This week it was my turn again, and for my first film I decided to go with a movie that I have long thought deserved a screening at Cinema 1544, and if nobody else was going to do it then darn well I would – Jonathan Demme‘s 1991 masterpiece thriller The Silence Of The Lambs.

To take a bit of the edge off, I started with something silly – Monty Python’s “flying sheep” skit:

By the observant among us, it will be noted that the “flying sheep” skit features as many flying sheep as our feature film has mentions of “the silence of the lambs”.

I came by The Silence Of The Lambs a bit late, as I was in high school when it came out and while it may still have been in the theaters when I turned 17 (to get in the gate due to the “R” rating) I don’t think it was exactly on my radar.  I can’t quite remember the first time I saw it, but I do remember that it took probably three viewings to really cement itself in my mind as a great movie, the deal only truly being sealed when one afternoon, flipping through the onscreen guide for something to waste 20 minutes of time, I saw it was starting and figured I’d let it play in the background until I found something better to do – but 15 minutes in a realized there was no way I was turning it off.

Should we add narcissism to Dr. Lecter’s faults?

Jodie Foster stars as Clarice Starling, an FBI agent-in-training (she’s still at the academy) who gets recruited to administer a psych test to Dr. Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a former psychiatrist turned serial killer who is being held under maximum security.  Hannibal is quite an astute fellow, so Starling is actually kept in the dark about what the FBI really wants from Lecter, lest she give away the game, and he clam up.

I brought my pencil!

What the FBI is really hoping for is that Lecter will make it his own idea to give them some assistance on tracking down a current serial killer dubbed “Buffalo Bill” whose modus operandi is to skin his female victims once they are dead.  Indeed, Lecter is already quite interested by the Buffalo Bill case without any prompting from Clarice.  Most importantly, Clarice’s candor with Hannibal allows them to establish a sort of tense rapport – and in exchange for assistance on the case Lecter wants the opportunity to get inside Starling’s head.  And although the FBI sees this as kind of a takes-one-to-know-one situation, it turns out Lecter can be a bit more help than that.  Using cryptic clues he directs Clarice to a storage locker where found, among other things, is the severed head of one of Lecter’s former clients preserved in a jar.  Lecter later explains that he didn’t kill him – not this one – just left him as he found him, and implies that Buffalo Bill may have been his lover, a man Lecter saw on one occasion.

I’m going to bet that, at some point and despite telling himself he ought not to, Steve has eaten that

Meanwhile, there are ongoing developments in the search for Buffalo Bill.  First, another victim of Buffalo Bill’s turns up (always in the river) and Clarice assists with the autopsy, where a cocoon containing the larva of the Death’s Head Moth is found deep in her throat.  Since this turns out to be a rare Asian species, it is clear that the killer has planted it there, and is likely breeding these moths.  That’s a decent clue.

Hey Mister, I’m out of Jergens!

Second, another victim is abducted with Buffalo Bill’s calling card at the scene, and it turns out she’s a bit higher-profile than one would normally expect – she’s the daughter of one of the Senators from Tennessee.  Since the Senator has a lot more of a bully pulpit than the normal families of the victims, her appearances on TV force the FBI’s hand, and Starling is given a (fake) offer to get Lecter transferred to a less dungeon-like maximum security facility if he helps to return the Senator’s daughter alive.  This deception, however, is exposed by the facility’s sadistic warden, who offers Lecter a deal of his own making.

It’s so cruel, but otherwise he just bites out the stitches

Lecter is brought face to face with the Senator, where he gives her a false name for the killer (Louis Friend, an anagram of iron sulfide, AKA iron pyrite, or “fool’s gold”) and then transferred to an elaborate cage in a courthouse in Tennessee.  With the FBI now having found a Death’s Head Moth cocoon in the mouth of the man in the jar, Starling tries one last time to get Lecter to help with the case.  He seems to get more than he gives, however, as he convinces Starling to tell him about one of her worst childhood memories, when as an orphaned child she found herself living on a ranch with relatives and being awoken in the night by the screaming of the lambs as they are being slaughtered.  She tries to save them to no avail and ends up simply running away while carrying a single one.  Lecter suggests that she believes that if she can just solve this case, she’ll no longer wake up in the middle of the night to the screaming of the lambs.  Yet he sends Clarice away with little else than the idea that she already has what she needs to solve the case.

Death’s Head Moth, meet Pan-Slavic Butterfly!

Shortly after this, Lecter contrives a daring escape where he overpowers his guards, beats them to death, and gruesomely disguises himself as a very badly wounded guard by cutting off the guard’s face and wearing it as a mask in order to get outside of the security perimeter in an ambulance – which he of course commandeers and we’re left to imagine the rest.

I’m gonna strangle Monk, and then I’ll call you right back.

But Lecter wasn’t wrong – Clarice did have all she needed to solve the case.  One notable peculiarity about the case is that while Buffalo Bill disposes of all of his victims in rivers, there is no apparent pattern to it, and he only bothered to weight down the first victim.  The FBI thinks he just got lazy, but Clarice realizes, thinking back on Lecter’s insistence that one first learns to covet what one sees every day, that he weighted down the first body because that’s the body he didn’t want to be found – because he knew her.  So while the FBI is following up a bad lead on a location outside of Chicago for Buffalo Bill, who from Death’s Head Moth purchases they believe to be a certain Jame Gumb, Clarice is left in rural Ohio trying to see what she can learn about the first victim.  And who does she stumble upon?  None other than a man calling himself “Jack Gordon” who is terribly interested in whether the FBI has any leads or fingerprints and who has large moths flying around in his house.  Well, Clarice isn’t anybody’s fool, and she gets the better of Gordon, or Gumb, or Bill, or whoever he is despite her antagonist turning off the power and donning some night vision goggles.  The Senator’s daughter is saved, Clarice graduates from the FBI Academy (I hope she skipped out on the rest of her classes, because, like, she had that in the bag), and she gets a congratulatory phone call from one Dr. Hannibal Lecter, just as a courtesy before, having apparently tracked down the sadistic warden in the Caribbean, he heads off to “have an old friend for dinner”.  The End.

When I first “discovered” The Silence Of The Lambs, I thought to myself that it probably should have won Best Picture – not realizing that in fact it had.  And not only that, it is one of only three films to sweep the top five awards – Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay.  And really, it deserved it.  Demme does an incredible job of maintaining the tension in the film (well served by the outstanding score from Howard Shore), and he does it while deftly handling both the mundane and the macabre.  One of the greatest scenes is the misdirect at the end where an FBI raid party is ringing a doorbell in Chicago and Buffalo Bill, trying to get his now-captured poodle back from the victim he has thrown down a well, gets the notification of his doorbell ringing – only for it to turn out that the FBI is simultaneously raiding an empty house while Starling has stumbled on the real killer.  Foster and Hopkins earned their awards in their interview interactions.  Probably a full quarter of the film is taken up simply with intercuts of the the two talking to each other, and it doesn’t get old – in fact they’re some of the best scenes of the movie.  The actors, the screenplay, the director, all of these come into play to make this something more – a lot more – than a simple police procedural.  Yes, it has its gruesome moments, but the real tension is far more psychological. Lecter is more sinister for his perfectly calm sociopathy, biding his time and patiently waiting for those serendipitous moments than for the violence he does commit when given the chance.  Starling is most in her element catering verbally to the whims of a psychopath – when she actually comes face to face with one in the wild she is overwhelmed, and would certainly have been killed if not for Buffalo Bill’s hubris.  The violence, the chasing, the death – these take up only a small portion of the screen time, and the film stands or falls with the quality of what fills those gaps.  Demme filled them perfectly.