Silence of the Lambs
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Silence of the Lambs

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Thrillers based on crime stories have always been exceptionally popular. This is especially true when it comes to one of the most heinous forms of criminals; the serial killer. Over a century ago the newspapers and dreadful penny novels were filled cover to cover with the exploits of the heinous murderer known in the media as Jack the Ripper. There is something so against every norm of society with a man able to kill over and over without any sense of remorse whatsoever. Many horror films have created terrible supernatural killers like Freddy Kruger or Jason, but the fact is there is very little chance of running across someone with long, sharp blades for fingernails. What is possible is someone that seems to be a normal member of society who can take a life with as much moral conflict as you would have to swat a fly. Of all the serial killers that have appeared in literature or films one will remain at the apex of depravity; Hannibal Lecture from ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ He is a highly intelligent man, a physician, and psychiatrist with a gourmet’s taste for human flesh. This is one of the most intense and taut psychological thrillers ever made, and it will most likely hold that position for a very long time to come.

By this time, everyone knows the story of this film. A psychotic serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) is on the loose. He removes portions of the skin of victims. To help catch him the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) assigns a bright, young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jody Foster) to interview the heinous serial killer Dr. Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter (Sir Anthony Hopkins). What follows is one of the truly most chilling films ever made. While so many films depend on a monster created by science, mutated, dropped from outer space, this film provides a much more realistic monster, the warped human mind. While Bill is evil and twisted, he is nothing compared to Lector. Hannibal is extremely intelligent. He is gifted with acute powers of observation and insight into the human mind far beyond his training as a psychiatrist; he truly knows how to get into the mind of any living person. The horror here is in the realism. No giant creature so an unassuming man that is evil incarnate. The script by Thomas Harris and Ted Talley, based on a novel by Harris is haunting. There is not a wasted word in the film. Every piece of dialogue will keep you on the edge of your seat, fascinated by the tale unfolding before your eyes.

The performances in this film are nothing less than genius. Only three times in the history of the Oscars has a film come away with a high five, Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. This was one of them. Hopkins and Foster carry the story. As Lector Hopkins brings this complicated character to life with control, precision and craft no other actor could have managed. Every movement is deliberate, every facial expression calculated, and every word given great care, just as Lector would have done. He paints a picture of Lector as a polite, civil man, which makes the horror even more tangible. Hopkins owns this role as few actors can ever own one. The range of Hopkins is incredible. Sir Anthony is such a versatile actor that he is amazing in every role he takes on. He made us roar with laughter in ‘The Road to Wellsville’ or add gravitas to a superhero movie such as ‘Thor’ and then can switch gears and transform himself into one of the most memorable monsters ever here. To make this film work so well, you need an adversary worthy of the evil Dr. Lector. Here is where Foster shines. As Starling, she is young and inexperienced but more than up to the challenge required for the verbal jousting with Lector. She knows she is dealing with a monster, but she is also forced to face the ghosts in her past.

The award-winning director of this acclaimed film is Jonathan Demme. Not only did he bring Silence to the Oscars but also was lauded for the incredibly poignant drama, ‘Philadelphia’. His distinctive directorial style is mesmerizing in how it comes across, controlled simplicity. Mr. Demme eschews the typical filmmaker’s reliance on fanciful cuts, overuse of lighting motifs or lighting. He has little need for unusual angles or framing to guide the audience. He is a master class story teller confident in his straightforward way of allowing the story to unfold.

There are no tricks in the cuts or only the frank presentation of the talent on the screen. While it comes across as simple the details of Damme’s direction is complete control. It is obvious that he takes great care in each of the many setups this film presents. Little touches that you might miss at first viewing so how great this director is how he brings out the best in his actors. For example, some 12 minutes into the film we first see Hannibal Lector. Here is the monster that will drive the rest of the film and he is standing in a slimly furnished glass cell, arms at his side staring out into the hallway. The scene sets up the arrogance of Lector, in control even in a maximum-security prison where every shard of freedom has been removed. Demme also seems to favor the judicious use of extreme close-ups. In one confrontation between Starling and Lecture, there is a contrast between their clear, blue eyes. Lectors reveal the plotting going on in his mind, the schemes awaiting the proper moment for realization. Juxtaposed to this serine self-control, is the agent in training, Clarice Starling. She has been given the opportunity to accelerate her career with this unheard-of opportunity. Serial killers have always been a matter of academic curiosity, psychological profiles that were abstract and detected. Starling was pulled from class, that familiar place, and now stands in front of an actual monster separated by a sheet of plexiglass. Scholarly discussion is gone, replaced by a cold, harsh reality of a brilliant man with a predilection for murder and cannibalism. The two figures are depicted in almost identical ways highlighting the contrast.

The original DVD presentation of this film was disappointing. The video was grainy, and the audio lacks the clarity that the older videotape sported. A true classic like this film demands to have the best possible technical specifications. It is long overdue, but this seminal example of the cinematic arts has been inducted into the criterion Collection. This is a film that I have owned in most incarcerations from VHS tape to Blu-ray and this is by far the most spectacular presentation. You will finally able to sit back and enjoy the film anew. It is possible to discern details that I never caught before with the added resolution of high definition. For example, in the scene where Starling is talking about a traumatic moment in her childhood to Lecture, I noticed that Demme used a softer focus with Starling and brought the camera in tight with extremely sharp details when on Lecture. This gave a visual sense that Starling was lost in her past while Lecture was concentrating on the present; always plotting. In the scene towards the end when Starling is confronting Bill in his lair you can see the beating of the moth’s wings. It is amazing the details that 1080p video brings out. The audio also received a major overhaul here. Every little sound is audible bringing a level of realism that pulls you in. I have seen this film many times in the past but watching this new Blu-ray edition was like watching it for the first time.

bulletAudio commentary from 1994 Featuring Director Jonathan Demme, Actors Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, Screenwriter Ted Tally, and Former FBI agent John Douglas
bulletNew Interview with Critic Maitland McDonagh
bulletInterview from 2005 with Demme and Foster
bulletInside the Labyrinth, a 2001 Documentary
bulletPage to Screen, a 2002 program about the adaptation
bulletScoring 'The Silence,' a 2004 interview program featuring composer Howard Shore
bulletUnderstanding the Madness, a 2008 program featuring interviews with retired FBI special agents
bulletOriginal behind-the-scenes featurette
bulletPLUS: A book featuring a new introduction by Foster; an essay by critic Amy Taubin; an account of the origins of the character Hannibal Lecter by author Thomas Harris; and a 1991 interview with Demme

Posted 03/14/09            Posted 02/15/2018

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