February 14th 2021

The Silence of the Lambs: 30 Years On

No doubt it was someone's idea of a joke to release Silence of the Lambs on Valentine's Day, thirty years ago today. Although it references Valentines at one point and hints at a deeper relationship between Starling and Lecter, it was clearly too tempting to jeopardise so many date nights. After all, how many couples were going to enjoy their ribeyes medium-rare after watching this?

Given the muted success of Manhunter (1986), Silence of the Lambs was our first real introduction to Dr. Lecter. Indeed, many of the best scenes in this film are introductions: Starling's first encounter with Lecter is probably the best introduction in the whole of cinema, but our preceding introduction to the asylum's factotum carries a lot of cultural weight too, if only because the camera's measured pan around the environment before alighting on Barney has been emulated by so many first-person video games since.

We first see Buffalo Bill at the thirty-two minute mark. (Or, more tellingly, he sees us.) Delaying the viewer's introduction to the film's villain is the mark of a secure and confident screenplay, even if it was popularised by the budget-restricted Jaws (1975) which hides the eponymous shark for one hour and 21 minutes.

It is no mistake that the first thing we see of Starling do is, quite literally, pull herself up out of the unknown. With all of the focus on the Starling—Lecter repartee, the viewer's first introduction to Starling is as underappreciated as she herself is to the FBI. Indeed, even before Starling tells Lecter her innermost dreams, we learn almost everything we need to about Starling in the first few minutes: we see her training on an obstacle course in the forest, the unused rope telling us that she is here entirely voluntarily. And we can surely guess why; the passing grade for a woman in the FBI is to top of the class, and Starling's not going to let an early February in Virginia get in the way of that.

We need to wait a full three minutes before we get our first line of dialogue, and in just eight words ("Crawford wants to see you in his office...") we get our confirmation about the FBI too. With no other information other than he can send a messenger out into the cold, we can intuit that Crawford tends to get what Crawford wants. It's just plain "Crawford" too; everyone knows his actual title, his power, "his" office.

The opening minutes also introduce us to the film's use of visual hierarchy. Our Hermes towers above Starling throughout the brief exchange (she must push herself even to stay within the camera's frame). Later, Starling always descends to meet her demons: to the asylum's basement to visit Lecter and down the stairs to meet Buffalo Bill. Conversely, she feels safe enough to reveal her innermost self to Lecter on the fifth floor of the courthouse. (Bong Joon-ho's Parasite (2019) uses elevation in an analogous way, although a little more subtly.)

The messenger turns to watch Starling run off to Crawford. Are his eyes involuntarily following the movement or he is impressed by Starling's gumption? Or, almost two decades after John Berger's male gaze, is he simply checking her out? The film, thankfully, leaves it to us.

Crawford is our next real introduction, and our glimpse into the film's sympathetic treatment of law enforcement. Note that the first thing that the head of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit does is to lie to Starling about the reason to interview Lecter, despite it being coded as justified within the film's logic. We learn in the book that even Barney deceives Starling, recording her conversations with Lecter and selling her out to the press. (Buffalo Bill always lies to Starling, of course, but I think we can forgive him for that.) Crawford's quasi-compliment of "You grilled me pretty hard on the Bureau's civil rights record in the Hoover years..." then encourages the viewer to conclude that the FBI's has been a paragon of virtue since 1972... All this (as well as her stellar academic record, Crawford's wielding of Starling's fragile femininity at the funeral home and the cool reception she receives from a power-suited Senator Ruth Martin), Starling must be constantly asking herself what it must take for anyone to take her seriously. Indeed, it would be unsurprising if she takes unnecessary risks to make that happen.

The cold open of Hannibal (2001) makes for a worthy comparison. The audience remembers they loved the dialogue between Starling and Lecter, so it is clumsily mentioned. We remember Barney too, so he is shoehorned in as well. Lacking the confidence to introduce new signifiers to its universe, Red Dragon (2002) aside, the hollow, 'clip show' feel of Hannibal is a taste of the zero-calorie sequels to come in the next two decades.

