A friend recently asked me why The Silence of the Lambs is my favorite movie. "Quid pro quo." I told him. "You tell me things, I tell you things." He deserved it. But the joke is also the answer. The script is the main reason. Full of a million unforgettable lines and sheer terror, The Silence of the Lambs does not waver for a second. From minute one to 118, it's the most enthralling piece of filmmaking I've ever seen. And I've seen it hundreds of times.
There are many reasons why I love Silence and this year marks the 30th anniversary of its theatrical release so what better time to get into it?
The Book is a Masterpiece
The first and biggest reason Silence affected me so greatly, and still does, is written on the page. Stephen King was my favorite author growing up and the bookstore guy told me to read this other guy, Thomas Harris, who had written two novels that put King's work to shame. Both Silence and its predecessor Red Dragon became personal favorites after that. My joy at seeing my favorite book become the greatest film of 1991 could not be contained. Like most people, I formed an ownership of the property. It belonged to me and me alone.
The Most Fascinating Horror Film Ever Made
I love stories about serial killers. I can't help it and I think most of us can't. The mindset is so foreign to me, I'll never get enough. Silence is the greatest serial killer film ever made. It features two all-time great ones in Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) and it's brave enough to show us how they think. Lecter is the single-most believable representation of a killer I've ever seen. Much is owed to Hopkins' performance, but the character was destined to be remembered. "Hannibal the Cannibal" lives in film history as not only a magnificent villain, but a genius who speaks in riddles and has the capacity to hypnotize. "They don't have a name for what he is." And Buffalo Bill is an amalgamation of many true-life murderers including Ed Gein (who skinned his victims), Ted Bundy (who lured people into his van by wearing a cast and asking for help), and Gary Heidnik (who kept women in a pit in his basement). The Silence of the Lambs allows us to know these two men up close.
The Underdog Story of Clarice Starling
Opposing the two killers in the film is Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling. She's an FBI trainee thrown into the lion's den who becomes a formidable asset to the surprise of everyone involved. Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) tasks her with interviewing Lecter, a simple assignment that turns into much more when Lecter decides to actually talk to her, something he'd not done with other interviewers. Clarice, overwhelmed and mentally outgunned, is fearless. She deciphers Lecter's word games and proves to Crawford she's tougher than she looks. But we worry for her hugely. She's young, inexperienced, and innocent which makes us want to protect her. But she's not powerless. In a film based in a man's world, where a killer is murdering and skinning women, it's a female FBI agent who triumphs in the end. At the time of its release, Feminist author Betty Friedan took issue with Bill's "evisceration" of women in the film, but it's a woman who gets him. Clarice is one of the great heroes in movie history, male or female.
The Unblinking Method of Jonathan Demme
Director Jonathan Demme always instructed his actors to look directly into the camera for specific scenes. The method serves to adhere us to Starling. Watch Silence closely, Clarice never looks directly at the lens like the other characters. She looks through it or just to the side of it. Demme wanted us to experience everything Clarice does first-hand so we see what she sees. The film culminates in the ultimate first-person viewpoint when Bill watches her stumble around his house in the dark via night-vision goggles. The suspense is almost too much to take. Demme's technique isn't new (The Spiral Staircase and Halloween both include the killer's point of view), but it's the best example of how the usually manipulative trick can be used in an authentic way. Watch Demme's other films. Something Wild, Married to the Mob, Philadelphia, and Beloved all do the same thing to lesser effect. Interesting side note: Hopkins never blinks in conversation as Lecter.
The Perfection of the Script
Adapted from Harris' novel by Ted Tally, The Silence of the Lambs screenplay is a textbook example of how to write a police procedural suspense film. Viscerally, the movie has the momentum of a runaway 18-wheeler. It opens with Clarice jogging at the FBI training course in Quantico and she never stops going forward. But it's the details I truly love: the Death's-Head Moth (the symbol of Buffalo Bill's hatred of himself and need to change) is based on an actual moth, but the movie poster (bottom of article) utilizes Salvador Dali's In Voluptas Mors as the design on the insect's thorax. The portrait of seven naked women forming a human skull is not only a delicious easter egg for art fans, but a way to add to the film's already macabre tone. Other amazing details: Lecter has a copy of Bon Appetit in his cell; directors George Romero and Roger Corman have cameos; Lecter paints Clarice a portrait of herself holding a lamb; the now-iconic mask Lecter wears during transport; Buffalo Bill's incredible dance skills; and the great supporting cast, especially Anthony Heald as Dr. Chilton.
How Quotable the Script is
Just about every character in the movie is quotable. From the obvious, "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti. FFFFFFF FFFFFF FFFFF." To the less obvious, "Oh wait, was she that great big fat person?" The Silence of the Lambs isn't just a great script, it's a memorable one. Hannibal Lecter is only onscreen for 16 minutes so every line he utters is a rare jewel that should be framed and hung on a wall in the Louvre.
How Scary the Film is
Not that any of it matters to me, but Silence is always a top five selection when it comes to listing the best horror movies. It's a combination of thriller (which teases violence) and horror (which shows it), but the movie really defies genre. What's important is how it makes you feel. On a base level, it's an authentic depiction of both crime and police procedural. It's careful about the way it treats death. You'll find many horror films that trivialize the concept for frivolous thrills, but Silence respects death. Buffalo Bill is never shown killing anyone. You just hear about it. This ups the suspense quotient. Lecter, on the other hand, simply needs the opportunity, so when he gets it, the result is all-powerful, traumatizing filmmaking. If you can watch this movie without closing your eyes, moving in your seat, or sweating through your shirt, you may want to check your pulse for a heartbeat. And there's always the trusty awards credibility: Silence is one of only three films (It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) to win the top five Academy Awards.