Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is an adaptation of Thomas Harris’s 1988 novel of the same name. It won all five of the top Academy Award categories, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Even more importantly to my list, Silence is one of the few horror films to gain some high-brow recognition: it is the first and only (widely-considered) horror film to win the Best Picture Oscar, and was only the third horror film to even be nominated for the award (following The Exorcist in 1973 and Jaws in 1975). Additionally, according to the film’s Wikipedia page, it has been “considered ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically’ significant by the US Library of Congress and was selected to be preserved in the National Film Registry in 2011.” This success must have been surprising for all involved at the time since, according to Silence‘s IMDB page, “the film was briefly considered for a direct-to-video release as studio executives felt that the film’s subject matter was too distasteful to be marketed to a mass audience.” Despite this initial hesitance, it was released on Valentine’s Day (amazing) and was #1 at the box office for five straight weeks, allowing it to become the fourth highest grossing film of 1991.
A number of real-life serial killers clearly had influence on the film. Perhaps the most well-known of these connections is the one held between Jame Gumb, aka “Buffalo” Bill (Ted Levine) and Ed Gein, who also inspired Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Although Gein only committed two official murders and therefore doesn’t fit the definition of a serial killer (a person who has committed three or more homicides), his crimes have deeply influenced the American gothic imagination due to his use of human corpses (most of which were dug up from the graveyard). Gein would use corpse skins to produce home decor and clothing, like a woman face mask. Similarly, Buffalo Bill uses the skins of his victims to create a female suit. IMDB also notes Bill’s connections to Ted Bundy (Bill wears a fake cast on his leg in order to lure a female victim under the guise of helping him load a couch onto his truck, a tactic similar to one used by Bundy; Also, Lecter’s assistance to track down Bill is reminiscent of Bundy’s role in the capture of the Green River Killer), and Gary Heidnick, “who kept women he kidnapped in a pit in his basement.”
The Silence of the Lambs tells the story of a young FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who desires to work for the FBI’s famous Behavioral Science Unit upon graduation. Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the head of the BSU, asks Starling to visit Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer imprisoned in maximum security. Crawford tells Starling that her mission is to get Lecter to complete a questionnaire, however, the real assignment, which Starling eventually discovers, is to get Lecter to help them track down an active serial killer, nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” by the media, who has so far killed five female victims in the eastern US. Eventually, a sixth victim is discovered (with a clue located in her throat- the chrysalis of the rare Death’s-head Hawkmoth), while a potential seventh victim, the daughter of a US Senator, goes missing. Lecter is very cryptic in his help, often speaking in riddles or vague statements. Unfortunately, Lecter eventually escapes his special cell in a Tennessee courthouse by wearing the face of a guard he killed. Using the notes Lecter handed to her during their last visit, Starling is able to finally locate Buffalo Bill, but she is without backup. After a show-down with Bill in complete darkness (he wears night-vision goggles), Starling is able to hear Bill’s revolver just in time to turn around and shoot him dead. The film ends at the FBI Academy graduation party, where Starling receives a phone call from Lecter, who had escaped to the Bahamas. After telling her that he has no plans to pursue her (“the world is a more interesting place with you in it”) he hangs up the pay phone and disappears into the village streets.
What’s up with that?
- The first thing I noticed during this re-watch was the continued focus on sight and the gaze of the voyeur. Pretty much every single character has at least one scene where they speak and/or look directly into the camera. This creates a constant sense for the viewer that he or she is being gazed at just as he or she is gazing at the film. It’s definitely unsettling and adds to the overall tone of the film. It also allows the viewer to occupy the same physical space as a number of different characters, causing scenes like the ones between Clarice and Lecter, and Clarice and Bill to be especially tense. Below are a collection of just a few of these sorts of shots:
This idea of occupying the same space as the character within the film gets pushed to an extreme position near the end of the film. Once Buffalo Bill puts on his night-vision googles in order to stalk Clarice around the house, the audience also sees the film through Bill’s night-vision.
