The Silence of the Lambs is a 1991 American horror thriller film directed by Jonathan Demme and stars Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, and Scott Glenn. It is based on Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel of the same name, his second to feature Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer.
The Silence of the Lambs was released on February 14, 1991, and grossed over $272 million. It was the third film to win Academy Awards in all the top five categories: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). It is also the first Best Picture winner widely considered to be a horror film, and only the second such film to be nominated in the category, after The Exorcist in 1973.
The film is considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant by the U.S. Library of Congress and was selected to be preserved in the National Film Registry in 2011.
Critics were particularly impressed with Hopkins’ performance, even though Hopkins’ screen time is only a little more than sixteen minutes. The role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter was originally to be played by Gene Hackman, who also wished to direct; but he later withdrew from the project owing to the evolving screenplay’s graphic content. Michelle Pfeiffer was offered the role of Clarice Starling but turned it down
Clarice Starling (Foster) is pulled from her training at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia, by Jack Crawford (Glenn) of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit. He tasks her with interviewing Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), a former psychiatrist and incarcerated cannibalistic serial killer, believing Lecter’s insight might be useful in the pursuit of a serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Levine), who skins his female victims’ corpses.
Starling travels to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where she is led by Frederick Chilton (Heald) to Lecter’s solitary quarters. Although initially pleasant and courteous, Lecter grows impatient with Starling’s attempts at “dissecting” him and rebuffs her. As she is leaving, one of the prisoners flicks semen at her.
Lecter, who considers the discourtesy “unspeakably ugly”, calls Starling back and tells her to seek out an old patient of his. This leads her to a storage shed where she discovers a man’s severed head. She returns to Lecter, who tells her that the man is linked to Buffalo Bill. He offers to profile Buffalo Bill on the condition that he be transferred away from Chilton, whom he detests.
When Buffalo Bill kidnaps a U.S. Senator’s daughter, Catherine Martin, Crawford authorizes Starling to offer Lecter a fake deal promising a prison transfer if he provides information that helps find Buffalo Bill and rescue the abductee.
Instead, Lecter begins a game of quid pro quo with Starling, offering comprehensive clues and insights about Buffalo Bill if Starling will give him information about her own past, something she was advised not to do. Chilton secretly records the conversation and reveals Starling’s deal as a sham before offering to transfer Lecter in exchange for a deal of Chilton’s own making. Lecter agrees and is flown to Memphis, Tennessee, where he reveals personal information on Buffalo Bill to federal agents.
As the manhunt begins, Starling visits Lecter at his special cell in a Tennessee courthouse and confronts him with her decryption of the name he provided (“Louis Friend”, an anagram of “iron sulfide”, also known as fool’s gold). Lecter refuses Starling’s pleas for the truth and forces her to recount her traumatic childhood. She tells him how she was orphaned and relocated to a relative’s farm in Montana, where she discovered a lamb slaughterhouse and even made a failed attempt to rescue one of them.
Lecter gives her back the case files on Buffalo Bill after their conversation is interrupted by Chilton and the police who escort her from the building. Later that evening, Lecter kills his guards, escapes from his cell and disappears…
“Here is a movie involving not only cannibalism and the skinning of people, but also kidnapping, being trapped in the bottom of a well, decomposing corpses, large insects, being lost in the dark, being tracked by someone you cannot see, not being able to get people to believe you, creatures who jump from the shadows, people who know your deepest secrets, doors that slam shut behind you, beheadings, bizarre sexual perversions, and being a short woman in an elevator full of tall men.” Roger Ebert
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