Jodie Foster: Clarice Starling
Scott Glenn: Jack Crawford
Anthony Heald: Dr. Frederick Chilton
Anthony Hopkins: Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Ted Levine: James Gumb
Screenplay by Ted Tally (based on the novel by Thomas Harris)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
A couple of months before we got THELMA & LOUISE, another movie about a woman dealing with an environment dominated by men hit the screen and presented us with two of the most memorable characters in cinema. Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee played by Jodie Foster, is tasked with helping track a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill. She is sent to a high security prison to interview a psychologist/cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Thus begins a fascinating, odd relationship between the two. Both are outcasts. Both suffered traumatic childhoods. Obviously, Lecter is rejected by the outside world. Clarice, though, is a farm girl from West Virginia, desperate to be taken seriously at the bureau. The men she encounters treat her as an object. Lust certainly is a major theme in this film. Even Lecter asks her, "don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice?" It's interesting, you know. Hannibal Lecter is a cold, sophisticated monster. Yet, we never worry that he is going to harm Clarice. I think one of the reasons the movie has held up as long as it has (and will continue to do so) is that Lecter likes Clarice. Since we like Clarice, too, we like Lecter. He's funny, charming, and intelligent. Yes, he eats people and we see him kill two poor security guards in grisly fashion, but we know he won't eat Clarice.
"He would consider it rude," she tells someone.
Much has been made of Hopkins' performance as Lecter and rightly so. He won the Best Actor Oscar for 20 minutes of screen time. This Clarice's story, though. It's her journey. The camera follows her and stays on her most of the picture. The close-ups on her face show her tension, dedication, ferocity, and, fear. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is about her overcoming the childhood trauma, facing her fears, and asserting herself in a world where she isn't taken seriously. Earning Lecter's trust in their memorable scenes is only part of that journey.
Oh, and is this movie ever frightening. There are beats of true terror throughout. The buildup to Clarice's first encounter with Lecter. The awful moment when Lecter overtakes the guards. The police waiting for the elevators to descend. The moment Clarice realizes she is dealing with Buffalo Bill. And, that scene in Bill's dark house with only the sounds of Clarice and Bill breathing and the screams of his victim in the pit. For all our praise for Foster and Lecter, let us not forget Ted Levine's creation of Buffalo Bill. Where we are intrigued and even harbor a kind of odd affection for Lecter (what does that say about us?), Levine creates a grotesque creature
Ah, but it is Lecter we are left remembering. While my emotional connection is with Clarice and want her safe, it is Hannibal Lecter who lingers in my brain. And Clarice's mentor, Jack Crawford, warns her not to let Lecter into her head. That warning was really for us. I think the movie works hard to remind us that, for all his charms, Hannibal Lecter is a monster. We shouldn't like him. We shouldn't get too close.
It's hard not to like a guy whose last words to Clarice are, "I'm having a friend for dinner."