Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Ted Tally based off novel by Thomas Harris
Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn and Ted Levine
Synopsis: A young FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, speaks with reviled psychopathic killer, Hannibal Lecter. The two form a partnership to track down a murderer at large, Buffalo Bill.
Desire 1: To escape the “screaming of the lambs”
Desire 2: To track down Buffalo Bill (later to save the life of Catherine Martin)
Forces of Antagonism: feelings of inadequacy, Hannibal Lecter and Jack Crawford and Dr. Chilton and Buffalo Bill, an evil world dominated by patriarchy
Inciting Incident: FBI agent Jack Crawford sends Clarice Starling to interview Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter in prison.
Act One Climax: Lecter agrees to help Clarice catch the serial killer Buffalo Bill in exchange for better living conditions.
Midpoint: After a U.S. senator’s daughter is kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, Lecter makes a deal with her and Dr. Chilton, transferring him to Tennessee. Lecter drags the most secret aspects of Clarice’s life out of her before she is led away by the police, losing her key to finding Buffalo Bill before her murders young Catherine Martin.
Act Two Climax: Clarice discovers a note from Lecter, pointing her towards investigating the first murder. She rushes to Belvedere, Ohio.
Act Three Climax: Interviewing Jack Gordon, a potential friend of the first victim, Clarice realizes that he is indeed Buffalo Bill. After he attempts to kill her, she shoots him.
1. Patriarchy and a hatred of women play a major role throughout the film. Whether it be FBI agents staring down at women in their workforce or men of all groups and social classes trying to flirt with Clarice or sadistic killers hunting down women, the male force is strong in the characterizations of characters. Only when Clarice asserts herself in all dimensions of her life can she break free and shake hands with her boss, Crawford, as an equal.
2. The vile underneath of society is often implied during the film. Through the filth that perpetrates men’s minds that they choose to keep secret or the secrets we hold dear in childhood trinkets such as music boxes, many characters keep their repulsive natures hidden behind facades for the outside world. Monsters such as Hannibal Lecter show themselves openly, and this generates sympathy for his character, leaving the audience in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with a murdering cannibal. Lecter then attempts to reveal Clarice’s inner secrets, helping her come to the truth about herself. Only once she accepts her past and all the pain she has suffered, can she discover the secrets of the Buffalo Bill case and take on the monsters of the world.
3. Staring directly into camera is a technique used throughout the film. This places the audience directly into the character of Clarice Starling, and we see things directly from her point of view. Our empathy with her gains strength as we learn about her past, as we rationalize that we all want to save the innocence of our youth and our past, symbolized by the lamb Clarice tries to save. But the world of adulthood is fraught with danger, and we must change and accept that danger in order to stop running from our fear. We must adapt to this new world, symbolized by the moth’s change from innocent youth to adult understanding.
- Clarice: Character Introduction
Action: Clarice practices on an FBI training course. An instructor tells her that Agent Crawford wishes to speak with her. She leaves
- The atmosphere is moody and foggy. By having her run alone, her breathing hard, it shows her running still from the screaming of her childhood, always running. It also shows her determination.
- A sign she runs past reads “Hurt, Agony, Pain, Love It”, showing how much Clarice will have to endure to succeed.
2. Clarice: Introduction to Challenge
Inciting Incident for Clarice: Desire- Become an FBI Agent (redeem past and stop the “screaming of the lambs”)
Action: Back in the FBI Academy, Clarice says hello to a friend, Ardelia. She hops into an elevator full of men recruits, all wearing the same orange shirt. Reaching the top floor, she goes into Crawford’s office, finding pictures of the notorious Buffalo Bill murders on his wall. Crawford presents her with an opportunity, a chance to profile a famous murderer, Hannibal Lecter.
- The FBI Academy is shown as bustling, a multitude of different people inside doing a variety of different things, but Clarice is kept out of their ranks by moving past them, not quite one of them yet.
- This is the first instance of the sexism subplot throughout the film. Clarice, because she is a woman, is always seen as less than a person to many individuals in the film, starting in the elevator, joining a boy’s club that others feel she doesn’t belong in.
- The camera has tracked almost exclusively with Clarice through the film, firmly planting us in her situation.
- Even Crawford, one of the “good guys” of the film, looks at Clarice differently, an obvious attraction. He is presented out of focus coming into focus, something hard for the audience to quite pin down. His shots leer into you strangely inhuman, viewing us with a kind of unease.
- The close camera shots of Crawford’s and Clarice’s conversation are quite jarring compared to the tracking shots of earlier. This shows the audience that nothing will be hidden during the film: every detail, every nuance will be presented in uncomfortable clarity. Crawford asking, “Do you spook easily, Starling?” is him almost asking us.
