I saw Silence of the Lambs at the cinema way back when it was first released, the book is 25 years old. A gory blood lust film which introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter and FBI agent Clarice Starling. It’s a creepy film that examines the dark corners of consciousness and unconsciousness. Resourceful, intelligent and superhuman Lecter, former psychiatrist, “helping” the FBI’s Clarice Starling hunt down the serial killer “Buffalo Bill”. And of course Lecter entered the annals of Hollywood film history something about eating a human liver with fava beans and a nice glass of chianti… Hannibal the Cannibal was born. Twenty-five years ago the book was published by Thomas Harris. Having read the it didn’t hook me instead it kinda bored, the language was very superficial no depth to the characters. The character, “Buffalo Bill” disturbed me as came across as reactionary. Actually, the premise of the book is reactionary. Starling, a young woman in the FBI coming up against patriarchal norms in a male dominated sexist institution who takes on the case to find Buffalo Bill who has been hunting and skinning women. Starling taking on the case against all odds.
To be honest, I much prefer Manhunter (Based on the first book in the Lecter series – Red Dragon) directed by Michael Mann. It has a less showy more down to earth feel about the film, an independent quality unlike the Hollywood touch of Silence of the Lambs with “top drawer” actors like Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. Brian Cox’s interpretation of Lecter is far more plausible than the theatrics of Lecter with the glaring eyes and pronounced dialogue… I always expected Hopkins to utter the immortal words to Starling, “Frying tonight”… in a very Kenneth Williams-esque style. It just seemed so over-the-top while Cox is far more mundane intelligent yet believable therefore scary. Interesting as well that Will Graham (who brings Lecter down) was played by William Petersen (Gil Grissom from CSI). Again, it is a much more restrained film, much more thought has gone into the script and characterisation unlike the highly stylised and iconic Silence… Set pieces of Lecter masked and straitjacketed to the killing of the guards to the audacious escape scene. There are tongue in cheek scenes (pun intended) where on the desk in Lecter’s cell there’s a copy of “Bon Appetit” along with having “lamb chops extra rare” … Consumption of meat of various kind (Human too) and skin … Raw and the cooked is the central theme. And the final dark macabre but sorta humorous scene where Lecter tells Starling he is having an old friend for dinner (the vile Chilton character). It is a very visceral film and book.
There’s an anti-intellectualism about the film, Doctor Lecter is, amongst other things, cultured, musical, artistic and a cook… multifaceted character while Starling is intelligent it is more about the focus of her job in the FBI. Starling’s intellectualism is more pragmatic based.
I also agree strongly with Elizabeth Young’s arguments that sexuality and gender identity is pathologised with the Buffalo Bill character… “the homicidal manic” . “Convenient and stereotypical monster” is created with a fetish for female skin while the male characters are depicted as über masculine. Even Clarice’s sexuality is hidden and constrained while she develops a rapport with Lecter. Starling doesn’t fight against this male orientated domain she capitulates to it and essentially becomes part of that system. Tony Williams argues that Silence of the Lambs, “is visually impoverished, thematically redundant text that lacks radical insights”…
Silence of the Lambs won Oscars galore. Even Jodie Foster believed Clarice Starling was some “strong feminist hero”… Really? Hollywood isn’t this radical bastion of ideas it will only go so far. Starling succeeds in this male dominated world by catching Buffalo Bill, while “controlling and omniscient” Lecter escapes. On a side issue I always found it interesting that both Lecters were portrayed by Scottish (Brian Cox) and Welsh (Anthony Hopkins) actors. Just something to throw in the mix.
Tony Williams argues that Silence of the Lambs represented “a repugnant example of post-Reaganite cinema”.. The person who understands the world and seeks to understand it is dangerous … the intellectualism of Lecter is feared. It takes away your humanity. I suppose Lecter has spawned characters such as Dexter, a blood spatter pattern analyst who is a serial killer in his spare time. And now Lecter is on television in Hannibal played by Mads Mikkelsen. Before that you had the gore ridden slasher serial killer which was just that now they have this superior form of intellectualism… the thinking man is a sophisticated serial killer…
The Silence of the Lambs and the Flaying of Feminist Theory by Elizabeth Young - Camera Obscura (1991)
Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film by Tony Williams (1996)
They Don’t Have a Name For It Yet: Patriarchy, gender and meat‐eating in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs by Stephanie Waldrop in Literature Interpretation Theory (1994)