Monday, July 3, 2017


(February 1991, U.S.)

I swear to you right now, I cannot make up this kind of coincidence! As I start to write this post for Jonathan Demme's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, "American Girl" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is playing on my favorite classic rock radio station. If you know the film well enough, then you the know the bizarre nature of that particular song and actress Brooke Smith and...wait, the song just ended.

Michael Mann's MANHUNTER (1986) was one of my favorite thrillers of the 1980s and it still remains one of my favorite crime thrillers of all time. Yet I hadn't read the original book by Thomas Harris, RED DRAGON, nor was I aware that he wrote a sequel two years after the film that dove a whole lot deeper in the twisted mind and character of Hannibal Lecter, whom had only been mildly touched upon by actor Brian Cox. So when THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was released in 1991 (Valentine's Day, no less), the movie poster with the moth over the woman's mouth gave me no clue as to the story, so I dismissed it with little interest. Then my college roommate at the time caught me up on things and suddenly I had to see what the next chapter in Thomas Harris' saga was. As it turned out, I got to see the new film at an advance preview that followed DANCES WITH WOLVES. That's quite a long afternoon at the movies; a being a double feature from Orion Pictures (now defunct), as well as what would turn out to be two Best Picture Oscar winners in a row.

Any remnants of the film MANHUNTER are gone now. All actors have been replaced (except for Frankie Faison, though he played a different character in MANHUNTER; not Barney). Our hero is now young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) whose training at the FBI Academy is interrupted by her superior Jack Crawford (played by Scott Glenn) who assigns her to interview Hannibal Lecter, whom we now learn in this film is also a cannibal, as well as psychiatrist-turned-serial killer (MANHUNTER made no reference to his cannibalism). She hopes that his insight will help the FBI capture a serial killer on the loose known as "Buffalo Bill", who murders women by shooting them and then skinning their corpses. Lecter (as played by Hopkins) is not only considered criminally insane, but also dangerous enough to be kept behind a wall of solid plastic. But he's also brilliant. Although he grows impatient at Starling's cheap attempt to "dissect" his mind, he seems to like her, nonetheless. He agrees to help her catch the killer, but only at the price of her providing him with personal insights into her own mind and life. The film bases its ongoing process of procedure and "cat and mouse" tactics on the relationship of quid pro quo trust that develops between Starling and Lecter (bizarre, though it may seem).

As all of this is taking place, "Buffalo Bill" has just scored his latest victim; a young girl named Catherine Martin (played by Brooke Smith who just loves that Tom Petty song!) who's actually stupid enough to get inside a stranger's van because she has too good a heart to ignore what appears to be his painful incapacity. Turns out, she's not just any girl, but rather the daughter of a U.S. Senator, though her abductor has no idea of this. To him, she's just another woman of bodily weight who will ultimately serve his twisted agenda of creating a "woman suit" out of real women's skin in order to satisfy his sick transgender issues. "Buffalo Bill", actor Ted Levine is about as terrifying as we might expect a character of this sort. One of the creepiest moments in the film, in my opinion, is when he's looking down and Catherine in the well and insisting that she rub her skin with the lotion he's provided her. The combination of the calm and creepy effeminate tone in his voice as he says, "It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.", is simply chilling!

Even as Starling gets closer and closer to solving the case through Lecter's insights and her own talent, in the end, it's really just blind luck that she happens to come across "Buffalo Bill's" (his real name Jame Gumb) house while pursuing a series of interviews in Illinois. She's quietly tipped off when she discovers a sphinx moth flying around his house, which was one of the clues we learned about earlier in the film as a direct clue to the killer. After assuring Catherine that she's now safe, we experience the fear and horror of knowing that she's now pursued by the killer in total darkness as we view his point of vision through night-vision goggles. Still, even the most clever and diabolical of serial killers are supposed to slip up somehow (at least, that's how it is in the movies) and Gumb manages to do that by cocking his revolver only inches away from Starling's head. The climax is a visual thrill as the camera goes to slow motion and Starlings reacts in time to fire all of her rounds and put the killer down. Starling has saved the day, but we're left with the thought that earlier on, the great Hannibal Lecter made a violent escape to freedom (including wearing a bloody skin mask of his own in order to get out of the building - geez!). Am I crazy, or do we actually feel a bizarre sense of joy in knowing that this lunatic has escaped his captors? Hannibal is so damn charming and seductive, maybe he's just one of those creatures that's never meant to be kept locked up in a cage. Even ten years later, in the Ridley Scott sequel HANNIBAL (2001), the infamous character was still on the run (minus a hand). That little plot twist hasn't been resolved since.

Now let me discuss Anthony Hopkins for a bit now. He's a brilliant actor who, believe it or not, had many noteworthy roles long before Hannibal Lecter, including David Lynch's THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) and two films by Richard Attenborough, A BRIDGE TOO FAR and MAGIC. Still, it was the mighty cannibal that put him over the top with the public and the media, and even won him the Oscar for Best Actor of 1991. Did he really deserve it, though? Yes, he was brilliant as a complete psychopath, but there are times when I felt his performance was just a bit over the top, if not comically-cartoonish. I mean, really, the whole eating his liver with the fava beans and the nice Chianti, followed by the lip sucking...wasn't that just a bit much? Yes, we know you're crazy, Hannibal, but you hardly need to act like some Looney Tunes character to prove it. Perhaps this is why I was so taken in by Brian Cox's performance in the same role in MANHUNTER. There was a silent-but-deadly subtlety to his personality that spoke huge amounts of insanity that was not only plausible to the audience, but apparently enough to freak out William Peterson as Will Graham. I suppose it's all comes back to that age-old saying of "less is more".

Still, as a combination psychological crime thriller and straight-up horror film, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS doesn't disappoint. The film's terrifying qualities are further brought to life by excellent performances all around. As Starling, and perhaps even a poster girl for the feminist movement as a woman trying to make it in a man's FBI world, Jodie Foster delivers a strong sense of innocence and naiveté that is inevitably transformed into a much tougher role of self-survival when she's ultimately challenged by not only the monster she's after, but the monster she also comes to depend upon. That's some pretty deep stuff in a world of relationships between a vast array of traditional and unconventional personalities. Only from the mind of someone like Thomas Harris, I suppose. But I do wish the man would write something else having nothing to do with Hannibal Lecter. His only other book was his first, BLACK SUNDAY, which went on to become my favorite thriller of all time in 1977.

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1991. In my humble opinion, it should have been THE PRINCE OF TIDES (that one was for you Babs!).

Favorite line or dialogue:

Hannibal Lecter (to Clarice Starling): "You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition's given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you've tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? You know how quickly the boys found you...all those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars...while you could only dream of getting out...getting anywhere...getting all the way to the FBI."

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