After recently revisiting The Silence of the Lambs, the transcendent 1991 thriller that will forever be remembered as long as there is an audience for scares, I came to the conclusion that this was one of the very few perfect films out there. Being a perfect film does not mean there are no continuity goofs – if a cup is full of water then half full in the next shot, that doesn’t matter – and it does not mean there are no boom mikes visible.
Maybe there is at one point. No, what makes a film perfect is much more inclusive, much more expansive than simple unavoidable errors. There are a number of elements that must come together in order for a film to even be considered quality, let alone perfect. So when one of these rare instances comes along where a film just might be perfect, it warrants examination. There may be more than ten reasons why The Silence of the Lambs is a perfect film, but these are the ten most vital reasons for its perfection…
10) The Escape – This scene occurs at the end of the second act where Hannibal Lector uses his cunning instincts, his brilliant calculation, and a strategically-placed pen clip to attack his two guards and escape his new prison cell. He has worked with Clarice Starling and the FBI to try and help Buffalo Bill, and in turn has been granted a better, more open prison with certain privileges.
Perhaps he had been planning this since he made the decision to help Starling earlier in the picture. The tension as the police watch the elevator arrow from the ground floor is palpable, but what may be the most exhilarating and shocking moment in the scene is the end. As the police scramble to try and get who they think is Lector from the roof of the elevator, Lector has escaped in the ambulance wearing the dead policeman’s face. The move is brilliant and disturbing and altogether breathtaking.
9) Two Storylines –Sometimes, clutter can spell doom for a film. More than one central plotline can often ruin the focus of a lesser film. But in The Silence of the Lambs there are two very distinct stories at work; there is the psychological dance between Starling and Lector, all the while there is the narrative of Buffalo Bill and his next victim being held captive in an empty well. These two narratives begin almost separate of each other, but through some brilliant symmetrical camerawork and character developments, the two storylines begin to weave together into one larger plot. Had we not cared about one of the early storylines, by the time we get to the intersections later in the picture via Clarice Starling, the result would not have been as impactful. Luckily, the patience with the two stories pulls us in from the beginning.
8) The Big Five –The Silence of the Lambs shocked many people back in March of 1992 when it took home what is widely considered the top five Oscars: Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Adapted Screenplay. This is one of only three films to ever do this, the others being It Happened One Night in 1934 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. And on top of everything, The Silence of the Lambs was released in February of 1991. This is unheard of in today’s Hollywood where February is more often than not a dumping ground for studio garbage. This fact alone may speak more to the greatness of the picture than any technical prowess.
7) The Night Vision Climax –Clarice Starling finds herself in the lair of Buffalo Bill, and after a brief conversation in the kitchen she figures out she is standing face to face with the killer. We realize when she realizes, and the exhilaration she feels comes off the screen. Bill flees to his underground compound and Starling follows, alone. Once she is in his dungeon, in the dark, there are external elements beyond simply Starling and Bill that ramp up the tension in this scene.
There is the screaming of the hysterical woman, the shrill barking of Precious, Bill’s dog she has captured, and of course there is the fact it is pitch black. Bill uses his night-vision goggles to stalk Clarice as she fumbles around frantically in the dark. As we watch through his sickly green eyes, he brushes ever so close to Clarice. The moment is so very thrilling in its unnerving voyeurism.
6) The Psychological Examinations –The relationship between Clarice and Hannibal Lector is the most important aspect of the picture. But what is it at the core of their relationship that draws us in, beyond the brilliant performances? The psychological cat-and-mouse game between Lector and Starling is unlike anything I can remember in cinema. Lector has the upper hand the entire time; he is one of the most brilliant of all screen creations. But it is the willingness of Starling to stand up to Lector’s mental superiority that makes her a worthy opponent.
The sessions between Clarice and Hannibal become her weekly psychological exams, and Lector works his way deep into the recesses of her mind. All the while he allows subtle glimpses into his own psyche to show us, and Clarice, that they are more similar than she might want to believe.
5) Sexual Tension –There is some obvious sexual tension between Clarice and Hannibal from the beginning, as Hannibal smells her through his glass prison cell and immediately pulls her in with both his charm and intellectual superiority. Lector is attractive to Clarice in a certain way. But this is not where the sexual tension ends. Clarice is a young female trainee in a world dominated by men, and the camera helps show us how she is perceived by the men in the FBI.
There is a sexual barrier that Clarice must fight through in her everyday policing of the case. And then there is her relationship with her boss, Jack Crawford, played by Scott Glenn. Crawford and Starling have an undeniable sexual attraction, but one they never address outwardly. Nevertheless, Lector picks up on the attraction between them and exploits it to drive the tension between Starling and her two unattainable men.
4) Jonathan Demme –Of course the film must have a confident director behind the camera. Demme was the ultimate decision maker on The Silence of the Lambs, and each camera shot and POV angle in the film is done for a specific reason. We often look at Clarice, indicating the judgment of her peers.
There is great symmetry between the storylines as I mentioned earlier, but there are also a great deal of subtle techniques that keep the two very separated. Lector’s world is very calm and pristine; Bill’s world is one of madness and gloom. There are as many subliminal issues Demme must convey in the picture as there are surface issues, and it takes a deft touch by a director who fully knows his material to convey these underlying psychological demons.
3) Ted Levine –Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are always praised for their work in The Silence of the Lambs, and rightfully so. But you mustn’t look much further before you get to the performance of Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill. Levine’s one-of-a-kind voice will forever tie him to the evil psychopath he plays here. Foster and Hopkins had the wordplay and the development and the meat of the story, but Levine had the task of taking a human being and keeping him decidedly inhuman.
Bill is a monster in the purest human form, and Levine has to take the character into some very dark, very disturbing places in order to make the character both deplorable and memorable at the same time. There have been any number of wicked psychos in the movies, but dare I say Buffalo Bill is the most disturbing.
2) Anthony Hopkins –Hopkins may have benefited the most from this film as he would play Hannibal Lector in a sequel that pales in comparison and again in a prequel that is simply poor. Hannibal Lector has one of the most memorable entrances in all of cinema, standing at attention watching Clarice Starling round the corner to his cell.
But Lector, unlike Bill, is not just a monster. Lector has an intelligence bordering on superhuman and, more importantly, he carries a very recognizable charm. By the time he escapes his cell, the moments before the escape, he has lulled the audience into a false sense of security that he is a harmless former madman. So when he does pull of his ferocious escape we are shocked at a brutality that had been under the surface the entire time.
1) Jodie Foster –Many may cite the performance of Anthony Hopkins as the most important part of The Silence of the Lambs. But I would argue the biggest reason for this being a perfect film is the perfect performance of Jodie Foster. Clarice Starling is young and inexperienced and a little intimidated by everything around her here, only she does not let it affect her police work. She is one of the most determined characters in all of film. She has moments of bravery that are made even more impactful because of the obvious fear in her heart.
And on a structural level in the film she is our bridge between the two storylines. Foster was perfectly cast, and perfectly executed her role as Clarice Starling. And for me, she benefited from turning down any chances to play the agent in sequels because the power of her performance could never be duplicated
BY HARSHVARDHAN SINGH.