- Crawford informs Clarice quite clearly that Lecter is not to be trifled with and to follow procedure clearly and explicitly. His explanation hints that Clarice will indeed break some of these rules.
3. Clarice: Moving into the Demon’s Lair
Inciting Incident for Lecter: Desire- Help Clarice (means of escape)
Action: Clarice visits Dr. Chilton at the Baltimore Psychiatric Asylum. They go through a long procedural overview of what not to do around Lecter, highlighting just how dangerous he can be, Chilton showing her a photograph of a gnarled woman’s face. Clarice walks down a long hallway, by herself, to find Lecter, congenial and greeting her, a reversal to the buildup. Lecter and Clarice talk cagedly, each trying to understand the other. Lecter criticizes her when she attempts to get him to fill out a questionnaire. They establish an early dialogue about Buffalo Bill, Lecter teeming with excitement at his crimes, testing Clarice’s stomach for such gruesome crimes as skinning another human being. Clarice answers his questions calmly and gains a bit of his interest. Then he tears her to shreds, knowing every detail of her background, getting inside of her head. Clarice criticizes him, causing Lecter to remind her of just how dangerous he is, telling her about the time he ate a census taker. He tells her to fly away, only to have Miggs in the next cell throw some of his sperm on her, causing an uproar through the block. Lecter calls her back, angry at the rash treatment towards her, and promises to help her, giving her the name of a patient she should investigate, Miss Mofet.
- Dr. Chilton, like Crawford before, speaks directly to camera, placing us as Clarice, speaking to her and to us simultaneously. As he comes on to her in such a strange and inappropriate manner, it puts the audience in an uncomfortable position.
- As Chilton explains the rules, they go deeper and deeper down into the asylum, doors locked behind them as they walk through, literally descending into a kind of hell or towards the belly of the beast.
- There is a very strong buildup after Chilton leaves her. Clarice receives final instructions from Barney, the guard. He closes the gate behind her loudly, signalling her final transition into Lecter’s world. The music crescendos as she walks past the various inmates, goading her, the chair that Barney set out for her coming closer and closer, until we finally get to Lecter, a surprisingly pleasant figure, standing erect as if waiting for her for so long.
- Lecter stares straight into camera as the other principle men before him, putting himself right into our world, seen through Clarice. As he looks at Clarice’s credentials, he walks right into frame, his face filling up the screen, nowhere for the audience to look but right into the eyes of a killer. With his strange and pleasant demeanor, contrasting with the previous buildup, we look for signs of evilness in his gaze, something off about the man, hollowness in his eyes.
- As Lecter tears apart Clarice’s background, he reveals to the audience her background, gaining an insight into her motivations to elevate herself from her sad history. The camera moves into her and the score begins again as Lecter mentally tears her apart.
- Lecter turns away when he dismisses her, losing that contact between them, and we feel that Clarice has failed. After Meigs humiliates her (tying into the patriarchy theme once more), Clarice flees back to Lecter, signifying that there is indeed a bond built by their conversation together. This also the first shot of them together, the previous conversation completely in shot-reverse shot. Clarice is now tied to Lecter.
4. Clarice: Remembering the Past
Action: Clarice remembers her father, a police officer, as she cries next to her car. She fires at a firing range, taking out some of her anger. She continues practicing at the FBI Academy, trying to improve herself. She looks up past information on Lecter.
- As she jogs with Ardelia, a group of male trainees jogs past them, shaking their heads, demeaning her.
5. Clarice: Delving into the Mystery
Action: Crawford calls Clarice to inform her that Lecter made Meigs commit suicide, whispering to him all afternoon. Clarice investigates a self-storage facility that Lecter may have insinuated to. Looking inside, Clarice finds a severed head in a jar.
- Clarice herself has to pry open the storage container, showing how much she has to do by herself.
- Clarice finds a bunch of mismanaged junk inside the storage container. Everything is dark and needs to be illuminated by her flashlight, showing how she is peering through a history of normalness, finding something horrific inside.
6. Clarice: A Deal with the Shadow
Act One Climax: Clarice- Agrees to Lecter’s Help to find Buffalo Bill
Act One Climax: Lecter- Bonds with Clarice to Help Himself Get a Better Room
Action: Clarice returns to Lecter, having figured out his anagram (Esther Mofet- The Rest of Me) and finding the head. Lecter informs her that he found the head and hid it for safekeeping, hinting that it is the first kill of Buffalo Bill.
- There is no more chair for Clarice to sit on. She sits Indian style right up next to the glass, showing her inching up to Lecter. Her apprehensiveness and need to appease Lecter are no longer there. She is speaking as she would to any other person, desperate for his help, revealing herself to him.
