Movie review: ‘The Silence of the Lambs’

I’ve tried to avoid reviewing big hits or classics with a shelf-full of Oscar statues and revisit those films that are little remembered or considered unremarkable at the time. I’ve also reviewed some films that caught me by surprise (say, “Thank You for Smoking” – click to read my review – or “Zombieland” – click to read that review), but as this is my 186th effort in the past seven months, so I’m turning to review films that are both favorites as well as big hits. Today let’s look at “The Silence of the Lambs” with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. I’ve enjoyed Foster’s work since both “Freaky Friday” and “Taxi Driver” and the fact that “The Silence of the Lambs” is from one of my favorite novels, it was a couldn’t-miss situation. The film won five Oscars and nominated for two more. You can find “The Silence of the Lambs” just about month on one network or another. Watch it again; you won’t be disappointed.

‘The Silence of the Lambs’
(1991; 118 minutes; rated R; directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Scott Glenn)

GETTING INSIDE THE MIND OF A KILLER

(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion and trivia and the updating of links and and fixing typos on Jan. 4, 2016. I again expanded the review on March 22, 2020.)

I have to say that there are a few very powerful, dramatic films that I can really only watch twice – once in the theater and a second time on video at home. The best example of this is “The Deer Hunter” with Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken. Because of its intensity and twisted journey through the dark recesses of characters’ souls and even our nation’s soul about Vietnam, I haven’t been able to watch it completely through again since I saw it on VHS in the 1980s.

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However, then there are those films equally powerful and disturbing, but ones that you can water over and over again while enjoying the magnificence of a story well-told by actors at the top of their game. “The Silence of the Lambs” is the best example of this kind of film and watching it again recently, I marveled at each Oscar winning effort by director Jonathan Demme and actors Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Watching it again made me wonder why I hadn’t watched it for several years (especially since I have it on a DVD that I had never viewed).

A trivia note: “The Silence of the Lambs” is only one of three films to sweep the top five Oscars: best film, best actor, best actress, best director and best adapted screenplay. The other two are “It Happened One Night” in 1934 and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975.

In “The Silence of the Lambs,” there’s a serial killer on the loose and the FBI’s behavioral science department chief sends a trainee (Foster as “Clarice Starling”) to interview the country’s most famous serial killer (Hopkins as “Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter”) at his cell in a prison psychiatric ward – actually a dungeon, but the setting here is a visual metaphor. They strike up a twisted relationship as he unveils the fact that he knows who the killer is and how to catch him.

The killer kidnaps another woman and she is the daughter of a U.S. senator and so the case gets even more publicity and now there’s a time factor since the psycho usually holds the women for several days before killing them. For Foster it’s both a race against time and her own sanity to deal with Hopkins as well as help find the killer. Hopkins plays just about everyone in his twisted, intricate maneuvers to escape custody, but truly does develop a relationship with Foster.

So, “The Silence of the Lambs” boils down to those moments between Foster and Hopkins. All the rest is window dressing (well-crafted and outstandingly acted window dressing, but window dressing nonetheless).

  • Watching Hopkins play “Lecter” is a basic textbook answer to the question, “Show me everything an actor can do with dialogue, his or her voice and expression.” Also a four-time Oscar nominee, Hopkins gives a truly superb effort here and you can just see “Lecter’s” mood and emotion change through nothing more than the turn of his head. Hopkins oozes sadism and cruel control throughout. It doesn’t get any better than his performance in this one. He was also in “Juggernaut” (click here for my review) as well as “The Elephant Man” and unexpectedly good work (for a war film) in the semi-classic “A Bridge Too Far” (click here for my review). Hopkins was nominated for “The Remains of the Day,” “Nixon,” “Amistad” and from 2019’s “The Two Popes.”
  • Foster certainly does an Oscar-winning turn here, but, set right beside Hopkins, doesn’t quite reach the heights he does. It’s kind of like Secretariat nosing out Man o’ War in a horse race. A two-time Oscar winner and two-time nominee, Foster does the rural girl with a country accent getting away from her roots in a so-so start, but kicks it into high gear as she verbally spars with the far intellectually superior Hopkins. However, ultimately she’s bright and, more importantly, tougher—and sane. Foster is one of Hollywood’s premium actors and almost never disappoints and had won her first Oscar two years earlier for “The Accused” and was also nominated for “Nell” and Martin Scorsese’s brutal “Taxi Driver” as a teenaged hooker.

After these two it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the rest of the cast to even come close. However, you’d be surprised with a couple of neat turns from the window dressing.

