The Silence of the Lambs

Wednesday, 4 October 2006

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.