Our journey through the National Film Registry takes us to Silence of the Lambs through the halls of the FBI, the corridors of the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital, and into the mind of Hannibal Lecter.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
We’re a culture obsessed with murder and murderers, serial killers to be more precise. We know them by their nicknames: The Son of Sam, BTK, The Green River Killer, The Hillside Strangler, The Night Stalker. We know them by their real names: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Henry Lee Lucas. There are networks whose entire programming revolves around murder and catching murderers.
There are serial killers walking among us. The Long Island Serial Killer is still free if he hasn’t been arrested for another crime or if he’s still alive. Many people over the years have claimed to have solved the mystery of the Zodiac Killer’s true identity. One man was so convinced his dad was the Zodiac Killer he wrote a book about his beliefs which were eventually turned into an FX series. There is no telling how many Golden State Murderers are walking the streets of American cities. Serial killers who look like you and me go under the radar every single day. It’s very unlikely you will be the victim of a serial killer. It’s an irrational fear television and movies have exploited over the years to create scares and fears in its audience.
It really shouldn’t have been a surprise when in February 1991 Silence of the Lambs became a box office smash. Jonathan Demme’s movie had something for everyone: An unknown killer, a congresswoman’s missing daughter, a naive FBI cadet, and an incarcerated serial killer who played them all for fools and got away with it. It seemed like overnight Hannibal Lecter became everyone’s favorite serial killer.
Clarice Starling (Foster) is introduced to running an FBI obstacle course by herself. It’s a story device used to show Starling’s drive and to show that she has something to prove. If she can run an obstacle course by herself she can handle the notorious Hannibal Lecter by herself. When the two first meet Lecter uses her insecurities against her.
Why a novice agent is chosen to interview one of the most notorious serial killers ever caught by the FBI is never explained. Only the briefest explanations is given to why she’s even called into see Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Crawford says more for the camera’s benefit than Starling’s that she passed his class at UVA and then she wows the audience with her grade point average. However, these aren’t valid reasons for why a cadet would be chosen to interview the world’s most famous cannibal.
Yet, Cadet Starling is chosen to interview Hannibal the Cannibal. This meeting and the other scenes between the two characters is what makes Silence of the Lambs work. It’s why after almost thirty years we keep watching the movie. The chase to catch James Gumb is secondary to Hannibal. Even by the standards of the day, the story wasn’t new or unique. The movie introduced a lot of people to criminal profiling, but for the most part Silence of the Lambs is another catch-the-serial-killer-before-time-runs out movie. It ends as so many movies like it before and after have ended: The fugitive/killer is shot dead, no trial, no sense of justice, and everyone involved have a happy ending.
There’s no denying Anthony Hopkins turned in a career-defining performance, but the whole movie is a vehicle for Hopkins and the Hannibal Lecter character. We’re not introduced to Lecter right away. Before we get to Lecter we have to go through the front door of the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital. It’s a foreboding castle like structure meant to strike fear into anyone entering its doors. Starling is lead through five security doors, passes a wall of televisions displaying video from CCTV cameras, and a wall of firearms. Once inside Starling is given a set of rules to follow before Dr. Chilton, the head of xxxxxx, will let her see him. One of the most important rules is not to give him a pen. This is meant to show how tight the security is at xxxxxx. Except the movie won’t work if Lecter remains in prison.
How does Lecter escape from prison? Demme’s camera zooms in and stays on Dr. Chilton’s gold pen sitting on Lecter’s mattress. Lecter, strapped down on a medical dolly, also eyes the pen. Hopkins non-verbal acting speaks volumes. He wants the pen. If there’s one thing even the most casual of movie goers knows is if the camera sits on an object long enough that object is going to come into play later in the movie. It’s Chekhov’s Gun. Sure enough, the pen makes another appearance later in the movie.
ESCAPING TO ESCAPISM
While Starling is chasing clues Dr. Chilton is cutting deals with Lecter and a congresswoman. If Lecter gives up the name of the killer who kidnapped the congresswoman’s daughter he’ll be transferred to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee (Side note: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary has never been a “nice” prison. It’s also no where near the Shelby County Courthouse as the movie makes it seem. Today you can tour Brushy Mountain, spend the night in a cell, drink moonshine distilled at the prison or eat at the restaurant. The prison has now become a tourist trap). How Lecter gets Chilton’s pen or why, after going through the motions of showing the prison’s security, Chilton forgets his pen is never explained. It’s glossed over when Lecter is being transferred to the Shelby County Courthouse. It’s a cheap device to get Lecter out of prison.
Doubling down on cheap plot devices Lecter manages to sneak the clip of the pen into his Shelby County Courthouse prison. We’re lead to believe there’s tight security surrounding Lecter’s transfer. Part of any prison transport are multiple body searches of the prisoner being transferred. The movie distracts us with death’s head moths and woman suits from the fact that Lecter has miraculously smuggled anything onto a prison plane and into a prison. But smuggle it into his prison cell he did and, of course, he uses it to unlock his handcuffs.
However, just breaking out of prison is not enough for Silence of the Lambs. We’ve been told through out the movie how evil Lecter is and how he eats his victims. The movie couldn’t let the end credits roll without showing how despicable he is. Lecter creates a macabre piece of art work out one of the police officers. Lecter slices the face off the other police officer and sets up an elaborate escape plan. Where did Lecter find the time to hang the first police officer from the ceiling? Where did he find the time to neatly slice the face off the other police officer and change clothes with him (Thank goodness they wore the same size everything)?
It doesn’t matter where the mysterious time came from that allowed Lecter to execute his crazy plan. All that mattered was Lecter was out of prison. The plan for a sequel was set up from the start of the movie all it took was Thomas Harris to write the follow up novel. Ten years later Ridley Scott would release the much better, unappreciated Hannibal. Unfortunately, Julianne Moore’s southern accent is no better than Foster’s accent.