The Spirit of The Silence of the Lambs Lives On

Jonathan Demme’s 1991 masterpiece, now available on the Criterion Collection, has endured far better than most of the imitators that followed.

Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in 'The Silence of the Lambs'
MGM / Orion

As The Silence of the Lambs opens, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is jogging through the woods at the FBI’s training academy at Quantico when she’s told to report immediately to her superior Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). As she runs back, she passes a series of signs nailed to a tree: HURT, AGONY, PAIN, LOVE IT, PRIDE. Back in the building, she walks into an elevator and is instantly surrounded by men looming over her, a couple of them regarding her somewhat derisively. It’s one of the most iconic shots in a film filled with them, and it’s only a few seconds long.

Beginning with that elevator, the director Jonathan Demme spends much of the movie putting characters in boxes or cages where they can be examined, pressured, or even tormented. He’s not subtle about the fact that his protagonist is a woman in a macho man’s world, nor that the men around her more often than not look down at her. This is a horror film—the first of its genre to win the Oscar for Best Picture—and it has moments of extreme violence, most of them centered around its chief villain, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a cannibalistic serial killer. But so much of Silence’s quieter, more pervasive dread comes when someone’s space is being invaded—particularly Clarice’s.

The Silence of the Lambs has just been released on Blu-Ray in a special Criterion edition, one that gathers the documentaries, deleted scenes, and commentaries from the film’s various out-of-print LaserDiscs and special DVD versions. Almost 27 years to the day after the movie’s release (when it became a surprise sleeper hit at the box office and an award winner), Silence’s cultural impact feels more profound than ever. Audiences’ obsession with true crime and the pathology of serial killers, the ongoing conversations about female representation in Hollywood, even Hannibal Lecter himself—all of it is at the forefront of so much of today’s pop culture.

Silence, based on Thomas Harris’s novel (his sequel to Red Dragon, which had already been filmed as Michael Mann’s Manhunter), sees fledgling FBI agent Starling tasked with interviewing Dr. Lecter in prison. She hopes to gain insights that will help the agency capture Buffalo Bill, another serial killer who’s still at large; Crawford is obviously hoping Starling’s untested steeliness will intrigue Lecter enough to get him to talk. “You’re to tell him nothing personal,” Crawford warns Starling. “Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.”

In Silence’s opening sequence, Demme shows how comfortable Starling is operating within a somewhat hostile world, navigating the culture of the FBI with her head held high. As she descends into a subterranean prison to talk to Lecter, Starling is far more cautious. She travels through door after barred door (seven of them, to be exact) before reaching her target, the camera creeping down a long prison hallway with her before finally craning around to see Lecter standing there in his cell. Demme uses point-of-view shots over and over again to convey the idea of Starling watching everything, and being spied on in return. But the film’s most devastating technique is perhaps the simplest: the close-up.

“Closer … ” Lecter coos, as Starling holds up her badge for him. “Closer!” Their first meeting sees Starling trying to maintain her authority and Lecter chipping away at it; he does it by drawing her nearer to him, by asking her personal questions, by brushing off her attempts at getting him to agree to her agenda. As Lecter begins to dominate the scene, Demme fills the frame with his face, shooting Hopkins in extreme close-up as the character sizes up his newest opponent. Lecter may be the one in prison but, thanks to Demme’s camera, it’s Starling who feels like a captive at times.

Those enclosed spaces recur throughout—there’s the well that Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) traps his newest victim in, the famed face-masks Lecter wears when he’s being transported, and the gargantuan steel cage constructed for him in a Tennessee courthouse. Maybe the most frightening sight in the whole movie, though, comes near the end, as Starling grasps around in the dark looking for Buffalo Bill as the viewer sees, through his night-vision goggles, him looming over her and reaching close enough to touch. It’s the violation of personal space, again, but in a directly malevolent way. Before Bill gets her, Starling whirls around and fires; throughout the film, even in her dealings with Lecter, she consistently demonstrates the capacity to surprise.

Still, Lecter gets his claws in her. As the film goes on, Starling defies Crawford’s warning and lets Lecter into her life, telling him personal details in exchange for help on the case. I’ve written before about what a fascinating character Lecter is—both the original Thomas Harris creation and the lingering pop-culture icon, who has now been played by four separate actors onscreen (though Hopkins’s work certainly remains the best-remembered). In Silence, Lecter is aggressively seductive in a way that other takes on the character aren’t. His entanglement with Starling isn’t romantic, but she’s undoubtedly intrigued by his mind, just as so many Americans remain interested in the inner lives of serial killers.

In preparing for the role of Crawford, Scott Glenn spent time with John E. Douglas, the FBI unit chief who created the bureau’s criminal-profiling program and wrote the book Mindhunter, recently adapted as a Netflix TV show. Douglas’s work—creating a psychological framework to understand the thinking of serial killers to make them easier to catch—is the bedrock of an entire dramatic subgenre. It’s not just in movies and TV (where it dominates), but also in podcasts, in documentaries, in real life, where actual murder cases are obsessed over in detail by online communities of amateur sleuths.

When The Silence of the Lambs debuted, its subject was still considered too lurid for a prestige film, too tabloid-y for mass consumption. All three of the first choices for its lead roles—Michelle Pfeiffer (as Starling), Sean Connery (as Lecter), and Gene Hackman (as Crawford)—turned it down, thinking the script excessively violent. But Demme transformed that potential B-movie material into something more thoughtful and chilling than almost anyone would have expected; in doing so, he helped spawn an entire universe of entertainment. Not all of it is good. But The Silence of the Lambs has stood the test of time for a reason.