Wednesday, March 21, 2012

100 Movies - No. 82: The Silence of the Lambs

82. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Crime, Thriller, 118 minutes
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and Scott Glenn

It's rare for a film to win Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscars, but The Silence of the Lambs did just that. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) is often regarded at the top villain in cinema history and he's probably the first character that springs to mind when you think about the movie. It's hard to believe that Hopkins was only on the screen for about 16 minutes.

The story begins with Agent Clarice Starling (Foster). We see her tackling an obstacle course at the FBI's Quantico training center. Her boss, Jack Crawford, (Glenn), calls her in and asks her to visit Lecter. He's in a secure cell and the warnings she receives appear excessive, but they seem justified by the end of the movie.

Lecter is intelligent, polite and eloquent. Although he's a monster capable of eating people, he has a twisted sense of honor. It's clear that he likes Starling and he rewards some of her honest revelations with help and insight into how she might track down serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine).

It's curious that the movie is often placed in the horror genre. I watched David Fincher's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo recently, and compared the two films. Both are essentially investigations into murders as the protagonists attempt to track a serial killer. Each includes a colorful character, although one is a hero and the other a villain. If Lisbeth Salander and Hannibal Lecter were more conventional characters, the two movies would lose a lot of their power. I think it's wrong to label The Silence of the Lambs as a horror movie, but I understand why that's often the case.

The movie works because we love how monstrous Lecter is and how human Starling can be. Foster's performance made Starling seem incredibly vulnerable. She's a young cadet finding her way in the FBI and this is her first big break. Then we see that she has to contend with Lecter, who is ruthlessly insightful and able to read her easily. Much of the story is seen from Starling's point of view and it's easy to identify with her fears as she tries to catch the killer.

The final showdown is extremely effective. You can sense the evil in Buffalo Bill and Starling's fear is audible and visible. The song playing during this sequence (Hip Priest, by The Fall) holds special meaning for me as it was played at the first concert I ever attended.

Scott Glenn can be very likable and I enjoyed his performance as Crawford. The movie drew considerable praise from the FBI for it's realism and it was easy to imagine Glenn as a member of the organization.

Hopkins is a versatile actor capable of playing just about any role. I would rank him among the top tier of my favorite actors. Maybe it's because of the characters he plays, but he strikes me as a very intelligent man.

The Silence of the Lambs is constructed simply, but the acting and the ominous mood elevate it to the level of greatness.

If you like The Silence of the Lambs:

Director Jonathan Demme has never created a better movie, but he was also responsible for Stop Making Sense and Something Wild. The former documents a Talking Heads concert and is easily one of the best concerts captured on film. The latter is a quirky road movie of sorts and stars Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith and Ray Liotta.

Anthony Hopkins also plays Lecter in Red Dragon and Hannibal, although he's not the focus of the story in either. Red Dragon is comfortably the better of the two and isn't far below the level of The Silence of the Lambs. Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes head a strong cast.

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  1. Great review. This movie will always be remembered as one of the definitive films of the 90's and of the filmography of Foster and Hopkins.

  2. Probably still the best of its type. It will be hard to beat.