The Silence of the Lambs is the last horror movie to make a big impact at the Oscars. It took home the five big awards and has since secured its place in the canon of great cinema. Today marks twenty-five years since its release. Since then, we’ve seen a sub-par sequel, a pair of terrible prequel movies, and a truly incredible prequel TV show. It has spawned innumerable parodies and homages, and its scenes of a captured villain being faced by the hero looking for help or information from a foe much smarter than themselves have been borrowed in recent movies like The Avengers, Skyfall, The Dark Knight, Star Trek Into Darkness and a variety of others looking to capture that same sense of two moral polar opposites playing a game of conversational chess. Some of these copies are good, others fall short, and none of them are even a fraction as good as the four face-to-face conversations that occur between Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lector.
And why is that? A conversation is a conversation, right? You shoot coverage of each person talking and you edit it together. Maybe a subtle music track underneath, a few close-ups. Easy. So why are the conversations between Lector and Starling so enthralling? Why is it that you could stage all of them in a three act play and end up drowning in Tonys? What is the X factor that sets these sides above others?
Thomas Harris’ first two Lector books create a master class in dialogue scenes. The dialogue is eloquent, real, zippy, nice to read in your head, nice to read aloud. It’s like warm milk and caramel. It feels nice and tastes nice. It’s also bordering on very pulpy (which makes it fun as well).
Considering some of his dialogue, Hannibal Lector is one bad casting choice away from being a joke. Play it too small and vicious and the funnier parts of the dialogue become parody, play it too big and flamboyant and the character isn’t scary. Anthony Hopkins tap dances on the line between big and small and every single decision he makes lands like a gold medal winning ice skater. He is charming and terrifying in equal measure. The devil and your nicest college professor all rolled into one.
As good as Hopkins is though, Jodie Foster who gets MVP for this movie. My favourite piece of acting ever is Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood. No matter how many times I see that film I have to remind myself I’m watching a person playing another person, not an oil prospector surrounded by actors being filmed going about his daily life. The same description holds for Foster in Lambs. There is not a wasted blink in her performance. It is all there. She wholeheartedly embodies the character from the ground up. There is no showboating, no look-at-me moment. Her speech about the lamb she wanted to save feels like an honest confession. Like it is a moment from Foster’s own life that she is sharing with us, not something that was written in a book, then adapted to a script, learnt by an actress, and recited on the day.
The scenes of these two actors together are magnetic. The chess game begins the moment they meet and continues from meeting to meeting, each one carving a little off the other as they try and get what they want. Starling wants answers and the chance to prove her worth, Lector simply wants a little piece of Starling herself. Not her physical self, but her memories. Something deep and dark that she keeps to herself, and he wants her to willingly give it to him. The price for knowledge. Each of the conversations is a confessional and self-flagellation. Starling knows that Lector might withhold what he knows or give her nothing but she gives him what he wants anyway because she’s desperate. If she is to make it in the world she inhabits she needs an edge and selling her soul to Hannibal Lector might provide it.
When the writing and acting is this good, you would think Jonathan Demme would just need to point the camera and get out of the way. Wrong. Demme gets in close. He puts the camera directly into the character’s face. They are staring straight at you, straight into your eyes. All except Starling. For most of her straight to camera shots, especially when talking to Lector and her boss, Crawford (Scott Glenn), in early scenes, she is looking slightly off. She does not meet our eyes. We see the world as she sees it. All of these men staring at her, unblinking, waiting for her to fail, scrutinising her, ogling her, like an Orwellian nightmare about a line of Big Brothers. It’s easy to trace the constant motif of Starling being in rooms outnumbered by men, or in crowds of men where their size dwarves her, or just being leered at by men passing her. And when the film hosts conversations between the leads, Demme puts Lector in the centre of the screen, huge, seeing everything, knowing everything, while Starling is a little further back, eyes averted, uncomfortable, trapped. This type of camerawork keeps us squirming with the constantly-surveillanced Starling.
For proof of Demme’s precision, one need only watch Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon. The movie contains similar exchanges between Lector and a detective in which Lector is played by the same actor, the dialogue comes from the same source, and yet, without the confident hand of Demme, the scenes lack any bite.
All of this culminates in a finale in which Starling scrambles around in the dark, a bad man following her and watching her, reaching out to touch her without her consent, and finally deciding to kill her. I had never considered Lambs a feminist movie until my recent re-watch for this article. Here is a woman saving another woman without a male partner or a love interest. The closest thing she gets to a partner is Hannibal Lector, but there is never anything sexual or romantic about their relationship. Each one treats the other as a thing. In Starling’s case Lector is a tool, a means to an end and way to stop Buffalo Bill killing any more women. For Lector, Starling could be seen as a plaything or an experiment. In their first meeting Lector goes from disdain to an almost respect for her. By the end of their meeting he has given her a clue and sent her on the way to catching Buffalo Bill. He never gives her anything outright, just the breadcrumbs that she’ll have to follow to the witch’s house by herself. Perhaps he likes her, perhaps he sees her as a way to pass the time, perhaps he is simply intrigued by her and wants to see how far she’ll get. Other than Hannibal, the men who Clarice encounter treat her like a sex object or are simply confused by this competent woman working for the FBI. The scene were she has to shoo away the deputies from the autopsy using language you would use to get a wild animal off your porch is especially telling.
Age has not diminished this movie one iota. It is still shocking and absorbing. This article focused mostly upon the conversation scenes between Starling and Lector for the simple fact that they are each a segmented masterpiece in a bigger masterpiece, like Picasso painting a picture that contained the sheet music for Beethoven’s Fifth within it. Age, sequels, prequels, and parodies cannot dull the sharp edges of this film, which is still as keen as a razorblade.
At one point, Lector asks Starling is the lambs have stopped screaming yet.
Twenty five years later, they’re still as loud as ever.
Featured Image: Orion Pictures