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‘The Silence of the Lambs’ Is a Perfect Valentine’s Day Movie

Thirty years ago, the serial killer thriller was released on February 14. But if you really look at the dynamic between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, the release date isn’t all that strange.

Amy Matsushita-Beal

With CBS debuting Clarice on Thursday night—and the 30th anniversary of The Silence of the Lambs arriving just three days later—The Ringer is spending a day celebrating Hannibal Lecter and his strangely intoxicating universe.

One of the sweetest songs in the canon of American musical theater is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “People Will Say We’re in Love,” in which Oklahoma! sweethearts Laurey and Curly wryly try to deny their feelings for one another. “Don’t keep your hand in mine,” they sing. “Feels so grand in mine.” Midway through The Silence of the Lambs, Baltimore Philharmonic board member and likely show tune enthusiast Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) quotes the song’s refrain to another country girl, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who’s come to his cell to make amends for a misguided practical joke. He recites the lyric with a crisp deadpan that’s somewhere between a come-on and a put-on; Starling strains to take its amorous implications in stride.

“[It’s] a love story,” said Jonathan Demme in 1991, playing up his new movie’s self-consciously ironic February 14 release date. Call it My Bloody Valentine: ingeniously adapted by screenwriter Ted Tally from Thomas Harris’s 1988 bestseller and electrically directed by Demme, The Silence of the Lambs defies easy categorization as a horror movie, police procedural, or psychological thriller, but it’s definitely got a dark romantic streak. Lecter and Starling’s quid pro quo arrangement has the rhythm of an intellectual seduction, encounters staged as a series of alternating, ever-tightening close-ups, the characters holding each other—and the audience—with their eyes. When Starling is being led away from Lecter’s cell, the two characters suddenly share the same frame, and Demme cuts to an insert of their fingers touching as he hands her some documents. Don’t keep your hand in mine, people will say we’re in love.

Demme was a director with a gift for moments of connection, and in his early, freewheeling comedies, he earned a reputation as a screwball humanist, a director who never met a character he didn’t like. In movies like Something Wild and Married to the Mob, he specialized in stories of mismatched lovers—irresistible forces meeting immovable objects—and while The Silence of the Lambs represented a change of pace, it has some of the same breakneck intimacy. It’s a film that prowls through the dark corridors of the human psyche—an exploratory trajectory symbolized by the pitch-black basement labyrinth featured in its climax—but it’s also illuminated by flashes of unexpected tenderness. The only time Lecter raises his voice is when he’s defending Starling’s honor after a fellow inmate flings semen in her face. “Discourtesy,” he tells her angrily, “is unspeakably ugly to me”—uglier than, say, talking the guilty party into swallowing his own tongue. Chivalry isn’t dead, and the tension between Lecter’s old-fashioned conception of noblesse oblige and his medieval barbarity—which get combined in the spectacular set piece where he mauls a pair of policemen while ecstatically listening to Glenn Gould’s rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations—is the key to his enduring mystique.

The five Oscars won by The Silence of the Lambs—for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted screenplay, as well as for its stars—were taken as a bellwether of mainstream respectability for genre cinema: It was the first horror movie so honored, and the subsequent proliferation of studio-backed serial killer movies in the 1990s and beyond testifies to its influence. The film’s status as a pop cultural phenomenon didn’t insulate it from critique, with groups like Queer Nation and ACT UP decrying Ted Levine’s flamboyant portrayal of the cross-dressing serial killer Buffalo Bill. There were also those like The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who objected to the way Demme transformed a cannibalistic serial killer into a kind of folk hero. In Psycho, Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates is nervy and furtive when he tells Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) that she “eats like a bird”; in his exchanges with Agent Starling—whose own avian surname is a subtle act of Hitchcockian homage—Lecter more closely evokes Psycho’s stoic, all-knowing psychiatrist, except with insinuating icy blue eyes, perfect posture, and a diabolical sense of humor.

