Silence of The Lambs: I’m having an old friend for dinner

Recently, Hannibal served us it’s last course and closed out a pretty phenomenal 3 seasons. Despite its beautifully dark tone and phenomenal acting, NBC has cancelled it. So to say goodbye to Hannibal, I’m having an old friend for dinner. By which I mean I’ll be reviewing the trilogy of films starring the incredible Anthony Hopkins as our favourite cannibal. One of my favourite cinematic character portrayals of all time.

Let’s start with ”Silence of The Lambs”, our first introduction to Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, based on the Thomas Harris book of the same name. This film, directed by Jonathan Demme, is an incredible cinematic achievement, leading to its status as the only horror film to win the Best Picture Oscar (the only other even nominated is ”The Exorcist”). On top of this, the film won Best Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay. Making it one of 3 films to win the Big Four: ”It All Happened One Night” and ”One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.

Here is the trailer:

Jodie Foster stars, in an Oscar winning performance, as Clarice Starling, a determined, resilient and sharply intelligent trainee FBI agent. FBI behavioural analysis unit chief Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) recruits Starling for a sensitive, nuanced, almost surgical task. To interview and analyze Dr Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins); a pure psychopath responsible for a heinous series of cannibalistic murder, now residing at Baltimore Mental Asylum under the care of the sadistic and opportunistic Dr Chilton (Anthony Heald). Meanwhile, the FBI desperately search for Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a serial killer who kidnaps, starves and skins his victims. As events unfold, Clarice winds up caught in a game of cat and mouse between Jack, Hannibal, Buffalo Bill and even Dr. Chilton. All the while, Lecter knows much more than he is letting on about the case and Clarice herself.

Hannibal is intriguing, horrifying and impossible to turn away from, in equal part due to Harris’ original writings but also through Hopkin’s stellar performance. For most of Lecter’s screen time he is limited either through the confines of his cell or by restraints. Yet despite these confines, Hopkins has a powerful  physical presence that is never anything less than menacing. His statuesque posture and deliberate steps, all carefully constructed to fully bring Lecter to life. Each and every word is delivered with purpose and point, wholly embracing the role of an exceptionally intelligent but malevolent Lecter.

What is most terrifying though, are his eyes. You know the hideous monster he is but he reveals nothing. Instead you can see his piercing, eyes focused directly on Clarice, searching her mind, seeing through her facade. He sees everything and reads more from every minuscule detail and in return Clarice gets self-reflection and a small trickle of information Lecter deems necessary. Carefully weighed, enough to intrigue but not enough to complete the puzzle.

The writing and dialogue here are exceptional, the best example being the verbal sparring between Lecter and Clarice. Clarice is scared and captivated by Lecter and never backs down from his abrasive questioning or intellectual challenges. But this is in essence what Hannibal is. He elevates himself to a higher plane of existence, intellectually and spiritually. He toys with those unworthy. Kills and eats those he deems rude or discourteous. For those few he finds interesting or deserving of his time he continually provokes and challenges to prove his superiority. To prove that they are beneath him, And to prove that he is in control.

Here he is in full flow:

Although cleverly shot, thoughtfully crafted and brilliantly acted throughout, the stand out for me (besides Lecter) is the strength of Clarice Starling as a character. Not only is she strong, dedicated and equally, if opposingly, brilliant to Lecter but she does this in a world designed to belittle and dismiss her. The Law enforcement of this film, and real life, is a strikingly male dominated world, with a multitude of evidence for this. Often the only woman in the room. Lustful or comical looks from male counterparts. The attitude towards women in the Bureau is summed up, in a typically confrontational, question by Lecter about whether Clarice has considered that Jack wants to sleep with her. She replies, ”That does not interest me Doctor and frankly, it’s, its the sort of thing Miggs would say”. In reference to her previous visit with Lecter where his neighbour Miggs threw semen at her; Lecter responded by convincing Miggs to kill himself… This exchange typifies Clarice, no matter the trauma or situation, she will become stronger, she will evolve and triumph. Further more, she challenges superiors to change and adapt their attitudes towards women because as she rightly states,” It matters, Mr Crawford. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.”

Here is my favourite scene of Clarice’s, discussing her childhood during quid-pro-quo with Lecter and explaining the films title:

Clarice is a strong character. She isn’t strong for a woman. Or strong for a man. She is a strong person in her own right. Defined by her drive and her goals. Now although times have moved on, the world of movies hasn’t really improved in this area. I can’t think of many women in film as strong since Clarice, apart from maybe Furiosa from Mad Max Fury Road (I’m sure there are a good few examples I’m blanking on). These characters are great not because they are physically strong (although I’m sure they are), like say Hope Van Dyne (Ant Man) or Isla Faust (MI:Rogue Nation), but because they are real people. They have complex emotions and beliefs, they are driven and have faults and stand against the obstacles in their path. They earn their place in cinema in there own right, not by serving as a foil for someone else or even worse as window dressing.

No horror film is complete without a big, scary villain. In this case we have two! Alongside Lecter we have Ted Levine giving a jarring and unsettling performance as Buffalo Bill. It was almost like playing two characters; the low-key and conspicuous public persona and the unstable, confused and angry murderer in private. He does this brilliantly, switching between the two seamlessly. Bill does not just kill for pleasure, he has a deep and complex pathology. A confusion and intricacy Levine brings to all his scenes; allowing us to empathize with him on some level knowing the years of abuse he suffered and his difficulty with self acceptance.

This film has received some criticism for featuring the often used trope of having trans-gender or homosexuality cause psychopathy (something especially common on procedural shows where fresh ideas for criminals run out fast), which is obviously COMPLETELY WRONG. LGBT rights and tolerance have come along a way since 1991 but the fact that this is still a writing device shows that there is a ways to go yet! I think these criticisms of the film are valid but I also think there is more to Buffalo Bill, as Lecter states;

”Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.”

Bill hates who he is and thinks being someone else will bring him acceptance. He covets women and sees them as better and worthy of acceptance and so attempts to transform himself into one to gain self acceptance. But gender identity is an intrinsic part of us, the change in our external characteristics or appearance come later, if at all, and completely depend on each individual. Bill’s pathology has lead him to believe that wearing a suit of women to change his exterior will change his fundamental identity. He is too unwell to grasp that his self-hatred does not means he has a trans-identity.

Anyway….this is an exceptional film. Dark, scary and intense. Watch it.

VERDICT: ”A CENSUS TAKER ONCE TRIED TO TEST ME. I ATE HIS LIVER WITH SOME FAVA BEANS AND A NICE CHIANTI.”

”WELL, CLARICE – HAVE THE LAMBS STOPPED SCREAMING?”

SKIP to 1:20 for the classic exchange

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