Criterion // 1990 // 118 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // December 4th, 2000
"Every man has his passion. Some prefer whist. I prefer killing people." -- Rudolf Pleil
Groundbreaking suspense movie or glorified B-picture? Much like its major characters, Jonathan Demme's adaptation of Thomas Harris' bestselling novel The Silence of the Lambs slips between categories. The result is more than a simple thriller. Here a country girl from the sticks learns to beat the urban, male-dominated FBI at their own game. Here a savage killer lurks in the shadows, turning innocent women into objects in a bizarre plan to transform himself into a new creature. Here a brilliant, ruthless judge of human fallibility plays his own deadly game and never loses a challenge. But who deserves to live or die, and who gets to judge?
FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) -- expert marksman, double major in psychology and criminology -- is an up-and-coming student at Quantico. Special Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) singles her out for an "interesting errand:" interview notorious serial killer Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) as part of an ongoing FBI profiling project. "And you're to tell him nothing personal, Starling," warns Crawford. "Believe me, you don't want Hannibal Lecter inside your head."
But Dr. Lecter has other plans. At first, he sees Starling as little more than a "cheap rube," but his masterful perception detects something more in this rookie. He tests her, offers her tantalizing clues, and sets her on a collision course with a vicious monster: the brutal killer known to the authorities as Buffalo Bill.
I must admit up front that I have always been fond of this film. I regularly teach the novel, and although director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally were obligated to streamline Thomas Harris' complex narrative to fit a two-hour running time, the film version of The Silence of the Lambs succeeds in distilling the novel while adding new ideas which suit the medium of film. The result earned Demme and Tally both well-deserved Oscars (as well as Oscars for Foster and Hopkins, and Best Picture of 1991, and lots and lots of other awards -- pretty good for a guy who directed Caged Heat).
The lynchpin of the narrative is the complex character of Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal Lecter had made it to the screen several years earlier, in Michael Mann's Manhunter (based on Red Dragon, where Lecter is an interesting but broadly developed character). But while Brian Cox's performance in that film was quite serviceable (and perhaps truer to the original conception of the character in that novel), Anthony Hopkins owns the role, imbuing Lecter with a sense of depth and menace commensurate with his more complex portrayal in Harris' second novel in what has now become a trilogy. Lecter takes on an almost mythic status: a being of almost pure free will, above the simple categories of human psychology: "Oh Agent Starling, do you think you can dissect me with this blunt little tool?" he asks dismissively in reference to her questionnaire. Hopkins never blinks during his time on screen: Lecter sees and judges everything. He tests and punishes those found wanting, offering Starling a succession of tests to prove her worth. Is he an arbiter of order (a brilliant psychiatrist, cultured and highly organized) or an agent of chaos (a cannibalistic serial killer who acts on whim)? Or is he both? Hannibal Lecter's fascinating complexity marks him as one of the most successful fictional monsters in 20th century literature.
Demme's direction is a skillful balance of his b-movie training (his mentor Roger Corman even shows up in a cameo), a more intimate, character-driven film, and glimpses of a traditional Hollywood thriller. Consider a scene like Starling's dark journey to Lecter's cell: gritty, realistic sets and a sordid atmosphere (hallmarks of an exploitation film) are combined with controlled performances by Foster and Hopkins, as Lecter's riveting gaze sizes up his new toy, and Starling struggles to maintain her composure and turn the tables. The result elevates a simple "main characters meet" scene to a mythic level: our hero enters the underworld to face judgment. Demme and Tally remain faithful to Harris' perfectly plotted novel, but embellish slightly. Images of America (flags, Tom Petty's song "American Girl") add the sense that the condition of Starling and her battle against monsters is the condition of America itself. Buffalo Bill (the name of a quintessential American "hero," who was also really an egocentric exploiter) lurks at the heart of the country, and you might be his next victim.
Criterion's print of the film for this DVD edition has a blemish or two, but the slight graininess actually helps the film: Starling's world is not crystal clear, but full of tiny, potentially dangerous flaws. Again, Jonathan Demme shot the film (with his ace cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, whose eye here in top form) to look realistic, which makes the mythic power of the characters appear almost surreal against this backdrop. As for extras, Criterion has chosen to stress, as a sort of overall theme for the disc, the "reality" behind the story. The commentary track, in Criterion's traditional style (a narrator introduces each participant) features illuminating analysis by Demme, Ted Tally, Jodie Foster, and Anthony Hopkins -- but also FBI "profiler" John Douglas (on whom the character of Jack Crawford is based). Douglas is the author of numerous books on serial homicide and provides an excellent sense of the real forensic science used in the film. Also included on the disc is an "FBI Crime Classification Manual," a text-based feature that teaches quite a bit about types of sexual homicide and profiling indicators. Another section, "Voices of Death," contains numerous quotes from real killers like Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, and Ed Gein (the quote at the top of this review is from this section). This technical accuracy is one of the many things that sets The Silence of the Lambs, both the novel and the film, apart from the flood of serial-killer stories that came after it.
Other extras include seven deleted and alternate scenes. Of particular interest is the complete "televangelist" footage with sound that plays in the background of one of Lecter's scenes (religion and the Apocalypse are big themes in the novel, but are more subdued in the film), as well as a long deleted scene with Roger Corman (as the FBI Director) putting Starling on suspension. Not only does this scene clarify Starling's precarious position at the FBI when she runs off to Ohio for the film's climax, but it features a bit of Ron Vawter as Justice Department goon Paul Krendler, a major villain in Hannibal. A wealth of storyboards and conceptual drawings are also available: check out how many concept drawings it took to translate Harris' description of Boyle's body as randomly strewn about the room to Demme's striking image of an eviscerated angel strung up with flag banners. In addition, Criterion includes a four-minute storyboard-to-film splitscreen comparison for Lecter's murder of Boyle and Pembry.
As noted above, the print of the film is not as crisp and clean as a more recent, glossier Hollywood production might be. But otherwise, I have no particular criticisms with the film or Criterion's handling of it. It has been noted many times that Criterion charges more for their discs than others ($40 here, as opposed to $30 for the bare-bones edition from Image). If you are planning to get this film in any case, shell out the extra ten bucks: it is well worth it.
Other serial-killer films may be flashier (like Se7en, which is a great picture in its own right) or gorier or have more chase scenes, but none are better than The Silence of the Lambs. More than just a thriller, this is a terrific character study of the face of evil. A face that never blinks.
Since no mere prison can hold Dr. Lecter, the court is forced to admit that it has no jurisdiction over his attempts at final judgment.
* For some great books on the real workings of the FBI, try John Douglas' Mind Hunter or Ronald Kessler's The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency.
Review content copyright © 2000 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track
* Deleted Scenes
* Storyboard-to-film Comparison
* FBI Crime Classification Manual
* "Voices of Death"