Thomas Harris’s best-seller paralysed readers with emotions more profound than terror, and so does Jonathan Demme’s faithful film adaptation, with an incredibly brilliant screenplay by Ted Tally. It’s the scariest American movie since Psycho (1960).
Jodie Foster is vivid and remarkably real as Clarice Starling, a rookie FBI trainee at Quantico, Virginia, who finds herself dispatched to a Baltimore lunatic asylum to interview Dr Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins).
He is one of the world’s most ingenious, demented, and inhuman psychos, a grisly maniac famous for devouring his victims’ bodies, thus earning him the nickname ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’.
“Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head”, the rookie is warned.
The purpose of this routine assignment is to extract some criminal insights from the mad doctor which might lead to the identity of a serial killer dubbed ‘Buffalo Bill’, another monster who skins his female victims and then inserts bizarre cocoons of a rare death’s head moth from Asia in their throats.
What does all of this mean? It is Clarice’s job to find out, and the insane but charismatic Dr Lecter’s acute perceptions and cryptic clues lead this smart, attractive, but inexperienced young agent into a nightmare world of death and horror every viewer will find hair-raising.
The confrontation scenes between Lecter and Starling are the heart of the movie, and Hopkins and Foster play off each other with enormous skill.
Demme subjects them to long, searching close-ups. And Foster and Hopkins never make a false move.
To save Buffalo Bill’s latest victim (a Senator’s daughter named Catherine Martin) Clarice Starling parcels out painful memories from her childhood. Lecter learns that Starling was orphaned at ten when her sheriff father was killed. She learns that Buffalo Bill, like herself and Lecter, suffered traumas in childhood.
But before she can find out more, Lecter discovers that Starling has been lying to him about a deal to move him to another prison, so he makes his own deal with Senator Martin.
It’s not a movie for the squeamish or fainthearted. But while there are pathology reports, descriptions of murders and sadistic mutilations so gruesome they require stomach emulsifiers, the scariest stuff in this movie is not so much what Demme shows, but what he implies . . .
One of the film’s best sequences is Dr Lecter’s escape from maximum security using a fountain pen. You shake through the aftermath of his carnage without actually watching it step by step.
And the sensational editing – one of Demme’s fortes – intercuts the ringing of two doorbells. Behind one of the doors, ghastly horror waits. But which one? The suspense is enough to guarantee heart palpitations.
What could have been another slasher flick from the Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) school of schlock – graphic depictions of violence with soaring body counts and scenes of people bludgeoned, crushed, and blown to bits with nothing redeeming about the butchery from a cinematic or artistic point of view – has been studiously avoided.
The violence in The Silence of the Lambs is never gratuitous and the more realism Clarice faces, the more her nightmare becomes our own.
Jodie Foster builds her character in measured doses of courage and fright, while Anthony Hopkins is a case history of psychosis capable of both humour and menace, showing the weary boredom of an intellectual cannibal who has seen, read, observed, analysed, and done – as well as eaten – everything.
Human liver, he remarks, goes especially will with fava beans.
The finale is unforgettable, and so is the film – a masterwork of unbearable maximum anxiety and tension. It swept the Academy Awards for Best Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay and Picture.
“I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner. Bye”.
Dr Hannibal Lecter
Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill)
Senator Ruth Martin
Dr Frederick Chilton
Lawrence T Wrentz
FBI Director Hayden Burke
FBI Special Agent Paul Krendler