Jonathan Demme's thriller had us at "Hello, (Clarice)"

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated February 14, 2016 at 05:41 PM EST

Released on this day 25 years ago, Jonathan Demme’s macabre masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs was only the third movie to ever sweep “The Big Five” at the Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. (The other two, for the record, were 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1934’s It Happened One Night). But the blood-curdling serial-killer thriller starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins deserves to be remembered (and re-watched with some fava beans and nice chianti) for reasons beyond its special place in Oscar history, or its $130.7 million haul at the box office. After all, it not only gifted the world with Hopkins’ unshakably malevolent portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, it also became the rare genre movie that could make the higher claim to be Art.

In honor of the film’s silver anniversary, we revisited the film that first preoccupied our nightmares in the winter of 1991 to remember why The Silence of the Lambs was — and continues to be — the greatest blockbuster of the ‘90s…

1. It’s the rare movie adaptation that’s actually better than the book… and the book’s great. The second installment in Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter quadriology, 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs was a sequel to 1981’s insomnia-inducing novel, Red Dragon. Some backstory: In 2002, Red Dragon was turned into a forgettably mediocre Brett Ratner film starring Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes along with Hopkins. But long before that, Red Dragon was adapted into Michael Mann’s moody 1986 neon-noir, Manhunter. Now, if you haven’t seen Manhunter, you need to correct that. Seriously. Not only is it a flat-out masterpiece, somehow just calling it a “masterpiece” right now feels like insufficient praise. Over the past 25 years, Manhunter (which stars a pre-CSI William Petersen and Brian Cox as Hannibal “Operator, I don’t have the use of my arms…” Lecter) has become The Silence of the Lambs’ older, tragically overlooked sibling. It’s the movie equivalent of Eli and Peyton Manning’s big brother, Cooper. But we’re here to talk about Silence. In Harris’ procedural page-turner, which like Demme’s film, pits FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling against the most famous inmate at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, “Hannibal the Cannibal” upstages the real maniac on the loose, Buffalo Bill. In fact, he upstages everything in the book. He probably upstages everything else in the bookstore that sells it. Still, it’s Hopkins’ calm menace and sinister sangfroid that gives the character that extra dollop of twisted nutjob charisma. So much so that it’s impossible to go back to Harris’ books and read them without hearing Hopkins’ creepy voice in your head. The book is memorable; the movie is indelible.

2. It’s a master class in storytelling. I first saw The Silence of the Lambs the week after it opened in February of 1991. The next time I watched it was… well, this week. I mean, I’d caught bits and pieces of it on TV over the years and did a few random YouTube searches to find Ted Levine saying, “It puts the lotion in the basket…” and “Oh wait, was she a great, big fat person?” But for some reason, I just never got around to seeing it again. I never really needed to because it was so branded into my memory banks. I think that’s because the movie is so perfectly paced and constructed by Demme, screenwriter Ted Tally, and editor Craig McKay that I can close my eyes and it unspools in seamless order in my head. Watching it now (with a notebook and a critic’s scalpel nearby), I was surprised at how economically the movie lays out its rich universe.

As an example, look at the first three main sequences in the film. The first one introduces us to our hero, Foster’s Clarice Starling, as she sweats and struggles through an obstacle course at the FBI Academy outside Quantico, Va. Right away, we understand who she is. She’s a woman in a man’s world. She’s small, but determined to overcome anything thrown in her way. And she’s tenacious and gritty as hell. When she’s called off the course and summoned to see her boss, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), she once again enters an elevator full of much bigger male trainees (and they are all male). The next sequence puts Starling in Crawford’s office. She doesn’t know why she’s there yet, but covering the walls are newspaper clippings about the at-large serial killer, Buffalo Bill, and grisly crime-scene photos of his skinned female victims. We’re piecing together her assignment right along with her before it’s even given to her. We not only know the villain, but also his tabloid notoriety and his sick M.O.

When she sits down, Crawford tells her that he wants her to go talk to Hannibal Lecter in his maximum-security mental hospital. “You’re to tell him nothing personal, Starling,” he says. “Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” The filmmakers are making us put the pieces together. What kind of monster is this Lecter? And what does he have to do with the Buffalo Bill case? Starling doesn’t know it yet, but she’s the worm Crawford’s putting on the end of a hook.

