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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
On Friday night I settled in and watched the classic 1991 horror-thriller Silence of the Lambs. I haven’t seen it in maybe five or so years, so revisiting it was a pretty rewarding experience. Having seen this film a few times in my life (but again, not recently), I was able to relax and take in some sights I had never really noticed before. I want to talk about three things that I never really thought about when watching Silence of the Lambs until now. Here goes:
1. The direction is absolutely brilliant
I don’t really know what I think when I think of the name Jonathan Demme, except that he directed this film. I’m not a particular fan of his filmography. He certainly seems to be a good director, and he uses music brilliantly in his movies (it’s no wonder he directed the classic concert film Stop Making Sense, for example). I can’t help but feel his career has been a bit underwhelming though.
But whatever I might think of Demme, his direction in Lambs is absolutely brilliant. The camera work in this movie struck me as particularly fine, especially the introductory scene between Clarice Starling, ably played by Jodie Foster, and Hannibal Lecter, ditto Anthony Hopkins. There is a moment where Clarice and Dr. Chilton (head of the psychiatric institute housing Lecter) race through a narrow corridor where the camera tracks forward, leaps aside, and then tracks behind them. It’s an absolutely stunning shot. The intensity ratchets up when Starling meets Lecter, where effective camera work and direction portend ominous outcomes for our heroine.
Demme rightly won the Academy Award for his work here. I honestly can’t believe I’ve never come to appreciate just exactly what he did with Silence of the Lambs. Honestly, an FBI procedural about a rookie female agent tracking a serial killer? These days that’s pretty par for the course on networks like CBS. But holy crap, Demme brings his A game and treats the viewer to a tour de force of directing skills.
2. Buffalo Bill is a great villain
Sometimes movies come to be defined by their villains. Think Hans Gruber in Die Hard, the terminator in The Terminator, or even Tom Cruise’s great performance in Collateral (is Collateral underrated or overrated? What’s the consensus?). In The Silence of the Lambs I actually find Buffalo Bill to be just as terrorizing, menacing, and scary than Hannibal Lecter, if not more so. Bill, played by great character actor Ted Levine, is the secret weapon of Lambs. Without a great performance from the villain, the film isn’t nearly as effective.
There’s no denying that Hopkins’ performance as Lecter is outright iconic, but I would argue that Buffalo Bill has become the villain we all really remember from Lambs. How many times have we seen this spring up in pop culture for instance? Levine plays the role as that of the tortured psychotic that he is, but his performance is also subtle and he plays the role smartly, especially in situations where he’s outwitting both victims and police.
3. Times have changed immensely since 1991
I turned to my girlfriend a few times and noted just how out of date everything in this movie seems to be, especially from the lens provided by 2012. There’s one scene, where FBI agent Jack Crawford (the great Scott Glenn) and rookie Starling begin an autopsy/inspection of a murder victim. Literally everyone in the background looks like they just stepped out of 1965 or something. There’s an old-fashioned charm to the mannerisms, police work, and just the general overall world built by Silence of the Lambs.
I’d argue there are films out there that just wouldn’t work in today’s time frame. Think of something like The Warriors, where a simple cell phone might have prevented the entire events of the film from happening. In a few ways, Lambs falls into this trap, and that’s unfortunate. There are several parts in this film where things like that would have been really helpful to our main characters. A cell phone call from Crawford, for example, may have saved Starling the trouble of nearly being killed by Bill towards the end. Of course Clarice saves the day, but it was a close call for sure.
This is probably the reason why police procedurals largely don’t exist as a movie genre anymore. They work much better as 42-minute affairs on TV, where CSI, NCIS, JAG, The Profiler, and others have experienced great amounts of success in the time since Silence of the Lambs.