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1 Year, 100 Movies #74 The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

by Trey Hock on September 16, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

I have written about “Silence of the Lambs” before for Scene-Stealers. This film made my Top 10 Movies as Good or Better Than Books They’re Based On. In fact, eight of the 10 films on that list are on the AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies list. I own this film on DVD and watch it at least once a year. “SotL” also made the Top 10 Movie Entrances, and I dare any one to make a compelling argument that Lecter’s appearance on screen is not one of the most striking visual images in recent cinema.

This film just resonates with a ton of people. It is a gripping drama, and an emotional thriller, and at times a character study. “SotL” disturbs without alienating the viewer. It is for these reasons that so many sources reference or parody the film. This film is too ripe with memorable moments and characters.

So what’s left to discuss? Probably very little, but that’s not going to stop me. I want to talk about why this film works so well. There are a ton of reasons, but I’m going to focus on three: director Jonathan Demme’s shot choices during dialogue, Ted Levine’s remarkable performance as Buffalo Bill, and the “tiniest” parts of an iconic scene. Because of the nature of this film, none of these scenes have audio that is safe for work.

I have chosen two scenes that exemplify Demme’s use of frame to draw the viewer in. The first is Starling’s (Jodie Foster) introduction to Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). We’ve all seen it, but it bears a second look.

The scene starts on Starling. Whenever it cuts away from her, we are in her point of view. The POV is loose handheld and helps to put us into Starling’s shoes. We discover the people and things in this dungeon as she does. Once we arrive at Lecter, he stares straight at us. Transferring to a deep over-the-shoulder shot, Demme keeps the eyes of Starling and Lecter on the viewer. Demme does this so well, and in my next chosen scene the viewer is literally caught in the crossfire. This clip is a long one, but what Demme is doing takes time to unfold. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)

Both of these characters speak to each other, but Demme puts the viewer on their line of sight. We are not watching a conversation. We are passive participants. We cannot respond, but each side of the conversation is directed straight at us. As Lecter locks in emotionally, the camera pushes in, and his huge predatory face dominates the frame. As Starling gives into the conversation, again the camera pushes in, and the bars disappear. It is only Starling and her desperation over the death of the spring lambs. Simple, subtle, and some of the most effective camera work I could show you.

I don’t have to say much about Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill. This performance is so disturbing, but watch this scene again and really study how Levine moves through a huge emotional range. (Sound starts at 7 seconds.)

Levine moves from emotionally distant, to playful with his dog, to distant, then his lips quiver, and finally an explosion and then his yelling madness. Levine owns this moment, and because of him, this scene gobbles people up.

I want to end on Bill’s “Goodbye Horses” scene (which should have easily made Cameron Hawk’s Top 10 Uses of Pop Songs in Movies). This scene couldn’t be more disturbing, and it’s not because of the mangina. It is the juxtaposition of super controlled and beautifully composed extreme close-ups with shots of Catherine (Brooke Smith) in the pit.

These super-tight inserts of Bill putting on make-up give the viewer so much information with no spoken explanation. We see his tats and piercings, we see the “wig” he has made for himself, and we see him engaging in an act that he hopes will transform him and make him beautiful. All of this happens while Catherine yells for the dog and prepares her escape. Watch the scene once more. It holds up to numerous viewings.

I remember having read the book a year or two before the film was released, and when I went to see “The Silence of the Lambs” on its opening day in the theater, I drug my mother along. I knew she wouldn’t love it, but I also knew it would be an important film.

This film burns itself into your memory, so lets hear those stories of watching this for the first time. I’m especially interested in those people who discovered “SotL” later on VHS or DVD. What were your experiences? And if you wanna talk about shots or Ted Levine, you can do that too.

