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)
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)