March 2, 2024

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AFI Countdown Challenge #65: The Silence Of The Lambs

A female FBI agent is thrust into a world full of alpha men, particularly one memorable psychopath, in order to flush out a serial killer in this 1991 horror-thriller film.

The Academy Awards can be, quite bluntly, a little predicable at times.  Usually awards go to artsy stuff that premiered at the end of a given calendar year, and rarely will a single film take home all five of the big awards (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay).

The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t quite fit those criteria.  While still artfully done, it’s also something of a horror film that came out early enough in 1991 that it was available for home video rentals by the time it won an Oscar.  And for a movie where the most memorable character is actually a compelling serial killer, it’s worth noting the movie is really the story of a woman FBI agent who hasn’t even graduated from the FBI Academy yet.

See, I’d be remiss if I wrote up something about The Silence of the Lambs without discussing Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter.  Hopkins deserves all the acclaim he received for this movie.  He’d been acting for years, even appearing in major motion pictures, like where he played a young Richard the Lionhearted in The Lion in Winter back in 1968.  However, Lecter was his breakout role, and as a super-smart serial killer, his Lecter takes a place alongside other movie monsters and killers that are best known as played by a single actor, such as Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, and even Robert Englund as Freddy Kreuger.  Lecter has been played by other actors; indeed, Hopkins wasn’t even the first actor to play the character adapted from the novels of author Thomas Harris.  And despite the more forgettable sequels he reprised the role in, Hopkins’ Hannibal is still the one that people remember, and quite frankly, I’d argue the Lecter Mads Mikkelsen played on TV may rival Hopkins in many ways.

But as far as this movie goes, Hopkins made Lecter the creepy yet urbane monster that he is.  Of the various horror icons I described above, Lecter is the only one without any supernatural powers or scientifically impossible origins.  He’s just a normal human who is much, much, much smarter than anyone else.  He is largely dispassionate, and it appears he saves most of his kills for people who were rude to him (that being what other incarnations of the character seemed to suggest).  Just about every truly memorable line in this film comes from Hopkins, from the slithers of a “Hello, Clarice…” to his dietary descriptions.  His escape from custody is easily the scariest and most intense moment in the entire film, and the mask he wore when he was escorted outside the asylum where he was locked up became part of the character’s iconic image.

Hopkins truly earned that Best Actor award.

He’s also in the movie less than 20 minutes.

Yes, even though he is treated as the film’s male lead, he gets very little screen time.  The Silence of the Lambs isn’t Lecter’s story.  He spends most of the film locked up, and it wouldn’t be too much to wonder how he was captured in the first place as this film never says.  I suppose you could make a case for Scott Glenn’s Jack Crawford as a male lead as Clarice Starling’s superior on the case, someone who Lecter seems to remember as someone instrumental for bringing Lecter in in the first place, but that would be stretching it.

No, The Silence of the Lambs is Clarice Staling’s story, and Jodie Foster earned her own Academy Award just as surely as Hopkins did his.  A trainee at the FBI Academy, Clarice is hand selected by Crawford to try and interrogate the notorious Dr. Hannibal Lecter to see if he can give some insight on another serial killer, someone dubbed “Buffalo Bill” with a penchant for overweight women.  Buffalo Bill has just kidnapped a Senator’s daughter, and it’s only a matter of time before he kills her for whatever it is he’s doing with these women considering the bodies are usually found missing patches of skin.

And that is why, despite Lecter talking another inmate at his asylum into suicide for being rude to Starling, this is Starling’s story, and one that I would not say has aged badly so much as aged weirdly.  Much of the film deals with the concept of the Male Gaze.  Starling is frequently told by men how attractive she is, and most of the men who do this are outright creeps running from the somewhat harmless (the bug experts she talks to about a moth found inside a victim) to the vainglorious (raging asshole Dr. Chilton).  Heck, there’s one shot of Foster walking alone through an airport and at least one man stops to check her out as she walks by.  That sort of stuff isn’t put in there accidentally.  Starling is the one getting over a few childhood traumas that Lecter brings out during their talks, and her own growth from a cadet who doesn’t think to check behind a door during a hostage simulation to someone who can gun down a serial killer in the dark based solely on his cocking the hammer of his own pistol shows a future agent with a lot of potential.

Besides, the idea of men checking out women also fits in with Buffalo Bill, seeing as how he seems to be attempting to make himself into a woman.

So, why do I think the movie aged weird?  Simple:  despite all the work put into making this the story of a woman FBI agent withstanding obnoxious come-ons during the course of her investigation and coming out over the top when she’s alone with a killer, her boss’ attempt to keep her in a safe location come to naught, it’s still the male serial killer that made the movie as memorable as it is.  Starling is a good character, but she’s nowhere near as flashy as the soulless Lecter.

Oh well, at least we can say this much for Foster’s character:  she was a huge influence on The X-Files in terms of her look when that show’s producers did everything they could to make Gillian Anderson look like Clarice Starling.

NEXT UP:  You know we had to get to Steven Spielberg sooner or later.  Be back soon for 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.