Hopkins’s screen time in The Silence of the Lambs is limited—barely 20 minutes, the length of one Malcolm & Marie monologue—but he thoroughly dominates the movie, emerging as the clear alpha in an ecosystem otherwise teeming with creepy, predatory, and unpleasant men. The most repulsive specimen is Anthony Heald’s unctuous asylum turnkey Dr. Frederick Chilton, but there’s also Paul Lazar’s geeky and cross-eyed etymologist Noble Pilcher, a hopeless, clumsy flirt who was more conventionally attractive on the page (and is suggested to be lying beside Clarice in the final lines of Harris’s novel as she “sleeps sweetly, deeply, in the silence of the lambs”).

In 2017, the editors for the YouTube channel CineFix recut the trailer for The Silence of the Lambs to transform it into a romantic comedy (like The Shining before it). The satire was effective, but also a bit on the nose considering how purposefully Demme’s film plays with romantic conventions, not only in the May-December dynamic between Foster—who brought the sticky residue of Taxi Driver and her-real life stalking by John Hinckley Jr. to a role originally pegged for Michelle Pfeiffer—and Hopkins, but also the archetype of a promising young woman trying her best to navigate a male-dominated profession. “Clarice Starling wants nothing more than to make it at the FBI, but so far, turning heads is easier than getting ahead,” intones the narrator in CineFix’s parody over a shot of the character being ogled while jogging through the Quantico campus. Even without the nudging voice-over, this image—like the more famous tableaux of Starling standing alone in an elevator surrounded by male colleagues—testifies to the character’s isolation within an institutional culture riven by tokenism, departmental politics, and dubious paternalistic mentorship.

It’s this lopsided power dynamic that allows Scott Glenn’s FBI special agent Jack Crawford to dangle his star trainee like a bauble in front of Lecter on an “interesting errand” that’s really a jab at his old nemesis. “Crawford is very clever using you,” hisses Chilton even as he shamelessly propositions his guest by telling her that Baltimore can be a “quite a fun town if you have the right guide.” What unites the skeezy Chilton with the stoic Crawford—and also with the sinister Lecter—is how they all size up Clarice Starling as a novice in need of instruction. “You don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head,” Crawford warns her even though he’s the one sending her into his orbit. “True, he is much older, but do you think he visualizes scenarios, exchanges, fucking you?” Lecter taunts Starling about her overattentive boss. (Echoing Lecter’s earlier caress, Demme teases a link between his heroine’s two competing father surrogates when Crawford shakes Starling’s hand for a half beat too long.)

The question of whether Lecter jealously visualizes similar scenarios or is just talking shit about his rival is left tantalizingly open throughout The Silence of the Lambs, which plays slyly with the idea of its antihero’s various appetites: In a wonderful visual joke, his gorgeous charcoal sketch of Starling holding a shearling gets set aside on a table to make room for a plate of lamb chops (“extra rare”), which in turn are an amuse-bouche to a main course of face-munching. Such visual innuendos are as far as Demme goes, because even if the director thought he was making a love story, he was too smart to literalize it. Lecter and Starling are a great movie couple precisely because their courtship happens with them on either side of bulletproof glass—there’s no chance of them ending up together.

Hence the sense of betrayal that greeted Harris’s 1999 novel Hannibal, which takes Silence’s theme of therapeutic seduction to a queasy extreme, with Lecter drugging and hypnotizing Starling into an acquiescent complicity with his lifestyle and crimes, essentially remaking her in his carnivorous image. Ridley Scott’s film version of Hannibal held back from having Julianne Moore’s Starling actually partake of Ray Liotta’s cranium during its climactic dinner scene, not that this late-breaking restraint made it a better movie; if you’re going to go over the top, you might as well go all the way.

Hannibal is the only other movie or television show to feature Lecter and Starling together in the same narrative universe. Where Bryan Fuller’s TV reboot substituted Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham as an intellectual sparring partner–slash–object of desire for Mads Mikkelsen’s version of the doctor (becoming a queer landmark in the process), CBS’s new procedural Clarice is prohibited, for reasons of intellectual property law, from referencing Lecter in any way. In retrospect, Foster’s principled decision to not reprise her role in Hannibal (or anywhere else) renders some of Lecter’s final lines to Starling in The Silence of the Lambs coda sweetly prophetic. “I have no plans to call on you, Clarice,” Lecter tells her over the telephone. “The world’s more interesting with you in it.”

Goodbyes are hard, but they’ll always have Oklahoma!

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.