MGM // 1990 // 118 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // August 21st, 2001
"They don't have a name for what he is." -- Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), regarding Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Once again, we take up the case of The Silence of the Lambs -- for the second time before this court. MGM has released a new edition of this DVD, with plenty of extras to make up for the lackluster edition previously available from Image and to replace the excellent but vanishing Criterion version. But does this new edition live up to the Criterion release? And after ten long years, does this movie live up to its legend?
Once upon a time, there was a naïve student named Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), her name suggesting a helpless little bird. Of course, she was not really very naïve at all (having a double degree in criminology and psychology) and far from helpless (as a pistol champion). Although the little starling lost her father a long, long time ago, she was adopted by two new fathers. One was good. His name was Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), and he worked for the FBI fighting bad guys. The other was named Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), and he was a very, very bad guy. The little starling is sent on an errand to catch the naughty Mr. Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), whom all the little girls called Buffalo Bill. Will the big bad monster eat the little starling? And will the bad father Dr. Lecter invite them all for a gourmet meal afterwards?
If you have not already read my review of the Criterion edition of The Silence of the Lambs or my Deep Focus column on the "bildungsroman" (or the "coming-of-age" story), go read them now. I'll wait for you to get back.
Done? Good. I don't think I need to repeat what I've already said about this film. Instead, I am going to address the most popular myths regarding The Silence of the Lambs. It has become fashionable in recent years to dismiss this film as overrated. And these are the most common charges leveled against it:
1. The Silence of the Lambs is a horror film, but it is not very scary. Many critics argue that the movie just is not scary. Certainly Lambs avoids the cliché shock effects that pepper most horror movies. In fact, Lambs is a fusion of several genres: the detective story (in particular, the police procedural), the horror story (Starling must face the monster and her own fears), and the coming-of-age story. By focusing attention on Starling, screenwriter Ted Tally and director Jonathan Demme build psychological tension around a central figure whose position throughout the film is precarious: she is a student in danger of failing, a woman in danger of being marginalized by men, an operative of law in danger of being overwhelmed by crime. The "horror" of the film is incidental, one of many obstacles that Starling must overcome in order to find her footing.
2. There is not enough Hannibal Lecter. The film is not about Lecter. It is about Starling. Lecter, while a fascinating character in his own right and always threatening to overwhelm the screen with his presence (and the closest parallel is Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man, who also parlays 15 minutes of screen time into total control of the story), is not the central figure in The Silence of the Lambs. Lecter always haunts the background, but only because his questions to Starling always conjure the specters of her own memory: her quest for justice driven by the traumas of her childhood, her attempt to replace her father, her own uncertainty as a woman in a male-dominated culture. But as Starling asserts herself more through the film, Lecter's role in her life becomes less necessary. When she no longer needs him, he disappears, like any mentor should.
3. Jame Gumb is over the top. Anyone who has studied real serial killers will realize that Gumb is a synthesis of several killers, including Ed Gein and Ted Bundy. He is certainly a monster, wallowing in a gothic cesspool of depravity. Admittedly, the Gumb character is more thinly developed in the film than in the novel, where his psychological motivations (his desire to become his mother -- or at least how he defines his mother through pure body) are more clearly developed. And no, Gumb is not gay. Nor is he, as Dr. Lecter cogently points out, a "true" transsexual, as his concept of "female" identity revolves, as I have just noted, around the body as pure surface (centered around his mother). The real key to the Gumb character in the film is revealed when he instructs Catherine Martin -- "It rubs the lotion on its skin" -- suggesting Gumb's desire to render all subjects (particularly women) as objects. The irony is that Starling objectifies Catherine Martin as well, in her case as the fulfillment of her desire to "rescue the lamb" and render justice for her dead father. Lecter's own crimes revolve also around the rendering of the human subject as an object: cannibalism as the ultimate expression of American consumerism.