  • At the top of the supporting cast efforts is Anthony Heald as “Dr. Frederick Chilton,” who is Hopkins’ petty, self-absorbed tormentor and the head of the psychiatric unit where the killer is being imprisoned. Heald was the perfect casting choice and gave the pitch-perfect effort as the egotistical doctor who is promoting himself in working to keep Hopkins in the public eye with the new cases of murder. Heald almost sweats his egotism and takes gleeful joy in believing he’s in charge of Hopkins. He has also been on TV’s “Boston Public” as well as in films such as “A Time to Kill” and two other films adapted from John Grisham novels. He’s even done comedy with “Accepted.”
  • Ted Levine gives a wonderfully twisted turn here as the serial killer “Jame Gumb” (yes, it’s “Jame”). Levine, with his trademark gravelly voice, so easily conveys the disturbed nature of the killer – especially in a nauseating semi-nude dance in front of a mirror – that you forget he was the good-guy cop with Tony Shalub inTV’s “Monk.” Levine makes the most of every second of his screen time and reminds you of what a versatile actor can do. He was also a white supremacist ex-con in “Betrayed” (click here for my review) as well as the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.” He wasn’t so good in the terrible reboot called “Wild Wild West” (they dropped “The” from the TV show – click here for my review) but OK in “Heat” with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (click here for my review).
  • Next in line is the always wonderful Scott Glenn as FBI supervisor “Jack Crawford.” Glenn plays the character with the stoic professionalism the character has in the novel and is less the tough, rough-around-the edges fed than Dennis Farina did with the character in “Manhunter” (more about that film later – and click here for my review). Glenn’s low-key approach means the character doesn’t jump out like Heald’s, but it is great work in a role necessary to bridge Foster and Hopkins. Done wrong, this one character could have made “The Silence of the Lambs” just a bit less of a film. Glenn has also been in “Silverado” (click here for my review), “The Right Stuff” and did a nice turn as the nasty bad guy in “Urban Cowboy” with John Travolta as well as a small part in “The Hunt for Red October” (click here for my review). I find it surprising that such an accomplished actor hasn’t been even nominated for a Golden Globe, much less an Oscar. Hmmm …
  • Frankie Faison plays psych ward orderly “Barney Matthews” and is the human, humble counterpart to Heald’s character. Faison does a smooth job here and has also been in the Wayans brothers’ “White Chicks” (click here for my review). Faison and Heald are two of the actors who do their same characters with “Lecter” in “Red Dragon” (the remake of “Manhunter” – see its description below).
  • The two scientists who help Foster with some evidence in the case are Dan Butler as “Roden” and Paul Lazar as “Pilcher.” Both are nerds who are immediately attracted to Foster when she interrupts their game of chess using a beetle as a timer. Each does an equally good turn in very small roles and they hang around to the end. Butler has been in “Rising Sun” and a string of TV roles while Lazar was in the delightful “Married to the Mob” (click here for my review) which was also directed by Demme.
  • Diane Baker plays “U.S. Sen. Ruth Martin” and she’s the mother of the kidnapped woman. A two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Baker does a commendable job and it would have been interesting if the character had a bigger presence in the film (my comment, not from IMDb.com). In her seventh decade of work today, Baker has also been in a variety of TV shows, including “House M.D.,” as well as films such as “The Net” and was also on an episode of “The Love Boat” (thanks, Diane and you can read my review of the series by clicking here). She was nominated for 1959’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Prize” from 1963 with Paul Newman and Edward G. Robinson.
  • Kind of lost in the clutter is the kidnapped woman, “Catherine Martin” played by Brooke Smith. She does good work here in the most demanding circumstance, but you’re looking for Foster and Hopkins to lock horns again and can kind of dismiss her character. Smith has also been in “In Her Shoes” with Cameron Diaz.

With the cannibal aspect of “Lecter” (remember the famous line about eating a census taker’s liver with “fava beans and a nice Chianti”?), Hopkins’ closing line here sums up the film perfectly with dark humor and his inherent cruelty. Hopkins has escaped and fled to an island in the Bahamas. He’s called Foster at her FBI graduation ceremony and in the course of the conversation sees Heald getting off an airplane. Hopkins tells Foster he has to go because he’s “having an old friend for dinner.” Tremendous!

By the way, before there was “The Silence of the Lambs,” there was a film called “Manhunter” (click here for my review). It was taken from a book called “Red Dragon” by the author of “The Silence of the Lambs” and introduced film audiences to “Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter.” While not of Hopkins’ quality, actor Brian Cox did a wonderful job as “Lecter” (they misspelled his name as “Lecktor” there), but he was in a sterile, white-painted cell and not a dungeon. Click here for a more complete look at the “Lecter” films (“Manhunter” was remade with the novel’s title, “Red Dragon”).

The Silence of the Lambs” with the fourth ranked film at the box office in 1991 with $130.7 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. Worldwide, “The Silence of the Lambs” raked in $272.7 million on its rather frugal $19 million budget, according to Wiki. The other top films of the year were “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” at No. 1 with $204.8 million and Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” No. 3 at $145.8 million. Here are the other films from 1991 that I’ve reviewed …

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • In what would have been one of the dumbest casting decisions ever, Dustin Hoffman was considered for the “Lecter” character. Huh? I know what at great actor Hoffman is, but there’s simply no way he ever could be “Hannibal ‘The Cannibal.’”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “At 24 minutes and 52 seconds, Anthony Hopkins‘s performance in this movie is the second shortest to ever win an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, with David Niven in Separate Tables (1958) beating him by one minute.”
  • The FBI and its Behavioral Science Unit gave filmmakers cooperation because the organization saw it as an opportunity to recruit female agents. Foster, Demme and Glenn reportedly attended classes at the FBI facility in Quantico, Va.
  • Hopkins and Foster share only four scenes in the movie.
  • Also directly from IMDb.com: “After Jodie Foster first read the Thomas Harris novel, she tried to buy the rights herself, only to find Gene Hackman had beaten her to it.”
  • Levine’s dance sequence was improvised by him and was not part of the original screenplay.
  • The film surpassed its budget after one week at theaters.
  • Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page about the film …

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016, 2020.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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