Silence of the Lambs: A wonderful exception

Hollywood loves to turn great books into mediocre movies. Dracula with Winona Ryder and Gary Oldman is a perfect example. My God, what an awful movie. Hearts in Atlantis is another. What a fantastic book, filled with emotion and sorrow, but on the big screen, it fell flat.

Strangely, another Anthony Hopkins film proved to be exempt from the Hollywood curse: Silence of the Lambs.

Silence of the Lambs is based on the book written by Thomas Harris. And what a book. Imagery so disturbing, it will keep you up at night and dialogue so perfectly written, you feel as though you are standing in the basement of the Baltimore psychiatric hospital, watching Clarice Starling’s first encounter with Hannibal Lecter. The film is better.

Jonathan Demme, Ted Tally and a cast of some of the finest actors on Earth, took Thomas Harris’s novel and made magic. They did it so well that Silence of the Lambs took home a total of five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Sir Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Director (Jonathan Demme) and Best Screenplay based on Material Previously Published (Ted Tally). A horror film that won five Oscars? Oh, but this is not just a horror film.

From the opening scene where Clarice Starling is running like a deer through an FBI obstacle course, you know she is battling some invisible demon. There is a strength to Agent Starling, and Jodie Foster portrays Starling with grace and elegance, but never lets us forget Clarice is just one generation from “poor white trash”, as Dr. Lecter puts it. Dr. Lecter. Hannibal the Cannibal. The worst monster in modern literature, and Sir Anthony Hopkins brings him to life with quiet horror and seduction. You want to listen to him, you want to understand him, even as you wince in his presence.

One of the true antagonists in the book and film is Dr. Frederick Chilton, Hannibal Lecter’s psychiatrist and chief tormentor is first introduced to readers in the chilling Red Dragon, also by Thomas Harris. Chilton is pompous, manipulative, smarmy and incompetent. Anthony Heald, a brilliant character actor, portrays Chilton with just the right balance; Heald’s Dr. Chilton is never campy, never over the top. His performance adds exactly the correct sleaze factor. When Clarice must battle Chilton’s lies and underhanded tactics, you hate him a little.

Clarice Starling must convince Hannibal Lecter to help her, and her mentor, Jack Crawford (exquisitely brought to the screen by Scott Glenn) capture Buffalo Bill, a sadistic serial killer so named because he skins “his humps”. Being a sadistic killer himself, the FBI hopes that by dangling a carrot or two under Lecter’s imprisoned nose, they can compel his assistance. Thanks to Dr. Chilton, this plan goes terribly awry, Buffalo Bill kidnaps the daughter of a US senator and against Starling and Crawford’s warnings, Dr. Chilton gets Hannibal the Cannibal transferred to Tennessee to assist in finding Senator Martin’s daughter. What can go wrong?

Everything, it turns out. But I will not give it away. What I will tell you is that Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill is a coups de grace. Levine, who went on to star in “Monk”, is responsible for one of the most terrifying scenes in any movie I’ve ever seen. From the first viewing to the twentieth, Levine’s last moments on screen never fail to elicit a response of absolute fear.

Silence of the Lambs is a scary film, but it is so much more than that. It is superbly, if not perfectly, acted and directed, the script is flawless and even the soundtrack fits every scene like a glove. It also produced two of the most well known quotes in the last 50 years:

It rubs the lotion on its skin. (Buffalo Bill)

A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and nice Chianti. (Hannibal Lecter)


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Posted by on February 11, 2012. Filed under Book/Movie Reviews,CRITTER TALK. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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