- She takes towels offered by Lecter, breaking one of Chilton’s rules about interactions with him, showing that she is becoming closer and closer to him as well.
- A TV evangelist is seen next to Clarice, Lecter’s punishment for Meigs’ death. He almost seems to be a warning for Clarice, screaming at her to get out while she still can.
- Lecter tries to pin Clarice down by hinting at a possible sexual relationship between her and Crawford. She brushes him off even though the audience, and her, knows that the tension is true.
- Clarice stands as Lecter offers her his deal, showing that she is rising to the occasion.
7. Catherine: Kidnapped in the Night
Action: Catherine Martin, returning home with groceries, is kidnapped by Buffalo Bill.
Catherine Inciting Incident: Kidnapped by Buffalo Bill and Needs to Escape
- Bill is shown through a pair of night vision goggles, highlighting how he is peering from his world into ours. These will also prove influential later in the film.
8. Clarice: Called Away to the Investigation
Action: Clarice is called away when another Buffalo Bill body is found.
- During training, Clarice holds a bag that is pummeled by men in boxing gloves, showing her fighting back against the patriarchy of the FBI.
9. Clarice and Crawford: Going Over the Case
Action: Clarice and Crawford go over the habits of Buffalo Bill in an airplane ride. They talk about Frederica Bimmel, the first girl murdered and how he keeps the victims alive for three days after kidnapping, but do not know why. Clarice offers her psychological profile of the killer, noting that he’ll never stop. She asks Crawford why he didn’t tell her about sending her to Lecter specifically for the purpose of finding out about Buffalo Bill, and Crawford offers his very logical, but emotionally hollow, reasoning.
- The viewer is still puzzled by Crawford and his motivations. He seems to like Clarice, but also offered her to Lecter to get information.
10. Clarice and Father: Remembering Her Father’s Death
Action: Clarice and the FBI team visit the sheriff’s department, where she is quickly shut out by Crawford and the other men on the force. She flashes back to the funeral of her father.
11. Clarice: Finding the Cocoon
Action: Clarice asks the policemen to leave so that they can examine the body. They find a bug cocoon in her throat.
- The body, as is the case throughout the film, is never seen, letting the viewer imagine the true horror of whatever happened to the victims. Instead, the camera stays almost exclusively on Clarice, letting her reactions dictate our reactions.
12. Clarice and Crawford:
Action: Crawford apologizes for shutting her out earlier. They return to Washington, D.C.
13. Clarice: Discovering the Moth
Action: Clarice takes the cocoon specimen to a scientist at a museum. One of his partners, staring strangely at Clarice, asks her out, but she politely declines. They discover that it is a Death’s Head moth and great care was taken with its raising.
- The lighting throughout all of the film is neither very colorful or bright, but also not dark or sepid. It strikes a balance, highlighting something familiar to the viewer, but also something beneath the surface, sad.
14. Catherine and Buffalo Bill: Trapped
Action: Buffalo Bill works on something mysterious while moths fly around him. The cries of Catherine nearby echo throughout.
15. Clarice: Learning about Catherine
Action: The FBI learns that Catherine Martin, daughter of Senator Martin, has been taken by Buffalo Bill. The Senator offers an impassioned plea for her return.
16. Clarice and Lecter: Quid Pro Quo
Action: Clarice blows past Chilton to interview Lecter again, this time with a degree of urgency. Clarice offers Lecter the deal he wanted, with a few extras. Lecter agrees to help Clarice in exchange for information about Clarice’s past. Their conversation is recorded by Chilton
- As Clarice explains her past, she speaks directly into camera almost, placing us as Lecter in some way, listening to her.
- The camera pulls in and pulls back as Clarice reveals more explicit details about her past and Lecter reveals more explicit details about Buffalo Bill.
17. Catherine and Buffalo Bill: Learning Depths of Evil
Action: Catherine is forced to put lotion on herself on Bill’s discretion. She sees the scratch marks of previous girls in her pit.
Act One Climax: Catherine- Catherine Realizes if She Doesn’t Do Something, She Will Die
- The camera keeps the light on Catherine dim to show how deep she is, while keeping the light on Bill light, showing him safe while she is not. Only by pulling down the light does the audience see the claw marks in the side of the wall.
18. Lecter: Agreeing to a New Deal
Action: Chilton tells Lecter that Clarice offered him a fake deal. He gives him a new deal on his command and demands to know Buffalo Bill’s real name. Lecter refuses to say until he meets the senator.
Midpoint: Lecter- Gets to Make a Deal with Chilton to Get Out of Asylum
- Chilton is seen in Lecter’s face, taunting him, demanding things of him, presenting himself as something of an equal to Lecter, which Lecter looks the other way at, dismissing.
