there was a snake in the basket.
As “The Silence of the Lambs” prepares for its final act, the audience is reminded of the first 10 minutes of the movie, when we were warned how brutal and brilliant Lector can be as he executes his escape plan that mixes horrific efficiency and twisted beauty. Lector’s mix of sadism and intellect terrifies every member of the enforcement called to stage a recovery operation; you can see it in their eyes and the beads of sweat forming on their forehead. The reaction of trained professionals in this situation amplifies the terror we feel about Lector: If this team can’t handle this, what hope do we have? One last scene in the sequence brings us inside the ambulance transporting a guard in critical condition to the hospital, as it slowly dawns on us the guard is actually Lector. He peals off the skinned face of the guard as he rises, and the scene cuts to a dropped payphone at the Academy as Clarice is informed of his escape. The sequence ends perfectly, confirming Lector is free but leaving the rest to our imaginations. The snake is in the wild.
Rather than panic, Clarice relies on her own intelligence, intuition, and deductive reasoning to refocus on the Buffalo Bill case, eventually unlocking the clues that lead to Bill’s final fate. As Lector vanishes, the threat of Bill comes to the forefront of the movie. While Bill doesn’t possess the genius of Lector, his mix of sadism and competency is more than enough threat for Clarice, suddenly thrust into unfamiliar surroundings. But just as her interactions with Lector establish her intelligence, Clarice’s showdown with Bill displays her remarkable courage despite her fear. Just as Hannibal Lector became an iconic movie villain, Clarice Starling marked her own space as one of the great film heroes of either gender. The American Film Institute selected Clairce as the sixth greatest film hero in 2003, while Lector was named the best villain in all of cinema history.
Creating an underdog hero to face the chilling villain is the final key to Lector’s ascent to greatness, as no bad guys are worth their salt without someone to test them. Combined with the significant build-up to his introduction, the compelling plotting from the novel, and the precise and controlled performance by Hopkins, nobody who saw “The Silence of the Lambs” could ever forget Hannibal Lector. For a horror film that was far more grounded than the slasher pictures of the era, that’s no small feat, and Hopkins was only onscreen for 16 minutes.
“The Silence of the Lambs” was a hit with audiences upon its 1991 release, but even more impressive, it became only the third film to win the top five categories of the Academy Awards with Best Picture, Best Director for Demme, Best Actor for Hopkins, Best Actress for Foster, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Ted Tally. It also made the list of the AFI’s Top 100 films of all time and is often cited on countless other film lists.
The film’s legacy is more significant than Lector, as Demme spearheaded a project that produced a perfect cinematic horror-thriller that looked into the depravity of the soul, but also, spotlighted the wisdom, perseverance, and hope of its hero. It excels in every regard you can think of, but even with that said, the villain is a cut above.
The Weekend: Sometimes, you compile a list of films that saw release on any given weekend, and there’s occasionally one that immediately vaults to the top of the list without any further consideration. “The Silence of the Lambs” is one of those movies, a first-ballot Hall of Fame flick (if there was such an institution) that has earned every bit of praise and acclaim it has received. As I mentioned, it’s one of the only movies to sweep the top five Academy Awards. Its earned scores in the high 90s from both critics and audiences from Rotten Tomatoes. It’s in the top 100 all-time film lists of both AFI and the Internet Movie Database. This is a movie that’s got the stats to back up the praise.
So everything else is looking for a second-place finish, at best, but there are some strong choices to consider for the runner-up spot. First up is 1931’s “Dracula,” the horror classic starring Bela Lugosi. The atmospheric gothic nightmare became a beloved adaptation of the Bram Stroker novel, though not the first in film (Check out 1922’s “Nosferatu” by F.W. Murnau for a terrific silent version visualized with German expressionism). “Dracula” became a cornerstone of Universal Studios’ monster films, and Lugosi’s master vampire became the visual icon of the character in popular culture for decades. Plus, all things considered, this is a stealth but brilliant choice for Valentine’s Day films.
Speaking of romance, the Howard Hawks comedy “Bringing Up Baby” debuted this week in 1938. The film stars two of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors, Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, as they verbally spar and confound each other while caring for a pet tiger. If you ever wanted to explore the classics of the era and how to define what a movie star is, be sure to put “Bringing Up Baby” in the queue.
Moving into the 80s, multiplexes took over the industry, and teenagers took over the multiplexes with movies like 1985’s “The Breakfast Club.” Writer/Director John Hughes was involved in hit after hit, including “Mr. Mom,” “Vacation,” and “Sixteen Candles,” but “The Breakfast Club” is his magnum opus that combines drama, romance, comedy, and of course, teens. Specifically, five teens that represented the various cultures of the era: the jock, the princess, the geek, the rebel, and the weirdo as they are forced to serve detention together on a Saturday and find mutual understanding with one another. It’s one of the defining movies of the era, and a strong back up pick.
Decades later, another popular and era-defining movie broke both records and boundaries. By the time 2018 rolled around, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had spent most of the last decade dominating the box office, but a mid-February release for one of its films was unusual. There was no need for worry, as Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” became a massive, worldwide hit and was acclaimed as one of the best superhero films ever. Notable for its nearly all-black cast and crew, “Black Panther” was also the first superhero movie to earn a Best Picture nomination in the genre. Slightly less successful than “Black Panther” (but still, incredibly successful) was 2017’s “Deadpool,” as Ryan Reynolds suited up as Merc with a Mouth.
But if the second place were up to me, I think I’d go with “Groundhog Day,” the Ivan Reitman comedy with Bill Murray that premiered at this time in 1992. A story about a man stuck in a time loop where he relives the same day endlessly, Murray manages to milk all the comedy and pathos out of the incredible premise. While it’s a little weird that the movie came out two weeks after the holiday in which it’s named after, there’s no disputing that “Groundhog Day” has a reputation that continues to improve with each replay. It would have been my pick for the week if it wasn’t for Reitman and Murray also behind the summer hit, “Ghostbusters,” and its competition of one of the greatest films of all time.
Director Bob Fosse and star Liza Minnelli earned Academy Awards for their work in 1972’s “Cabaret,” bowing here back in 1972. More than a decade later, another music found more success in the hearts of its audience as Kevin Bacon went “Footloose” in 1984.
As the 80s were coming to a close, two teenage boys were forced to travel through time to save all of history in 1989’s “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” The comedy became a cult favorite of the era and featured a young Keanu Reeves playing a defining role that took him a few years to shake off. And in interesting franchise trivia, the boys return in the 1992 sequel “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” in which they play Death for their lives, an element that pays homage to Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” which debuted in Bergman’s home country of Sweden this weekend in 1957. Whoa.
Another movie star cemented his spot in the business in 1996, as “Happy Gilmore” with Adam Sandler hit theaters. Fresh off the success of “Billy Madison” the year before, Sandler proved his worth at the box office with another hit movie, building a loyal fan base that would keep him going to the present day.
Other notable films of the weekend: The legendary director of classic Hollywood Cecil B. DeMille helmed his first picture with 1914’s “The Squaw Man;” more Sandler comedies as he romances Drew Barrymore in both 1998’s “The Wedding Singer” and 2004’s “50 First Dates;” the debuts of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Kingsman: The Secret Service” franchises in 2015, along with Taika Waititi’s vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows.”
Next Week: “Get Out”