Adopted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs is a horror-thriller movie in a class of its own. Its cult status is owed to the fact that not only was the movie the biggest sleeper-hit of the decade (Collins, J., Radner, H., Collins, A., Film theory goes to the movies, 1993, pg 35), winning all the 5 top Oscars of the year, but also that after so many years of its release, it still manages to strike terror in the hearts of the audience.
A movie which succeeds in riveting the audience while simultaneously harrowing them, SOTL has many unique elements brought together to make it a smasher of a film. Although based on a very popular novel, the screenplay was extensively worked on by both the director, Jonathan Demme, and the screenplay writer, Ted Tally, often with the help and suggestions of the actors woven in, to create nuances which make each character stand out on its own, no matter how much the screen time given to each (Demme, New York Times, 1993). The entire movie has been superbly cast, although the actors in the lead roles were not the first choices of the makers (IMDB, 1991).
The best example of this would obviously be the character of Hannibal Lecter, the ‘mad’ psychiatrist played by Anthony Hopkins, who gets a little over 16 minutes in the entire movie. He makes optimum use of this time by adding so many little touches to his character portrayal like his low, ominous voice which was especially modulated by him to bring out the eeriness of being in the presence of someone like Lecter. His eyes always seem to be staring at the person he is talking to and his voice seems to lack any emotion when he talks. At the same time, the low, slurping sound he makes in the middle of his speech is a very effective addition to his anyway scary behavior. It tends to make one think of a snake coveting its prey (Taubin, A., 1998).
In a similar vein, the character of Clarice Starling, played so well by Jodie Foster, adds little touches of her own to the character. For example, her demeanor in the film is more remote in the movie than her character’s is in the novel. Foster has made the character more than a novice trying to sound professional, she has tried to make it seem more independent (Taubin, A., 1998). Especially in the scenes where she is being dissected by Lecter in a Quid-Pro-Quo, the tension evident in her body enumerates clearly that she hates being overwhelmed. Her desperation to do it all herself and to prove her abilities to herself are palpable in her portrayal. Even though this movie is as far removed from everyday life as possible, the character portrayals by all the actors make it a very real movie, the characters become very believable.
The technical aspects of the film have been brilliantly structured around the story to make it all an interwoven fabric where each aspect of the movie ties in seamlessly with the other while enhancing the overall effect the makers are looking to establish.
The cinematography is one of the most important aspects of SOTL for the simple reason that each character has been uniquely painted by the camera. For example, whenever a character talks to Starling, he talks right at the camera, whereas when she talks, she looks a little off-camera. This, according to Demme, has been to make the audience watch the movie only from her point of view and nobody else’s (IMDB, 1991). Similarly, during the cell scenes between Lecter and Starling, one can almost always see the reflection of the other while the camera is focused on one, giving the audience a distinct view of both the characters, making them feel like they are ‘there’ with the two characters (IMDB, 1991). The director captures all the dialog between the protagonists in extreme close-up shots, not wanting to give the audience any leeway, capturing their attention completely and making them feel like an intimate part of the characters’ conversations (Taubin, A, 1998). As an exceptionally remarkable cinematographic move, when Starling first walks toward Lecter in his cell, Lecter is looking into the camera from the minute it pans in his cell, succeeding in giving the ghostly feel that his character knows everything that happens around him.
The soundtrack too, which has been widely appreciated, works to enhance the mood of the audience. The tempo picks up in places where the audience expects something significant to happen, building up anticipation, but it does not always occur, making it an edge of the seat experience throughout (Collins, J., Radner, H., Collins, A., Film theory goes to the movies, 1993, pg 24, 146). Even minor particulars like the colors of the protagonists have been worked upon in detail. At Hopkins’ suggestion, Lecter was made to wear white instead of the usual orange of prison inmates because white, according to him, would show his insanity more starkly (IMDB, 1991). Starling is given clothes which show her attempts at looking sophisticated, but never quite pulling it off completely. The lighting in the film is always clear and bright, driving home the point that it does not take a dark room to scare a person, it simply takes someone like Lecter. During the end of the film, however, the scenes have been brilliantly shot in dark, keeping the suspense intact and making the audience feel as bewildered as Starling.
The theme of SOTL could very easily be to turn the stereotypes of ‘scary movies’ inside out. It does not use the typical obscure lighting, isolated locations or loud sounds to scare the audience. Instead it uses bright lights, close ups of the protagonists, intelligent dialog and mundane locations like government buildings, chicken farms and airports. The brilliant acting by everyone succeeds wonderfully at bringing this about without the use of Psycho-esque filmmaking tactics. The various technical aspects like cinematography and sound designing form just as important a part as the actors in the audience minds in establishing this as one of the greatest scary movies ever.
Collins, J., Radner, H., Collins, A., Film Theory Goes to the Movies, 1993
Trivia, Silence of the Lambs, IMDB.Com, 1991
Jonathan Demme - From Visions of Paradise to Hell on Earth by JEFFREY SCHMALZ, 1993, New York Times
Taubin, A., Criterion.Com, Silence of the Lambs – An Essay by Amy Taubin, 1998