Next up #73 “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)

1 Year, 100 Movies #75 In the Heat of the Night (1967)

1 Year, 100 Movies #76 Forrest Gump (1994)

1 Year, 100 Movies #77 All the President’s Men (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #78 Modern Times (1936)

1 Year, 100 Movies #79 The Wild Bunch (1969)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Xavier September 16, 2010 at 3:15 am

Having only been born 2 years before this came out, I did watch it on dvd first, and it doesn’t matter big or small screen it is just as compelling and disturbing.
On a side note I think Demme should have garnered more acclaim and nominations for rachel getting married. Although not anywhere near as good as Silence of the lambs (how could it be really?) it was one of the best films of 08 and severely underrated, especially Anne Hathaway’s performance which should have won the oscar in my opinion.


2 Trey Hock September 16, 2010 at 9:26 am

It was awesome in the theatre, but the way this film is constructed, it may be awesome to think of it as a dust covered VHS that was discovered at the back of some distant relative’s closet. It would definitely give it a slightly different vibe.

I need to see Rachel Getting Married, but SotL, Stop Making Sense, Heart of Gold — Demme’s a powerhouse.


3 Streams of Whiskey September 16, 2010 at 10:09 am

The first time I saw “Silence of the Lambs” was at 4 am on the night of my senior prom in high school. After attending the school’s mandatory “after prom” (which featured a stunning karaoke performance of “On the Bayou”, but I digress), a group of us headed to a friend’s house and wound up watching this movie in the basement. We were all still in our prom gear, since no one brought anything to change into. I vaguely remember driving home around 7 am in a daze, thankful that the sun was back up…


4 Rosie September 16, 2010 at 11:44 am

I remember first watching it on tv in Calgary when I was very young and thus totally not understanding it. I think I may have been a little bored even.
Every parody or reference I catch to Silence of the Lambs, I think,carries some degree of respect. Whereas parodies of Titanic convey just how ridiculous it is, with SotL, it’s like they’re saying \the only way I can make you appreciate the creepiness right now is by evoking Silence of the Lambs.\
Great review Trey


5 Trey Hock September 16, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Rosie, that is true. Every parody I can think of appears to be made out of love, and not mockery. That’s an excellent point.

Oh Streams, sounds like a great way to set the mood.


6 sean September 20, 2010 at 9:47 am

I saw SotL in it’s original release & was blown away. I was geniunly scared & fooled by the twists in the movie. It was the first bootleg I ever owned & Iwatched it everyday with my friends when we got home from school. Till this day whenever my cousin sees me & says “Hey little cheeper”.
This past weekend I finally showed it to my 15 yr old son. He loved it so much that he has now watched it twice already with his friends. Watching it with him was like watching it for the first time again. It is good to see the movie hold up to new generations. He told me he has never been that frightened & entertained by a movie like that.


7 Terzah September 27, 2010 at 9:13 pm

I watched this movie in some guy’s dorm room with my sister, who was visiting me during my freshman year of college. We were on a saggy legless couch that smelled like stale beer, under the build-up the room’s occupants had constructed for their beds to get themselves more space on the floor. My sister had seen it in the theater–she’s more a fan of suspense films that I am–and she insisted I watch it. She was right about this one. Creepy creepy…but in a sick way, I thought Anthony Hopkins as Lecter was sexy by the end.


8 Trey Hock September 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Sean, glad to hear that Sotl is a film you can pass on from father to son.

Terzah, Lecter is super sexy. The way he moves from clinical to vulgar without a pause is brilliant and evocative.


9 Reed October 18, 2010 at 9:53 am

This movie is far more important than people realize. Not only did it spawn a litany of sequels, prequels and imitations, it changed television. The rise of Law and Order, CSI, Criminal Minds, Without a Trace, Cold Case – all of these cop shows that are strewn all about the airwaves can be traced back to the success of this film. There had been other movies about serial killers, very good ones, in fact. But never before had people so connected with both the law officers, and never before had the appetite for the macabre so directly hit the mainstream.

The biggest reason for this? Demme crafted a masterpiece.


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