Her name is Clarice, which seems like a masterstroke of foresight on the part of novelist Thomas Harris—once you hear Anthony Hopkins utter this name, with customized twang, putting equal weight on both syllables, hovering over the slipperiness of the final consonant, you realize why there are some movie character names you never forget. Which, needless to say, goes double for Dr. Hannibal—rhymes with “cannibal”—Lecter, one of two psycho-killers who feature prominently in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), directed by Jonathan Demme and adapted by Ted Tally from Harris’ eponymous bestseller. Clarice (Jodie Foster), is about to graduate from FBI school. This smart, disciplined young woman trying to make it in a world of condescending older men, is our heroine. But Hannibal (Hopkins) is not her antagonist. He becomes an intimate ally.
Clarice is sent to a Baltimore maximum security prison/luxury dungeon where she’s aggressively hit on by a warden with big hair (Anthony Heald), gets some nutcase’s splooge flung at her face—easily the most disgusting moment in a movie riddled with disgusting moments—and has her first meeting with Hannibal, an encounter that in the most perverse way possible feels like the start of a love story—one without any touching. Hannibal is a psychiatrist put away for eating his patients. While ostensibly helping the feds to catch another killer—dubbed Buffalo Bill for his penchant for skinning victims—he and Clarice develop a quasi-therapist-patient relationship. Despite Clarice’s efforts, the tables never turn. Hannibal reads her like a book, spotting her vulnerable points. But he’s also the only man in the movie who respects her.
Hopkins is all high theatre, mesmerizing, no blinking, a lot of Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931), maybe a little Joel Grey in Cabaret (1972) too. His timing’s immaculate, frequently going for the laughs while somehow never compromising the integrity of this wildly artificial yet totally coherent character. Foster is also remarkable. She was still young enough to convey innocence, or rather, an overachiever’s spunk. She’s acting hard and it shows, but that eagerness perfectly fits with the character.
What I most loved about revisiting Silence of the Lambs for the first time in years was my realization that, despite the presence of esteemed stars and the multiple Oscars it eventually garnered, it really isn’t a “prestige” picture. Demme’s coverage isn’t especially glossy or sweeping; it’s solid meat-and-potatoes directing. The story is in many ways—mostly very good ways—utterly trashy, and the movie adheres to the source material’s tone. Really, it’s almost a (very expensive) B-movie, and the cameo from Roger Corman—the producer of Demme’s early exploitation flicks Caged Heat (1974) and Fighting Mad (1976)—seems like a sly acknowledgment of this. How refreshing to see a Best Picture-winner that doesn’t seem calculated or compromised by a desperate need to win Best Picture. On the contrary, Silence of the Lambs is first and foremost deeply creepy, character-driven entertainment. That’s why we’re still captivated more than two decades later.