90s Movie Challenge Week 16: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Welcome back, fans of the Nineties! It’s the Oscars this weekend so we continue our award themed #90sMC retrospectives by inviting a new friend for dinner. Karen White makes her WGN debut with her look at why she finds 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs and one of cinema’s greatest anti-heroes, Hannibal Lecter, just so captivating.

Every once in a while a song or film embeds itself so deep in one’s psyche that it becomes part of its audience’s being. But when that film elicits an endless fascination with the heinous, one begins to seek explanation. Whether the outcome of that soul searching yields – as suggested by many – catharsis, or an inner desire to theorise motive, Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel The Silence of the Lambs ignited an inner intrigue that soon became my personal guilty pleasure.

It was not until its release on DVD in 2001 that as a mid-twenty year old, I stumbled across the film in my search for something ‘different’. I had since my late teens been an avid viewer of cliché horror – from Halloween (1978) to Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); however, it was Neil Jordan’s 1994 gothic horror film Interview with the Vampire and my ever-growing interest in the work of Stephen King – both on screen and in paperback form – that left me wanting more from my viewing experiences: I wanted – I needed – to fuel my fascination with the psychology behind dark human behaviours and so I discovered The Silence of the Lambs.

Canadian composer Howard Shore’s BAFTA-nominated score accompanies an opening scene that introduces us to Jodie Foster in the role of FBI trainee Clarice Starling. The Munich Symphony Orchestra’s combination of woodwind and brass perfectly complements an unlocking of anticipation that leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the strength of the protagonist (Foster) nor of the genre into which they have been invited. However, before the opening title sequence has even been completed, the first paradoxical step towards obscuring our natural urge for lucidity occurs in the form of the lift scene, where Foster’s stature is exploited within the male FBI setting to foreshadow Clarice as the underdog. And so, for anyone in any doubt as to the direction of this thriller, the scene is visually set: this is no classic action film complete with fights and frantic chases but instead, we are drawn into what is alluded to be a metaphorical David (Clarice) and Goliath battle with only the protagonist initially unveiled.

This preliminary representation of misogyny might to some be compounded when we then learn that the head of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Services, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), has selected the trainee to interview cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Crawford presents the assignment to Starling as an ‘interesting errand’ and while we watch and hypothesize as to his motives (vulnerability, entrapment through gender), Glenn’s character is elegantly portrayed in such a manner as to evade any irritation towards this is developing into a simple girl versus boy-girl defeats boy trope. Starling is ambitious and determined – as is evident through her candid response to Crawford’s references to their previous encounter; however, also clear is the reciprocal respect between the two characters – her formal yet forthright address; him, despite wanting her to accept the assignment, showing honesty towards his protégé in warning her of the dangers – ‘believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head’.

And so begins the introduction of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. From the very first encounter between the two main characters, Hopkins plays the part of the disgraced doctor with sheer precision. Whether it is his visual presentation, wearing a subtle sneer while stood perfectly still in the centre of his glass-fronted cell, or a voice that cuts through the air despite a soft-edged undertone, Lecter captures every moment of the audience’s gaze. And yet, inexplicably, through the glass we feel a pinch of sympathy towards him, a sympathy that for a while, amplifies the inexperience and fragility of Agent Starling while drawing us towards a character who we have already learned has earned himself the sobriquet Hannibal the Cannibal.

Thus begins my own internal conflict but a conflict akin to the thrill felt when stood at the steps of Oblivion – the anticipation of the thrill of the ride accompanied by heart-stopping fear. Each and every time Lecter appears on screen, we are faced with a killer, a psychopath, and yet still I am drawn towards, and rooting for the character. Surrendering to discordance means I can then appreciate the craft of the interwoven narratives, although all the while, remaining captivated by the blue-eyed killer.

Even Lecter’s psychoanalysis of Starling – drawing parallels between ambition and a troubled childhood – accompanied by provocative goading only fuel a fascination with the character’s intellect and ability to turn inquirer into subject. Nevertheless, Starling maintains composure and during the course of the film, learns much from her unlikely ally. Foster delicately portrays her character’s growing understanding of the mind of the serial killer while maintaining the vulnerability of a woman in a man’s world; her developing affiliation with a man who should repulse contributing to both traits. Similarly, the formerly incompliant Lecter becomes Starling’s champion and protector, inflicting wrath (Miggs) on those who threaten and sharing, in exchange for delving deeper into her psyche, information to further her fledgeling career. While never detracting from the chilling presence that is the psychopath, Lecter’s fondness for his apprentice further ingratiates his character to those – myself being one such observer – captivated by Hopkin’s portrayal.

Every scene in which Dr Lecter appears is so expertly crafted that viewers can visualise every moment with clarity. After just one viewing, the image of the psychopath pressed up against Perspex cell walls or wearing the iconic and infamous mask is so deeply etched that it becomes noteworthy within one’s memory. Every exchange between the two leading characters fuels the juxtaposition of good versus evil and each word spoken by Lecter is so expertly chosen and presented that it becomes a literary trope to be repeated and referred to by many. Hopkins appears on screen for less than 20 of the 118-minute film and yet his presence permeates every one of those minutes. Each appearance is monumental, all words spoken memorable and every interaction between Lecter and Starling significant – both to the development of the characters (and their blossoming ‘alliance’) and to our relationship with them both.

Hopkins and Foster both won Academy Awards (British and Oscars – 1991) for their roles in The Silence of the Lambs yet many consider Foster’s contribution to be less appreciated. Perhaps, and while no sequels have seen the success of The Silence of the Lambs, this is in part the result of Hopkins continuing to play the role of Lecter (Hannibal – 2001 and Red Dragon – 2002). However, in my personal opinion, it is more likely the 1991 portrayal of the psychopathic doctor that made Hannibal Lecter a name known by so many. It is, without doubt, Hopkin’s first portrayal that elicited my own fascination  – my guilty pleasure – with not only this but other both real and fictional high-profile psychopaths.

This is no film review; it is not an attempt to analyse cinematography nor to provide a synopsis of an obvious blockbuster. Many have written reviews so who would want to read another? This is, instead, a small glimpse into my own psyche, albeit one that some might consider unnerving. I am neither villain nor deranged; however, I am fascinated both with the concept of the criminally insane and with understanding my own interest in such a concept. And so, it can be said that The Silence of the Lambs is a film that has undoubtedly contributed not only to my lifelong viewing but also to shaping how I think and who I am. Crawford warned ‘you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head’ and yet in my head, he is so with my own catharsis complete and now I have your attention, Quid pro quo. What guilty pleasures lie within you?

Join us next week for one more round of Oscars shenanigans as Stuart Ball saddles up and rides into town to revisit the last of our Best-Picture-winning 90s flicks for a little while – Clint Eastwood’s geriatric Western. From 1992, it’s Unforgiven! 

Join the fun - leave a comment below!