Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Jonathan Demme
1991 • 118 Minutes • 1.85:1 • United States
Color • English • Orion Pictures

Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Ted Levine
Writers:  Ted Tally based on a novel by Thomas Harris
Producers:  Ron Bozman, Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto

Awards and Honors:

Academy Awards
Winner: Best Picture
Winner: Best Actor in a Leading Role - Anthony Hopkins
Winner: Best Actress in a Leading Role - Jodie Foster
Winner: Best Director - Jonathan Demme
Winner: Best Writing, Screenplay based on Material Previously Produced or Published - Ted Tally
Nominated: Best Sound
Nominated: Best Film Editing

American Film Institute
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies — #65
AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills — #5
AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
•  Hannibal Lecter — #1 Villain
•  Clarice Starling — #6 Hero
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes: 
•  "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." — #21
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) — #74

The Essential Films

Golden Globes
Winner: Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama - Jodie Foster
Nominated: Best Motion Picture, Drama
Nominated: Best Director, Motion Picture - Jonathan Demme
Nominated: Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama - Anthony Hopkins
Nominated: Best Screenplay, Motion Picture - Ted Tally

Winner: Best Actor - Anthony Hopkins
Winner: Best Actress - Jodie Foster
Nominated: Best Film
Nominated: Best Screenplay, Adapted - Ted Tally
Nominated: Best Cinematography - Tak Fujimoto
Nominated: Best Direction - Jonathan Demme
Nominated: Best Editing
Nominated: Best Original Music - Howard Shore
Nominated: Best Sound

Director's Guild of America
Winner: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures - Jonathan Demme

National Film Preservation Board
2011 - Added to the National Film Registry for Preservation as a historically significant film

Writers Guild of America
Winner: Best Screenplay based on Material from Another Medium - Ted Tally

- Is it true what they're saying? He's some kinda vampire?
- They don't have a name for what he is.


This is the greatest serial killer movie of all time.  The film has everything: Scares? Check. A great villain? Actually, TWO great villains. Double check. A sympathetic hero? Check. A phenomenal story? Check.  The Silence of the Lambs is so good, it was the first, and so far only horror film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture (three others have been nominated: The Exorcist, Jaws and The Sixth Sense.) Not just that, but it hit a grand slam with awards for Director, Actress (Foster), Actor (Hopkins) and Writing.  Foster stars as Clarice Starling, a fledgling FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer known as "Buffalo Bill." She thinks she can get some information from his former confidant, psychiatrist/cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Lecter spends his sessions with Clarice analyzing her and playing a chess game of wills, meanwhile the clock ticks away on if the feds will over catch up with Bill.  Is he trying to help Clarice? Or does he just enjoy toying with her psyche?  

Few films have managed to grab "The Big 5" nominations at the Academy Awards, and even fewer have actually won all five. Lambs sits in exclusive company with It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  You'd have to be brilliant to accomplish those wins, and Silence is most definitely absolutely brilliant.  Taking a look at it as a whole, there is nothing in this film that does not work. Firstly, the acting.  Obviously you have Hopkins and Foster in the leads, but more on them later. Often overlooked are the exemplary performances from the supporting cast.  Scott Glenn plays the veteran FBI officer that is mentoring Clarice Starling in her first major assignment. Glenn is always solid, but his performance helps ground the film. Anthony Heald, one of the few actors besides Hopkins himself to appear in Lambs, its sequel Hannibal and its prequel Red Dragon, is fantastic as the smarmy Dr. Chilton - the self-serving psychologist that runs the psychiatric institution in which Lecter is imprisoned.  And finally, you can't talk supporting actors without mentioning the menacing Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gump, portrayed by Ted Levine.  Levine is a chameleon. It's hard to believe that this is the same actor that appeared for many seasons on the television show "Monk" as the gruff but loveable Captain Stottlemeyer.  Buffalo Bill is overshadowed by Hopkins' Lecter, but he is a true villain. There is few things more unnerving than "it puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again."

