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.