- This is especially the case when Dr. Lecter is speaking to Clarice. While the camera does close up on Starling’s face, which helps to emphasize the intensity which Lecter is observing her, as well as the claustrophobia she feels, when the camera switches to Lecter, it is a close-up as well, however, his face absolutely takes over the screen. During their first interview, every time the camera moves back to Lecter, more and more of his face consumes the frame.
- Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze in cinema is practically directly referenced by the film. Female corpses are closely examined by the camera, while men constantly gaze at Clarice’s body. The very fist lines of the film come after a long montage of footage from a camera that seems to stalk and pursue Clarice as she runs through the woody training course: “Starling! Starling! Crawford wants to see you in his office.”
Lecter urges Starling to determine what Buffalo Bill’s “nature” by asking “what does he do, this man you seek?” After Starling responds by saying that he kills women, Lecter corrects her, stating, “No! He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet?… No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?” Certainly, we see eyes (including our own) moving over Clarice’s body (and other bodies) throughout the film.
I found a really great article that covers sight within Silence, Andrew Schopp’s “The Practice and Politics of “Freeing the Look”: Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs” here. Basically, he notes that the film “cannibalizes feminist film theory” through its excessive use of Mulvey’s gaze.
- I also think it’s interesting that sight is used so thoroughly in a movie centered around a detective story. Edgar Allan Poe also used sight as a major factor in his tales of ratiocination. According to Poe’s Detective Dupin, the solution is always in front of our eyes, but it is often ignored due to its simplicity. In Silence, however, the senses are not always to be trusted. For example, Lecter is able to escape by wearing the face of a guard and appearing to be another person. I look forward to reading Jack Halbarstam’s chapter on Silence, as it seems like it may shed more light on this aspect of the film.
- Another point of connection to Poe’s detective fiction is brought forward in Silence through Crawford’s warning to Clarice before she meets with Lecter:
Be very careful with Hannibal Lecter. Dr. Chilton at the asylum will go over all the physical procedures used with him. Do not deviate from them for any reason whatsoever. And you’re to tell him nothing personal, Starling. Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.
In Poe’s fiction, it’s very easy and very dangerous to loose oneself as a result of contamination with the environment and/or with other people. This can be seen most clearly in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” however, Dupin is described as a sort of broken, bizarre person as a result of his work. He prefers to live in the dark and is largely devoid of emotion. The detective who looses him or herself as a result of their work seems to come up a lot in detective fiction. Immediately I think of Zodiac and the Hannibal and Mindhunter series. I’m interested to see where else the porous boundaries of the detective/criminal appear.
- Most academic criticism of this film focuses on its depiction of transsexuality and homosexuality as monstrous. Even when the film first came out, this aspect of the film was considered problematic.
- At the asylum, Dr. Chilton describes Lecter:
Oh, he’s a monster. Pure psychopath. So rare to capture one alive. From a research point of view, Lecter is our most prized asset.
Not only are serial killers, psychopaths and criminals commodified, but Dr. Chilton pushes this further by viewing his asylum as a sort of serial killer menagerie. This collection is reminiscent of Bill’s skin ‘trophies’ (as well as the trophies that most real-life serial killers collected). Hannibal himself is different. According to Clarice, he didn’t keep trophies, he “ate them.”
- Finally, I’m interested in the role that class plays in The Silence of the Lambs. Lecter immediately picks at Starling’s lower-class roots upon their first meeting:
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: poor West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp?
Throughout the film, Starling does, in fact, try to minimize her accent, but it often comes out. According to IMDB, this scene was improvised by Hopkins and really did hurt and shock Foster, who later thanked Hopkins for bringing a genuine response out of her.
Along with this moment, there is also the fact that the FBI’s search for Buffalo Bill is heightened only after it is believed that he had kidnapped a US Senator’s daughter. This unfortunately often happens only once there is a high-profile victim, rather than just a normal citizen.