4. Jonathan Demme did not deserve an Oscar for best director. All debates about the injustice of the Academy Awards aside, Demme's direction on The Silence of the Lambs is on target. His career prior to the film had long been marked by an ability to subvert genre clichés and break the rules of Hollywood melodrama, from the bizarre Caged Heat (in which he undercuts the turgid "women-in-prison" film with a few early hints of a more political agenda) to Something Wild (a screwball comedy that turns frightening serious in its final act). If he has not lived up to this potential in the well-meaning, big-budget films he has directed since Lambs, Philadelphia (which tried a little too hard to pretty up its hero) and Beloved (which streamlined too much of the tremendously complex, and perhaps unfilmable, novel), it was certainly not for lack of trying. Perhaps he will fare better with his upcoming remake of Charade, entitled The Truth About Charlie.
In any case, his direction on Lambs is not splashy, but driven by small details. Note the American flags that pop up here and there (and Tom Petty's "American Girl" on the radio just before Catherine Martin is kidnapped): the hunt for Jame Gumb is a journey into the dark heart of America, the monster at the center of the maze of our culture. Note the recurrence of museums: the Your Self Garage (a very improper museum, where nothing is cataloged), the Smithsonian (the ultimate American museum), even Lecter on display in Chilton's private museum of psychopaths. And where does Lecter, the man who refuses to be categorized, escape from? The Shelby County Historical Society, in the center of the Selby County Courthouse, of course. Demme places these details on screen but does not call attention to them. He allows his actors to push forward into the frame, shooting them in frequent close-up: he does not need to move and spin and dance the camera to generate tension. Romantic gestures are avoided, and dialogue and music are used to enhance the visuals (note how Howard Shore's score melds into scenes rather than overpowering them). Demme wisely lets his characters drive the story. This sets The Silence of the Lambs apart from most Hollywood product, especially the flood of serial killer movies that followed it, in which the mechanism of the story drives the characters.
5. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins did not deserve their Oscars either. Avoiding the histrionics that marked her previous Oscar performance in The Accused, Foster plays Clarice Starling as thoughtful and low-key. You can see Starling's mind at work, at times unsure of herself, but slowly driving herself forward. She never develops the self-confidence of a typical movie cop: when she finally faces Gumb, she is clearly terrified, but pushed forward by her need for closure. Starling is a psychologically complex character, and Foster never miscalculates the level at which she should play, even when a conventional thriller would insist that she lose her temper or visibly panic.
And Anthony Hopkins? So much has already been said regarding his measured performance as Lecter. Is Lecter a monster obsessed with chaos, with a cruel sense of "fun" (as both he and Crawford suggest)? Or his he an agent of order, punishing those whose lives are wasted? Watch how he carefully pounds Officer Boyle in Memphis with what the novel describes as "judicious blows."
An aside about Hannibal (in anticipation of my fellow justice Patrick Naugle's discussion of the film): the Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs remains an enigma, a self-proclaimed superman (he declares in the novel, "Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened.") who fancies himself above the petty human desires that drive Starling, Gumb, and the other characters. But in Hannibal, Thomas Harris gives us Lecter's history, suggesting that we turn the same psychoanalytic scrutiny we turned on Starling onto the legendary figure. Thus, what he does to Starling at the end of the novel (and I will let you read that for yourself if you have not done so yet) suits the gothic tone quite well: has Lecter done Starling a favor, or an injustice? Is he really a creature of pure free will, or driven against his will by psychological impulses he cannot control? In Ridley Scott's film, Lecter's backstory is removed for time, thus forcing the ending to change, and Lecter remains as superhuman as some of his fans wish him to remain after Lambs. What else can you say about a man who can wear a straw hat in broad daylight and not be recognized as the most famous serial killer on Earth? Does it remind you of Clark Kent pulling off his glasses, adding a spit curl, and suddenly no one can recognize that he is Superman? Hannibal is a black comedy, a gothic, over-the-top joke: the story Hannibal Lecter might have written himself if he had been paid for a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs.
MGM has remastered The Silence of the Lambs for this new anamorphic edition (my only major criticism of the Criterion version was its untouched print), which still retains its gritty quality even after the computers have done their job. The print is not pristine and still bears a few specks here and there, but again, this low-budget, B-movie quality adds to the film's realistic tone: this was never a glossy, overpriced Hollywood production. Even MGM's new 5.1 surround mix seems fairly low-key, spotlighting the subtle blend of creepy sound effects and the ethereal wash of Howard Shore's music. French and Spanish dubs are also included and are quite amusing to listen to. There are also subtitles in all three languages.
