Jonathan Demme: A Tribute – Why we should still be making noise about The Silence of the Lambs

Today, cinema worshippers, horror aficionados, and cannibals everywhere were united in sadness at the news of the passing of legendary director Jonathan Demme, aged 73. In a career spanning over 45 years, during which he gifted us with the film that earned a certain Tom Hanks his first Academy Award triumph – Philadelphia – Demme’s stamp on the film world will certainly be an eternal one.  Of his accomplished body of work, it is his earlier 1991 Oscar-winning masterpiece that he will be most fondly remembered for, and even a quarter of a century later, we still can’t look at Fava Beans and Chianti the same way.

Speaking personally (and, let’s face it, on behalf of most film fanatics), The Silence of the Lambs played a pivotal role in igniting that burning obsession with the big screen. For me, it was one of the foundations (along with the Scream trilogy and The Sixth Sense) on which my love of cinema and appreciation of the relevance, intellect, and power of the visual medium – and more specifically, horror films – was built. Adapted by Ted Tally from Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel of the same name, Demme’s horror-thriller is rather unconventional; playing out with the depth of character, intricacy of plot, and timelessness of the very finest literary texts.

For those who haven’t yet tasted the delightfully terrifying feast that is The Silence of the Lambs, the film serves up a rich, layered tale about a rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) who is tasked with extracting important insights into infamous serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’ (Ted Levine) from the brilliant, cannibalistic (and now imprisoned) psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Sir Anthony Hopkins in a career defining role). In order to capture a killer, Starling must work with one, and in doing so the two form an oddly deep relationship deriving from Lecter’s intrigue into her traumatic past.

So, as one might imagine, sat on my sofa, alone with the lights off, as a scrawny 16-year old (safe in the knowledge that there wasn’t enough meat on my bones or knowledge in my brain to satisfy a cannibalistic psychiatrist), I found myself simultaneously cowering in fear at Hopkins’ unnervingly unpredictable turn as Dr Lecter, but equally completely entranced by his strange connection to the damaged, but driven agent Starling.

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The Silence of the Lambs is a milestone in contemporary horror; not simply because it remains the only horror film to receive such prestigious accolades from the Academy. Just like the poster boys of the genre that preceded and likely influenced it – Psycho and Halloween – there is surprisingly very little blood on show (save for a particularly grisly Lecter does Shawshank episode), especially for a film about a cannibal who helps in the capture of a serial killer who is a personification of the risks associated with watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Trinny and Susannah back to back.  Instead, Demme’s film is far more intricate in its construction, with substantially more substance than your run-of-the-mill gore-fest. It is a beacon of memorable and meaningful light in a genre that continuously shoots itself in the foot with pointless sequels and below-par remakes.

Clarice and Lecter, despite being opposing sides of a glass prison cell, are actually very similar. Both are outcasts in their own way. Lecter, by the obvious fact that his idea of human bonding and an all you can eat buffet are the same thing, is shunned by society; whereas Clarice is distanced by the fact that she is both a country girl lost in the city and a woman in a male dominated profession (gender tensions that are still as relevant today). They clearly both have their own agendas in the narrative, and are constantly trying to read each other throughout; but there is also a subtle, deeper mutual respect and admiration for one another at play here – it is only in one another’s presence that the two islands can truly open up. Yes, Bill is the more conventional villain, and both he and Lecter truly get under the skin (for the former, quite literally), but where the film nicely fiddles with generic narrative allegiances is through our growing perception that Lecter is not out to harm our protagonist – in fact, quite the opposite. So much so, that in Demme’s film, he becomes strangely likeable.

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Although not the first to portray Lecter (or Lektor as he was originally known, played previously by Brian Cox in 1986’s Manhunter), Hopkins manifests in Lecter a combination of calculated menace and wit, so delicately realised that we are intrigued by him, but never feel as though we are whole heartedly on his side. We are offered Clarice’s flashbacks but never Lecter’s – a decision made quite clearly in the knowledge that when it comes to horror, the viewer imagination is always the most frightening tool in a director’s arsenal. And both direction and writing in ‘Silence’ help further the film’s attentive characterisation of Lecter through a subtle zoomorphism. Demme rarely allows us to see Lecter physically moving by his own accord. In a very reptilian manner, like a snake or a crocodile, we almost always see him stationary, standing, glaring, waiting (and  hissing…); patiently biding his time awaiting the opportune moment to strike. You can be sure as hell that’s ice cold blood running through his veins, and probably in good company in thinking there’s a forked tongue behind those teeth. And such a representation of Lecter is enhanced somewhat when we think of the animal connotations that extend to the film’s two other leads, Buffalo and Starling.

But ‘Silence’ isn’t all just suggestive and metaphorical shenanigans; there are moments of genuine terror that Demme masterfully constructs, be it in the slow build-up to Lecter’s introduction, to the discovery and extraction of a cocoon from a victim’s throat, to an episode that must take the prize for most tense basement scene of all time (the only challenger being David Fincher’s Zodiac). While retrospectively, it might, like so many in the genre, suffer from sub-par sequels, as a stand alone film, ‘Silence’ remains as frightening, memorable, and iconic as it ever was.

As his most brilliant work, The Silence of the Lambs will forever be the lasting voice of Jonathan Demme: a man who helped inaugurate two of cinema’s finest characters, and just maybe, one of the most unnerving romance stories ever told. We will be forever grateful to him for his role in introducing us to a most unforgettable cannibalistic doctor (whose legacy runs through the Jigsaws and Human Centipede surgeons of today’s horror)  – a sentence we hope you take without a pinch of salt…or, in this case, maybe we do…

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