Finally, the third sequence: Starling is literally being guided into the sub-basement underworld of Lecter by his oleaginous jailor, Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), who tells Starling that Crawford was very clever to use her with Lecter (who hasn’t seen a woman in eight years). Oh, so that’s why she’s gotten this assignment! She now realizes she’s bait. The insecurity plays out on Foster’s face and is only compounded by the rules Chilton lays out for her along with some of the juicier highlights from Lecter’s pre-incarcerated reign of terror (“On the afternoon of July the 8th, 1981, he complained of chest pains and was taken to the dispensary. His mouthpiece and restraints were removed for an EKG. When the nurse leaned over him, he did this to her…” Chilton shows Starling a photo we can’t see, but which can’t be any worse than what we’re imagining). Just like that, before we’ve even laid eyes on Lecter, the table’s been set. We in the audience are the worms on the hook now, not Starling. The movie’s barely 10 minutes old, and in these three scenes, we know who the characters are… and we want to know more. And the pulse-racing pace doesn’t flag until the end credits.

WANT MORE EW? Subscribe now to keep up with the latest in movies, television and music.

3. It’s cast perfectly, right down to the tiniest roles. It isn’t just Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins (who we’ll get to in sections 4 and 5) that are so spot on in their roles. Even the most supporting supporting actors in The Silence of the Lambs feel as if they got the same fastidious attention as the marquee stars. Scott Glenn, who was just coming off 1990’s The Hunt For Red October, probably seemed like an unlikely FBI profiler on paper. Over the course of his career, the actor frequently was tapped to play characters who were more blunt instruments than surgical scalpels. But Demme knew better. The two had first met 20 years earlier on a low-budget, Roger Corman biker picture called Angels Hard As They Come. Demme co-wrote and produced the film and it gave Glenn one of his first big big-screen parts. As Crawford, Glenn reveals a sly intelligence as well as a manipulative side — he not only knows that Starling will get Lecter’s juices flowing, he also tells her just enough to keep her in the dark about how and why he’s using her. It’s arguably the best performance of his career.

You could say that about a lot of the folks in Lambs. Anthony Heald as Dr. Chilton oozes pride, ambition, and desperation. His biggest insecurity is having someone from the FBI swoop in and extract the information from Lecter’s brain that he’s unable to get to. With his lecherous, toothy smile and oily, fumbling attempts at flirting with Starling, he’s like a frustrated shrink crossed with a Peeping Tom who’s one step away from a To Catch a Predator sting operation. As Jame Gumb, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, Ted Levine is utterly terrifying. With his deep, foghorn voice and taste for sitting naked at a sewing machine stitching together a demented crazy-quilt of female flesh, he’s literally the psycho who lives next door — a ‘90s Norman Bates.

(Interesting footnote: In 1992, I was playing pool in a Chicago bar and who should walk up to the table and put a quarter on the table to play the next game, but Ted Levine. This was less than a year after I’d seen him in The Silence of the Lambs, and I could barely hold my pool cue in my trembling hands I was so rattled. For the life of me, all I wanted to do was say, “It puts the eight-ball in the side pocket,” but I didn’t get the chance. But I digress.)

All the way down the line in Demme’s film — from Frankie Faison as Barney the orderly, to veteran character actor (and Russ Meyer staple) Charles Napier as the cop who becomes a victim in one of Lecter’s grisly death tableaus, to Brooke Smith as the senator’s terrified-yet-defiant daughter being held at the bottom of a well in Buffalo Bill’s dungeon basement, to even Dan Butler and Paul Lazar as the harmlessly horny bug nerds — there isn’t a casting decision that feels off or compromised. It’s perfectly constructed from the ground up.

4. Jodie Foster was a new kind of movie heroine. Okay, let me take one tiny step back from that statement for a second. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was — and shall always be — the alpha and omega of female action heroes.

That said, aside from Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s action movies were pretty much a barren wasteland as far as strong female characters with smarts were concerned. You could argue that that’s still the case, but at least the pool of exceptions has a slightly deeper deep end: Charlize Theron in Fury Road, Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow and as the very Starling-like FBI agent in Sicario, Daisy Ridley in The Force Awakens, Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games flicks, Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evils, etc. The fact that I can even type “etc.” puts us in a better place than we were when Foster played Starling.