The new edition also boasts a considerable number of extra features, compared to MGM's previous bare-bones version. Oddly, almost none of these extras overlap with Criterion's excellent DVD from three years ago (much of which was brought over from their laserdisc version). Twenty minutes worth of deleted scenes are included, most in fragmentary form. Many of the scenes include Dr. Lecter, but as welcome as they might seem at first glance -- including a wonderful sequence where Lecter profiles Buffalo Bill, remarking slyly, "Didn't you know typhoid and swans come from the same God?" -- they really prove the adage that less is more. As I note above, as little as Lecter appears in the film, his presence always hovers over Starling. To show more Lecter might satisfy the audience's immediate craving, but it is our hunger to know Lecter that makes the character so powerful. He is never scary in the sense of shocking (and this further addresses the contention that Lambs is not a "scary movie"), but he lingers in our memories, raising disturbing questions long after he has left the screen. Other deleted scenes fill in more about Crawford, and a couple of scenes, including a long appearance by Paul Krendler (here played by the late Ron Vawter, but played in Hannibal by Ray Liotta) were included on the Criterion disc.
Two featurettes -- one an eight-minute puff piece done in 1991, the other a new, hour-long production -- are also included. The latter focuses mostly on interviews with the supporting cast and crew, with no current interview footage of Jodie Foster, Jonathan Demme, or Scott Glenn. Instead, production designers, makeup artists, and cast members like Ted Levine (Jame Gumb) discuss the various stages of the film, from Ted Tally's screenplay (originally commissioned by Gene Hackman) to the controversy about Gumb's sexuality during the film's initial release. Along the way, we get a glimpse of Kristi Zea's creepy concept drawings (included in full on the Criterion edition) for Lecter's massacre in Memphis. Like the conspicuously absent director and stars, this brief glimpse seems to suggest something key missing from this interesting but cursory documentary.
The same might be said of the photo gallery, which consists of 118 pictures, mostly black-and-white production stills and color promotional photos. No storyboards or concept art, but interesting nonetheless. A brief (a little over a minute) outtake reel shows the sense of humor maintained by the cast and crew during the production. MGM also includes a full-frame trailer and eight television spots, as well as a trailer for Hannibal, of course. The oddest extra is a message you can put on your answering machine from Anthony Hopkins, naming himself, mentioning he plays Hannibal Lecter, and asking your callers to leave a message or he will eat them!
The new edition suffers from an absence of all the marvelous supplements that accompanied Criterion's DVD of the film, which is now out of print. The lack of a commentary track is especially painful. While the supplemental material on this MGM version is, for the most part, quite good, it is a pity that these two editions could not be merged into one, nearly perfect, two-disc set. If I have to give the edge to either edition, I would have to give it to Criterion. I know the remastering job on the MGM version is quite welcome, but the Criterion version has better supplemental materials, which are more helpful to me as a film scholar. Casual viewers of the film should not feel slighted however: the MGM version holds up well and the studio has done a respectable job. Fortunately, I now have both editions, so I can watch the MGM for fun and use the Criterion for study.
One caution: MGM has also released the film in a pan-and-scan version. Rather than vent about "proper aspect ratios," I will simply say this: don't buy it.
Want to hear something really scary? Plans are underway to remake Thomas Harris' first Hannibal Lecter novel, "Red Dragon" (previously filmed as Michael Mann's Manhunter) with Brett Ratner slated to direct and Anthony Hopkins made twenty-five years younger by digital effects. Oh well, I suppose few people thought Jonathan Demme was capable of handling a thriller when it was dropped in his lap ten years ago...
On the other hand, we might end up with somebody like Judge Reinhold playing Will Graham.
The prosecution team is reprimanded for repeatedly bringing Ms. Starling, Dr. Lecter, and their companions before this bench. This court strongly repeats the decision that the charges brought against this film are unfounded. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2001 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Into the Labyrinth" 2001 Featurette
* "Making of The Silence of the Lambs" 1991 Featurette
* Deleted Scenes
* Photo Gallery
* Outtake Reel
* Trailer and Television Spots
* Anthony Hopkins Answering Machine Message
* Analysis from Filmsite.org