The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Review

by Eleanor Sciolistein

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One of the very few horror films to pick up an academy award, The Silence of the Lambs managed to clinch five, including some of the big boys like Best Actress, Best Actor and indeed Best Picture. Deservedly so.

Released in 1991 Jonathan Demee’s adaptation of Harris’s second Lecter novel is nothing short of a masterpiece. An unsettling but beguiling piece of cinema that reflects the audiences conflicted feelings about its (most famous) antagonist, rated by Empire magazine as no 48 on its list of the 500 greatest films ever made.

As mentioned earlier, the foresightless Dini De Laurentis opted not to be involved in this project (despite still owning the rights to the Lecter character at this point, he allowed the studio to use him for free) and for a while, it seemed that it would be picked up by Hollywood legend Gene Hackman, who apparently intended not only to direct the film but to star as Hannibal Lecter himself if you can imagine that. Sounds like a strange fit? Well, if you thought that would make an odd choice, consider that another actor considered for the role was Sean Connery.  Somehow the idea of the former James Bond talking to “Claweesh” just doesn’t sit right.

Built almost as a developed version of Will Graham’s interactions with Hannibal in Red Dragon, The Silence of Lambs runs with the same dynamic of an FBI agent consulting the homicidal but brilliant Letter for help in catching another serial killer.

In this expansion of that idea, however, the relationship between the agent and the charming but deadly doctor is explored in more detail, with the added dynamic of the seemingly fragile but doggedly determined Starling struggling to overcome the condescension of the male-dominated world into which she has been thrust.

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Demee’s direction works brilliantly to underscore this theme by not only presenting visual metaphors for Starling’s uphill battle for recognition (opening scenes of her literally running uphill anyone?) but by taking Mann’s ‘through the bars’ framing up a gear and employing direct to camera address, combining close-ups or even extreme close-ups, especially of the male characters, with them talking directly into, or just off-camera.

The effect is to magnify and intensify the presence of the male gaze, out of which Starling struggles to escape and which in contrast Buffalo Bill longs for, fantasising about being seen in his true form.

When Hannibal asks Clarice ``Do you not feel eyes moving over your body?” he emphasises what the film's direction has already made the audience feel, direct and lingering stares too close for comfort.  A sense of being observed that makes the skin crawl and proximity that feels uneasy before a word is even spoken.

This is not even to mention the heavy dose of foreshadowing these ‘gazes’ and Starling’s struggle to escape them, lends to her final scene with Buffalo Bill, in which the ability to see and be seen becomes a matter of life and death.

Whilst Jodie Foster’s portrayal of Starling fits perfectly with the image conveyed through the novel and Ted Levine as Jame Gumb aka Buffalo Bill has some fantastically memorable lines, it is unquestionably Hopkins and Hannibal to whom this film belongs.

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A perfect picture of almost reptilian coldness, he is simultaneously charming and repulsive, exploiting Demee’s love of direct to camera-delivery by somehow imbuing his stares with far more menace than the script alone should allow and conveying more evil intent in simple crocodilian smile or a gentle stroke of the finger than a thousand latex horror creatures ever could.

In contrast to Cox’s fast-talking, needling Hannibal, looking for an opening, Hopkins delivers his lines with an over articulated theatricality of diction that coveys even through the shifts in speed, emphasis and volume, the pure relish he takes in already knowing what's in your head and showing only the smallest glimpses of what’s in his.

This slow, teasing out of information as he toys with Clarice is what makes Hannibal such an effectively frightening figure. It is less the sense that the cannibal might escape and eat you, than the idea that he might not need to escape to devour you from the inside out.

Whilst there is no doubt a good deal of violence in the film (as there is in all the entries on this list) much of the actual physicality of the violence in this movie is implied.

For example, when Hannibal beats his way to an escape, we see the aftermath and the spray of blood but we actually witness very few blows land. Furthermore, despite being the film that elevated the world’s most famous cannibal to worldwide fame, we never actually see Hannibal come close to eating anyone (he does bite a guard but this is only seen from the back with the victim's head obscuring the gory details).

Even the story of Lecter swallowing the tongue of an attendant is related by another character rather than explicitly shown (as it is in the sequel Hannibal). In short,  Demee effectively employs that oldest and most impactful of horror movie tricks, by allowing the audience to fill in the more gruesome details for themselves, knowing with almost Lecter like insight, that whatever we conjure in our heads will inevitably be worse than what could be shown on screen.

Read Next: All the Hannibal Movies Ranked Worst to Best