One of the things that I love about Demme’s film is that he gives us a female hero who’s also vulnerable and, therefore, human. She’s not a superhero. Lecter takes one look at her and throws her off by pointing out her “good bag” and “cheap shoes,” but she figures out his weakness: his intellectual vanity. Midway through the film, there’s a great scene where Starling and Crawford are riding back from an autopsy of one of Buffalo Bill’s female victims and she takes him to task for excluding her from a conversation because she’s a woman. She lets him know the wrong message that it sent to every male cop in the room — how they wouldn’t take her seriously afterwards. And even though the scene is a brief one, it stings. She’s warning Crawford and us not to patronize her or take her lightly. And when the film builds to its brilliant red-herring climax, with Crawford staging a raid on what he believes to be Buffalo Bill’s lair, it’s Starling who’s five feet away from the real killer. She’s the one who will be tested by Buffalo Bill, not her male boss who thinks he’s protecting her. Clarice Starling doesn’t need his or anyone’s protection or patronizing.

5. Is it or isn’t it a horror movie? If you work at Entertainment Weekly long enough, you’ll find yourself in a lot of brainstorming meetings coming up with the 25 Best This or the 50 Best That. I’ve lost count of how many times during these list-making sessions, a debate has broken out over whether The Silence of the Lambs should be called a horror movie. How can there be any question? The underlying prejudice in this question is that the movie is somehow too good to be filed under the genre. That’s baloney. Of course, it’s a horror movie (and, for the record, so is Jaws). It’s even got a masked bogeyman like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street — although technically Lecter’s is more of a muzzle. Even without the hardware, Lecter is a classic horror movie staple, the baddie we love to hate. What’s interesting is that Hopkins only appears in the film for 16 minutes. It’s the shortest amount of screen time to ever earn an Oscar for Best Actor. He’s that good. His creepy presence is felt in the film even when he’s not actually in it. Although Lecter is discussed in the hushed tones of a nightmarish spectre before we lay eyes on him, he doesn’t show up until 15 or so minutes in. In that introduction, Starling has just run the gauntlet of depraved psychos in the chthonic bowels of the Baltimore State Hospital of the Criminally Insane, turning the corner to see Lecter standing ram-rod straight in a blue jumpsuit with slicked back hair and sleepy eyes. He hardly seems like the monster we’ve been led to expect. His horror is interior, swirling around in head like a haunted closet full of unspeakable contents. As he starts talking to the rookie agent, he begins to dissect her with his unsettling powers of Holmesian observation. He sniffs at the air holes in his cell and tells her, “You use Evian skin cream. And sometimes you wear L’Air du Temps… but not today.” He’s not the kind of monster to say Boo! His is a quiet kind of menace. He pegs her as a “rube” who’s “one generation from poor white trash.” She’s rattled. Then, as the coup de grace, he lets her know who she’s messing with: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava< beans and a nice chianti… flp, flp, flp.”

Jesus. What’s interesting is that 25 years later if you ask people who the villain in The Silence of The Lambs was, 99 percent of them will say Hannibal Lecter. But he’s not the villain; Buffalo Bill is. It’s, of course, a testament to how well written the part is (every line is like an operatic aria), but it’s also a testament to how unbelievably great Hopkins is. And you could argue that he’s spent the past 25 years unsuccessfully chasing after another role that lives up to it. Here was a monster who also happened to be refined, a man of taste (literally) who had a sweet-tooth for classical music, painting, architecture. Since then, these cultured traits have become hackneyed serial killer stereotypes. But in 1991 (or when Harris first introduced Lecter in Red Dragon in 1981), this felt like a fresh take — the high-brow banality of evil.

The only line of Lecter’s that I don’t like — and it’s really the only scene in the entire film that doesn’t work for me — is when he’s wheeled in on a dolly to speak with the senator whose daughter has been abducted by Buffalo Bill. At the end of their conversation, he calls after her, “Oh, and Senator… love your suit.” It’s too cheeky by half. It feels like something Freddy Krueger would have said with a fiendish wink in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.

If you’re still unsure that Silence is a horror movie, though, all you need to do is rewatch the last scene of the movie. Starling has caught and killed Buffalo Bill. She’s graduated from the FBI Academy. Crawford has told her that her late father would have been proud. Then she gets a phone call. It’s Lecter on the lam. “Well, Clarice… have the lambs stopped screaming?”

She’ll never outrun the bogeyman. We see him on the other end of the line in sunglasses, a linen suit, a hat. He’s in the tropics. “I do wish we could chat longer,” he tells her, “but I’m having an old friend for dinner.” Cut to his nemesis, a vacationing Dr. Chilton getting off a plane, clueless that he’ll soon be on the business end of one of Hannibal the Cannibal’s bloody binges. If there’s one thing that horror movies are famous for, it’s their sting-in-the-tail endings. And the sting in Silence’s tail is as sharp today as it was 25 years ago.