Thirty Years Ago, The Lambs Starting Screaming…And They’ve Never Stopped
A Reflection on The Silence of the Lambs, Part 1: The Movie’s Origin and Why It Works and Doesn’t.
As those of you who read this column are aware, I tend to focus primarily on television. But as films are so frequently adapted to series, I felt it might be worth every so often looking at the way certain films have impacted television in particular.
Thirty years ago The Silence of the Lambs debuted in theaters. Pop culture has never been the same. There have three subsequent sequels to the movie, at least two series that have direct links to the film and God knows how many series about profiling, the FBI and serial killers. And those are just the obvious links: as anyone who is even a casual fan of The X-Files knows, one of the major influences for the character of Dana Scully was Jodie Foster’s portrayal of Clarice Starling. (The series made several indirect references to it over the years, finally admitting the direct link in the series finale.) Because of the creation of the iconic characters of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, it’s kind of surprising that there are certain things that we’ve forgotten about the film’s origins and just why it resonated so much with the popular culture. So in this article, I’m going to look at The Silence of the Lambs; why it was such a huge critical and financial success and why none of the subsequent movies — and few of the direct television linked to it — have gotten it right since then.
Let’s start with something everybody knows and yet has forgotten at the same time: Silence of the Lambs wasn’t the first book — or movie — to have Hannibal Lecter as a character. We all know that Thomas Harris first dip into that water was Red Dragon which was the story of profiler Will Graham being lured out of seclusion after several years having survived an attack by Hannibal Lecter to track another serial killer. What so many people have forgotten is that Red Dragon was made into a movie twice — the first time in 1986 as Manhunter by one of the most iconic directors of all time, Michael Mann.
There are some who consider Manhunter the best of the Hannibal Lecter movies, which is debatable. What is crystal clear even now is that Manhunter has it all over its remake Red Dragon and the comparison isn’t even close. Red Dragon may have a more famous cast, but comparing performance to performance as a whole, Manhunter is clearly superior. William Petersen, still going through a period of trying to be a leading man in movies (something that never quite gelled) is superb as Will Graham, looking haunted from first scene to last. Edward Norton never had a prayer in comparison. A then basically unknown Joan Allen is quite remarkable as the woman who befriends Francis Dollarhyde, not knowing the secrets he keeps. And with all due respect to Ralph Fiennes, who is truly one of the great actors of our time, he can’t hold a candle to Tom Noonan as the Tooth Fairy. Noonan is one of the greatest character actors in the history, a man who seems to exude creepiness in every fiber of his being, even when the characters he plays are sympathetic. He embodies a man who is not comfortable in his own skin and who you know even before his violent action can’t be trusted.
What Manhunter did right was essentially keep Hannibal Lecter caged with the entire movie. Red Dragon’s entire purpose — hell, the marketing strategy was based on it — was to ‘introduce’ the viewer to Hannibal. As a result Lecter, who is basically just a supporting role in the book and original movie, is basically at the center of Red Dragon. This is a flawed concept, mainly because Anthony Hopkins despite being one of the greatest actors in history was in his early sixties and had to play a much younger version on Lecter, something that he just couldn’t pull off.
I will not commit heresy and say that Brian Cox, who plays Lecter in Manhunter, is the superior Hannibal. But if you consider it without the baggage that so many viewers do, it is an interesting study in comparison to the version we got in Red Dragon. It helps that Cox was only forty at the time and didn’t seem inclined to going to the histrionics that we’ve come to associate with Hannibal over the years: the performance is exactly subtle, but it’s not over the top either.
It is conceivable that when The Silence of the Lambs was being made, the producers did consider it a sequel to Manhunter. (There are even two cast members from the original film in the movie. I’ll leave it to fans to pick them out.) The movies were basically made for the same amount of money (Manhunter cost $15 million; Silence cost $19 million) Jonathan Demme was probably given the job because, like Mann, he had a history in TV more than movies. And indeed the film — stripped to its bones — does have closer a feel to Manhunter than any Hannibal Lecter project that has come since.
And what is absolutely key to that idea is, just as in Manhunter, the most notorious character barely shows his face on screen. We have come to associate Anthony Hopkins in the same breath with this character, I have a feeling it would stun fans of the franchise to know that Hannibal is on screen for little more than twenty minutes of the films two hour run time. (This has actually been clocked by critics.)
I have a feeling this is not only the reason that Silence of the Lambs is not only the most successful film of all time, but why so many critics regard as a horror film. It’s hard to consider why one would do so — it doesn’t fit the category of The Exorcist or Jaws, or other horror films with human monsters such as Psycho. But when Clarice goes down into the ward where Lecter is being kept, Demme gives you the distinct feeling that she is descending into one of the lower circles of Hell, which Lecter the absolute worst monster of all at the bottom. Miggs’ act when she is in the process of leaving is shocking not so much because its so clearly depraved — certainly for theater audiences in the early nineties — but because the suspense has been tuned so finely, its more stunning than one with a knife.
And in my opinion what makes Silence of the Lambs work is Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice. It’s probably also the reason that it was regarded much more highly than Manhunter. Petersen’s performance is superb because he appears completely haunted and about to break at any time. By comparison Clarice is a relative innocent — we know this going in and so does everybody in the film, including and especially Lecter. Foster had already won an Academy Award in The Accused for playing a rape victim and had been in the business so long that she’d gotten a reputation for being jaded. So it’s particular remarkable to see just how innocent she appears as Clarice, someone who must deal with a world of monsters and is utterly unprepared to dive into the abyss. We’ve seen so many versions over the past thirty years that’s its remarkable to remember just how novel this was when we saw Foster do it.
Where the film fundamentally falls down is, paradoxically, the portrayal of Buffalo Bill. Given all the shouts of ‘cancel culture’ in the past few years, I am genuinely shocked no one has aimed their guns as this film and Ted Levine’s portrayal of Bill. The idea of a gay man killing women so he can become one was a horribly offensive idea when Harris wrote the concept. There have been a lot of gay men as serial killers over the decades, and consider how many stereotypes needed to be shattered over the years, I can’t help but think how much this film set back gay rights, never mind trans-rights. And considering how little the actual killer seems to matter in the story of the film — the center of it is fundamentally the relationship between Clarice and Lecter — you can’t help but wonder why none of the censors cried foul.
Despite that, The Silence of the Lambs remains one of the most brilliant films of all time. And given how Hollywood tends to ignore exactly those kinds of films for Oscars, it’s actually even more amazing how it managed to do so well at them. In the follow-up to this, I’ll hypothesize why this happened, why it probably couldn’t happen again, and why none of the other projects dealing with Hannibal Lecter have ever resonated the same way.