The film is not perfect, and likely never was. Much has been written on the fairly transparent transphobia in Buffalo Bill's desire to wear a suit made out of women's skin, but the film then doubles down on its unflattering portrayal by trying to have it both ways. Starling tells the camera that "there's no correlation between transsexualism and violence," and Lecter (the film's psychoanalytic authority, remember) assures us that Buffalo Bill is "not a real transsexual" anyway. Yet despite those caveats, we are continually shown a TERFy cartoon of a man in a wig tucking his "precious" between his legs and an absurdly phallic gun. And, just we didn't quite get the message, a decent collection of Nazi memorabilia.

The film's director repeated the novel's contention that Buffalo Bill is not actually transgender, but someone so damaged that they are seeking some kind of transformation. This, for a brief moment, almost sounds true, and the film's deranged depiction of what it might be like to be transgender combined with its ambivalence feels distinctly disingenuous to me, especially given that — on an audience and Oscar-adjusted basis — Silence of the Lambs may very well be the most transphobic film to come out of Hollywood. Still, I remain torn on the death of the author, especially when I discover that Jonathan Demme went on to direct Philadelphia (1993), likely the most positive film about homophobia and HIV.


Nevertheless, as an adaption of Thomas Harris' original novel, the movie is almost flawless. The screenplay excises red herrings and tuns down the volume on some secondary characters. Crucially for the format, it amplifies Lecter's genius by not revealing that he knew everything all along and cuts Buffalo Bill's origin story for good measure too — good horror, after all, does not achieve its effect on the screen, but in the mind of the viewer. The added benefit of removing material from the original means that the film has time to slowly ratchet up the tension, and can remain patient and respectful of the viewer's intelligence throughout: it is, you could almost say, "Ready when you are, Sgt. Pembury". Otherwise, the film does not deviate too far from the original, taking the most liberty when it interleaves two narratives for the famous 'two doorbells' feint.

Dr. Lecter's upright stance when we meet him reminds me of the third act of Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), another picture freighted with meaningful stairs. Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) began the now-shopworn trope of concealing a weapon in a flower box.

Two other points of deviation from the novel might be worthy of mention. In the book, a great deal is made of Dr. Lecter's penchant for Bach's Goldberg Variations, inducing a cultural resonance with other cinematic villains who have a taste for high art. It is also stressed in the book that it is the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould's recording too, although this is likely an attempt by Harris to demonstrate his own refined sensibilities — Lecter would surely have prefered a more historically-informed performance on the harpsichord. Yet it is glaringly obvious that it isn't Gould playing in the film at all; Gould's hypercanonical 1955 recording is faster and focused, whilst his 1981 release is much slower and contemplative. No doubt tedious issues around rights prevented the use of either recording, but I like to imagine that Gould himself nixed the idea.

The second change revolves around the film's most iconic quote. Deep underground, Dr. Lecter tries to spook Starling:

A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

The novel has this as "some fava beans and a big Amarone". No doubt the movie-going audience could not be trusted to know what an Amarone was, just as they were not to capable of recognising a philosopher. Nevertheless, substituting Chianti works better here as it cleverly foreshadows Tuscany (we discover that Lecter is living in Florence in the sequel), and it avoids the un-Lecterian tautology of 'big' — Amarone's, I am reliably informed, are big-bodied wines. Like Buffalo Bill's victims.

Yet that's not all. "The audience", according to TV Tropes:

... believe Lecter is merely confessing to one of his crimes. What most people would not know is that a common treatment for Lecter's "brand of crazy" is to use drugs of a class known as MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors). There are several things one must not eat when taking MAOIs, as they can case fatally low blood pressure, and as a physician and psychiatrist himself, Dr. Lecter would be well aware of this. These things include liver, fava beans, and red wine. In short, Lecter was telling Clarice that he was off his medication.

I could write more, but as they say, I'm having an old friend for dinner. The starling may be a common bird, but The Silence of the Lambs is that extremely rara avis indeed — the film that's better than the book. Ta ta...