Friday, October 31, 2014

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Director: Jonathan Demme                              Writer: Ted Tally & Thomas Harris
Film Score: Howard Shore                               Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn and Ted Levine

I’ll never forget how delighted I was when The Silence of the Lambs swept the top awards at the Oscars in early 1992. Ostensibly a horror film, it was not only the first such film to win a major Oscar since Frederick March won the best actor award for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sixty years earlier, it was also the first film to win the top five Academy Awards since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1972. I was also pleased because I had already been a longtime fan of author Thomas Harris and knew that the added publicity would not only increase exposure to his latest novel, but also the first book in the series, Red Dragon, and the film that had been made of it, Manhunter. The screenplay by Ted Tally is a good one, hewing close to Thomas Harris’s original vision, and winning an Oscar in the process. He actually knew Harris and began thinking about a screenplay after receiving an advanced copy of the novel from the author prior to publication. Originally Gene Hackman was the principal mover in trying to produce the film, possibly directing and starring as Hannibal Lecter, the character eventually played by Anthony Hopkins. But Hackman dropped out and Jonathan Demme was brought in to direct. An interesting choice considering the wide range of films he had directed previously and the modest success of most of them.

The story opens on the FBI training grounds in Quantico, Virginia. Jodie Foster plays a cadet who is called into the office of Scott Glenn, head of the behavioral sciences unit, the division that studies serial killers. Glenn is conducting interviews with all incarcerated killers and all have participated except the notorious Anthony Hopkins. Glenn hopes he’ll open up to a rookie in a way he wouldn’t with a veteran officer. She asks if the interview has anything to do with an ongoing investigation into a killer called Buffalo Bill, but he assures her it doesn’t. At the prison she is briefed by the brilliantly creepy Anthony Heald and Frankie Faison is the guard in the maximum-security wing who tells her the rules. But nothing can prepare the viewer for the dolly shot down the corridor from Foster’s point of view and seeing the brightly lit cell with Hopkins, standing dead still in the middle of the floor, eyes blazing. Hopkins, in addition to being a serial killer who ate his victims, is also a brilliant psychologist. He senses immediately that Foster is there to learn about Buffalo Bill, even if she doesn’t know it. Glenn warned her not to give him any personal information about herself but, desperate to make a good showing, she answers questions about her personal life in order to gain information he has about the new killer.

The subplot concerns the killer himself, Ted Levine in his breakout role after appearing in a series of TV movies and bit parts in feature films. He removes much of the skin off of his victims before dumping them in one of the many rivers around Ohio. His latest victim is a young woman, Brooke Smith in only her second film. She is captured when Levine pretends to be attempting to lift a couch into the back of his van with a broken arm. He keeps her in what looks like a partially filled in well in the basement of his house, feeding her very little, and telling her to put lotion on her skin. Meanwhile Foster’s relationship with Hopkins becomes increasingly complex. Glenn has to admit to her that she was sent in to get information about Levine and now she goes with him on several errands concerning the case. Hopkins uses his relationship with Foster to get transferred to Tennessee, as it turns out that Smith is the daughter of a U.S. Senator from that state, the beautiful Diane Baker. Their meeting in an airplane hanger, with Hopkins trussed up so that only his lips and eyes can move, is wonderfully chilling. Eventually the two story lines weave together, with Hopkins’ unique relationship with Foster deepening as he gradually allows her to get ever closer to discovering Levine.

Ultimately, it’s the direction by Jonathan Demme that really defines the film. The choices he makes are very confident, from the long tracking shot that opens the film beneath the credits, to the judicious use of closeups on all of the lead characters, to the entire Memphis courthouse scene, as well as the finale. Demme not only won an Oscar for best direction, but the film won for best picture as well. Finally, both Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster were given statuettes for their performances, completing the sweep of the top honors at that year’s Academy Awards. Other notable faces appearing in the film are the great Dan Butler as an entomologist and Charles Napier as a Memphis police officer, while directors Roger Corman and George Romero make cameo appearances as the director of the FBI and an FBI field agent respectively. The film score was composed by Howard Shore, a Canadian composer who was an excellent choice considering he had worked extensively with Canadian horror director David Cronenberg prior to the film. Though not initially a blockbuster hit, the brilliant characterizations in the film and the solid direction, combined with a controversial plotline, all worked in concert to make The Silence of the Lambs one of the great horror films of all time.

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