The Silence of the Lambs

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #13: Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.

Noth­ing is so fright­en­ing as what’s behind the closed door. The audi­ence holds its breath along with the pro­tag­o­nist as she/he (more often she) approach­es that door…”

Stephen King in Danse Macabre and before that Val Lew­ton


The Silence of the Lambs is all kinds of great. For a hor­ror movie it offers rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle gore, instead rely­ing on what is not seen to grow the fear. The film pret­ty much uses one cin­e­mat­ic trick over and over through­out, but it nev­er gets old. Demme’s choice to use a shal­low depth of field and straight-on fram­ing of the char­ac­ters do much to strength­en the rela­tion­ships between char­ac­ter dia­logue and rela­tion­ship, the con­stant scopophilic gaze direct­ed by almost every man to Agent Starl­ng cre­ates a delib­er­ate and con­stant sense of unease to her sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, and the myr­i­ad ref­er­ences to change and meta­mor­pho­sis ensure that no one thing we know can be seen as cer­tain.

But time and time again what gives the movie its pep is the closed door, the reveal, the pas­sage through. The next time you see this film, count them. Door­ways are lim­i­nal sym­bols, inher­ent­ly unpre­dictable and the con­stant action of open­ing, pas­sage and clos­ing tak­en by Clarice reflects her own growth as an FBI agent. The view­er grows along with her and grat­i­fi­ca­tion is delayed in almost every scene; when we think we are about to make a dis­cov­ery, only anoth­er door is revealed.

The cli­mac­tic sequence of the film [if only I could find it online!] has well over twen­ty doors that must be passed through or at least iden­ti­fied as a pos­si­ble source of ter­ror for Clarice. Cou­pled with the unpre­dictabil­i­ty of Han­ni­bal Lector’s mind and the ease with which he manip­u­lates an entire inves­ti­ga­tion it should be no sur­prise that the view­er is just as eas­i­ly manip­u­lat­ed by the edit­ing in the lead-up to the Starling’s con­fronta­tion with Buf­fa­lo Bill. This is a film that has got our num­ber, can fool us over and over with the same cin­e­mat­ic par­lor tricks and leave us want­i­ng more. Hitch­cock, who I had ini­tial­ly thought of as the man who made the closed door quote, would have been proud.

The oth­er main strength of the film is the act­ing. Just about every­one is superbly creepy. This might be due to the fact that just as near­ly every­one is a man and we are often encased with­in Agent Starling’s world­view as the object of desire, but even the bit-part actors are awash in uncan­ni­ness that is all the more effec­tive because it is so nat­ur­al. We all know peo­ple who are that sort of weird. The rela­tion­ship between Lec­tor and Star­ling is often that of a snake hyp­no­tiz­ing a bird. Cer­tain­ly Antho­ny Hop­kins act­ing is makes the film extra extra­or­di­nary and the qual­i­ty of every­one else buoys his per­for­mance up even high­er. I real­ly have no crit­i­cisms of this film, it is so cruft­less, pol­ished and so effec­tive at what it does that I can’t think of much else to say.


3 Replies

  • I saw this for the first time when I was 11 or 12; I attrib­uted the creepi­ness fac­tor to the sub­ject mat­ter. It wasn’t until I saw it again years lat­er that I was able to dis­cern the creepi­ness of all the men in Starling’s life.

    Also, dur­ing that first view­ing my best friend’s sis­ter-in-law told us the sto­ry of her first time see­ing the movie. She was in her apart­ment with her room­mate in the dark, total­ly wrapped up in the movie and a lit­tle scared when they both heard a sound com­ing from the window…They look away from the screen to see a peep­ing tom peer­ing in at them.

    That def­i­nite­ly upped the creepy quo­tient for me and my eyes spent the rest of the movie dart­ing back and forth from screen to win­dow.

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