Clarice Starling, a young FBI agent, is assigned to help find a missing woman, and save her from a psychopathic killer with the help of another killer.
Even if The Silence Of The Lambs were not the superb film it clearly is, it would still have given the world one of the great villains of cinema history. Or, to be more precise, it gave a second, but far more memorable, version of a great screen villain.
Warped psychiatric genius Hannibal Lecter (or Lektor as he was originally known) had already been portrayed by Brian Cox in 1986's Manhunter, Michael Mann's chilling adaptation of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon. Cox's Lektor — a detached, contemptuous psycho — certainly has his fans, but it's Hopkins who caught the public's imagination. It's easy to forget how few scenes he has in the film since each is so unforgettable. The first time we encounter him, in the dank bowels of the asylum, he manages to convey an aura of pure evil by doing nothing more than standing stock still in the middle of his arcane cell.
His posture is unnaturally precise, his gaze is disconcertingly steady and his prison overalls are fastidiously neat and slightly too tight. It's a collection of subliminally unnerving details that add up to a single overwhelming whole — this is one fucked up, dangerous loony; far more terrifying than the raving, pud-pulling Miggs who occupies the cell next door. It's this icy calm and the infallible logic of
Lecter's self-justification that are so disturbing, and Hopkins plays it right to the hilt.
His scenes opposite Jodie Foster as rookie FBI investigator Clarice Starling are genuinely riveting. Kicking off with a few effortless mind games, he eventually recognises something he admires in the gauche, ambitious young woman. Thereafter, their relationship becomes a fascinating back-and-forth duel of teasing, trepidation and mutual need. It's a rewarding diversion for Lecter, but a perilous balancing act for Starling. And early on we're given a taste of the psychological havoc that Letter's fearsome intellect can inflict when the mood takes him. When Miggs is disrespectful to Starling (he rasps, "I can smell your cunt," as she passes his cell and, later, flicks his ejaculate at her) Letter talks him into committing suicide by swallowing his own tongue. It's entirely to Foster's credit that she holds her own during these exchanges; her vulnerability and terrier-like determination are a winning combination. But when Hopkins is pitched sitters like "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti," (plus fantastically revolting slurp), everyone else takes a back seat. That he also manages to elicit our sympathy is a remarkable achievement. . But it's not entirely Hopkins' show. This is also an excellent, taught thriller, directed with pace and style by Demme and boasting a first rate screenplay by Ted Tally. The ever-dependable Foster gives one of her best performances as Starling and there's stoic support from Scott Glenn as her taciturn boss Jack Crawford and Anthony Heald as the sleazy psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Chilton.
Lambs also scores as a superb criminal procedure movie and even though we're introduced to sicko serial killer Buffalo Bill less than a third of the way in, the trail leading up to his capture is the equal of any whodunit. And from the severed head in the tank to the
death's-head moth lodged in the murdered girl's throat and the explanation, furnished by Lecter, of why Bill is flaying his victims, a sense of the macabre dominates the film. And if that were as far as things went, The Silence Of The Lambs would still be a way above average crime drama. But the icing on the cake is the premise that to catch a psychopath you have to be able to think like a psychopath.
It's a fascinating theme, one that dominates several of Harris's books including Red Dragon, and here it forms the basis for Clarice Starling's strange, and strangely touching, relationship with Lecter. To track Buffalo Bill, Clarice has to get inside Lecter's mind; the danger being, of course, that in return she must allow Lecter into hers. As an incentive to lure him into the fray Starling offers herself, permitting Lecter to analyze her in return for his guidance in the case. Lecter's enjoyment over probing Starling's dark secrets and deep anxieties is palpable, but this is far more than a game for him. In exchange for the cryptic snippets of information he gives out, Lecter makes small demands that, once they're met, will facilitate the escape plans that his quick mind has been preparing all along. Plus, of course, he develops deep feelings for Clarice.
What's at stake for her is her standing in the Bureau and the kidnapped daughter of a US Congresswoman who Buffalo Bill is fattening up for the kill. Demme also manages to cram in a couple thrilling set pieces — Lecter's escape and the nerve-racking false ending when the Feds show up at the wrong house — classic quotes abound and among a clutch of fine performances Hopkins' Oscar-winning turn writes a new chapter in the book of movie monsters. Furthermore, not only is Lambs a I key film of the 90s and one of the finest crime films ever, it's also the weirdest love story this side of Harold And Maude.
Thrilling and scary in equal measure. And what a baddie