A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

A little piece of knowledge for the next time you are at trivia night... Anthony Hopkins, despite winning an Oscar for Best Leading Actor, was, in fact, only onscreen for a total of 16 minutes of the film's 2 hour running time. Yet his performance was so powerful that it seemed longer. Hopkins' Lecter is a living presence in the film, even though the film's narrative isn't even really about him. After all, the story is about Starling attempting to catch a completely different killer. But Lecter is what everyone remembers because his presence is so strong.  Not only strong, but terrifying.  Hannibal Lecter is universally recognized as one of the greatest screen villains of all time. Hopkins imbues Lecter with an unmatched sinister intelligence that continues to frighten audiences over 20 years later. It's not just that he's a serial killing cannibal, but add to that the fact that he is a brilliant psychoanalyst. There are few shots when he is addressing Clarice that he stares unblinkingly into the camera. This is a nice bit of direction from Demme as well. Lecter isn't just talking to Clarice, he's staring into the soul of the audience as well. He's trying to get under your skin... before he eats it.  Late in the film, when Lecter finally does become a physical threat, the audience is completely sold on the danger he represents. You know exactly what's about to happen when he breaks free from prison and it does not bode well for anyone.  Hannibal Lecter is such an amazing villain and could not have been brought to life by anyone other than Anthony Hopkins.

Well, Clarice - have the lambs stopped screaming?

Jodie Foster scored her second Academy Award for her portrayal of FBI Agent in Training, Clarice
Starling.  Starling is inexperienced and thirsty to prove herself. Not only is she academically intelligent, but as the film progresses, she demonstrates her ability to follow leads and clues and solve puzzles. Yet her desire to prove herself is a mask for her vulnerability. A vulnerability that Lecter is able to spot and exploit for his own pleasure.  Starling is haunted by the death of her father and a traumatic childhood memory involving the slaughter of lambs.  Could her father's death, who was a lawman himself, and the killing of the symbolically innocent lambs have lead her to the path of law enforcement? Is Lecter, recognizing her desire for the father figure that's been missing most of her life, sadistically filling that role?  But her vulnerability does not define her. Foster plays Starling as a vulnerable rookie, but, most importantly, a competent rookie.  In a world with countless male screen heroes, Starling is one of the most exceptional screen heroines.  Her "hero moment" at the end of the film will invoke cheers from any audience member.

Yes or no, Clarice? Poor little Catherine is waiting.

Speaking of the end of the film, it is during the climax that Demme's direction pays off.  Demme masterfully built an atmospher of suspense all through the film. Starling and Lecter's "therapy sessions" as well as Buffalo Bill's abduction of Catherine Martin, played off each other well. You knew Martin is in danger while Lecter analyzed, and yes, mentored, Clarice. The clock is constantly ticking away on when the FBI will catch Gumb.  This culminates when Scott Glenn's Jack Crawford tells Clarice that he and a team of agents are about to take down Gumb. Meanwhile, Clarice is still doing some legwork on the case.  While Gumb is threatening to kill Catherine Martin, a doorbell rings. We cut to the FBI agents ringing a doorbell, waiting to take Bill down. When it rings again, Gumb reaches the door and reveals... Clarice.  At this point the audience fears for Starling's life as she is alone with the killer. Inevitably, when the showdown occurs it's in the basement in complete pitch black. We are able to see Starling through Gumb's night vision goggles. The audience, as Gumb, knows what he plans on doing to her. It is one of the most suspenseful scenes in cinema.  A great climax to a great movie.

 I do wish we could chat longer, but... I'm having an old friend for dinner.

As stated earlier, everything about The Silence of the Lambs works in perfect synchronization.  Demme's expertly crafted suspense combined with Howard Shore's score is the perfect vehicle for Hopkins, Foster, Glenn, Levine and others to deliver Ted Tally's brilliant script.  The Silence of the Lambs is not just essential horror, it's one of the greatest films ever made and should be seen by anyone that appreciates or wishes to craft a perfectly executed story.