19. Crawford and Clarice: Losing the Case
Action: The case is taken away from Crawford and Clarice once the senator learns of the phony deal presented in her name.
20. Lecter: Telling the Senator
Action: It is revealed that Lecter has taken Chilton’s pen. Lecter pretends to placate the senator. He insults her, but gives out “information.”
- Lecter speaks almost directly to camera once again, giving us the information.
- The lighting here is yellow and brighter, showing Lecter revealing more of himself to the world.
- The camera starts to pull away from Lecter as the senator leaves after he downgrades her. As he gives more information, the camera halts, as does she, bringing us back into his frame. Even through they, as us, want to turn away from him, we are pulled back in.
21. Clarice: Admitting the Screaming Lambs
Action: Chilton takes credit for Buffalo Bill’s real name on the news. Clarice lies to the police to get access to Lecter. She reveals that she knows the name Lecter gave, Louis Friend, is false (an anagram for “Iron Sulfide” aka Fool’s Gold). She asks for further help on the case. Lecter tells her everything she needs is in the case file and makes her tell him why she ran away from the ranch after her father’s death, the screaming lambs that she could not save. Clarice asks him repeatedly to tell her his name as she is dragged away by Chilton. Lecter hands her back her case file, gently brushing her finger, their only physical contact.
Midpoint: Clarice- Clarice Is Led Away from Lecter, Losing His Insight in the Case. She Has Also Revealed Her True Self to Him, Letting Lecter Into her Head.
- The camera moves with Clarice, keeping hers, and our, eyes on Lecter. When the focus turns to Clarice, she is smaller in frame, losing her grasp on power. Only when she reveals her true nature to Lecter does the camera move towards her.
- Lecter practically whispers “Thank You” to Clarice after he hears her confession. The viewer understands that Lecter is seeking true emotional release in his cell, something he had lost all those years. He was digging around her head for his own benefit, but has come to respect her.
22. Lecter: Breaking Out
Action: Lecter manages to murder the two guards watching him, using the pen Chilton had left as a way to break out of his cuffs.
- The classical music playing in the background leads itself to the brutal slaughter of the two officers, creating a sense of strange foreboding. Once Lecter breaks free, the actual musical score kicks in and delivers on the action.
- Lecter is calm as the officers prepare to serve him supper. Only once he is free of his handcuffs does he behave like a wild animal.
23. Lecter: The Escape
Action: The police search for Lecter, believing him to be wounded and somewhere on the premises. They discover one of the guards hung up outside his cell, arms outstretched, like a moth. One of the two guards is badly wounded, taken care of by an arriving ambulance. Only too late does everyone realize that Lecter has disguised himself as the guard.
Act Two Climax: Lecter- Lecter is Free in the World Again
- The film shifts focus away from Lecter and Clarice for the first time, following the struggle of the Tennessee police to find Lecter. Knowing Lecter and suspecting just what he is capable of, the viewer is left wondering what exactly Lecter’s plot is to escape instead of worrying for either character.
24. Clarice: Finding the Clue
Action: Clarice and Ardelia talk about the risk to her since Lecter is out, but Clarice is more concerned with Catherine. They decide to take another look at the case files. They find a note scribbled down by Lecter, leading them to the assumption that Bill knew his first victim, Frederica Bimmel.
Act Two Climax: Clarice Goes to Ohio to Figure Out the True Identity of Buffalo Bill
25. Clarice: Visiting the Bimmel Home
Action: Clarice visits the home of Frederica Bimmel. She discovers that Lecter is building himself a women suit.
- The house is presented as very quaint and homely. Only when Clarice digs through does she discover the secrets underneath.
26. Clarice: Left Out of the Loop
Action: Clarice tells her discovery to Crawford. Crawford cuts her off, telling her that they have discovered who and where he is: Jamie Gumm, discovered after a shipment of Asian moths were discovered in customs. Crawford tries to tell her how important she’s been to the investigation, but they are cut off.
- Once again, Crawford means to include Clarice in the story, but keeps her at arm’s length, demeaning her by cutting her off and telling her to remain in Ohio rather than try to meet up with them near Chicago.
27. Catherine and Bill: The Metamorphosis
Action: Bill dresses himself up in his women suit. Meanwhile, Catherine lures his dog, Precious, into a bucket and down into the lair she is forced in.
Act Two Climax: Catherine- Catherine Makes a Final Play to Save Herself from Bill
- The soundtrack of Bill dressing up contrasts heavily with the classical music Lecter played during his escape. This shows them as two very separate entities even though they are both murderers. It also reveals their characters, Lecter a professional and a classical, Bill uncontrollable and pop.
- The camera highlights individual aspects of Bill as he prepares himself. Each one portrays just a small, terrifying part of the overall picture. This shows him as a conglomeration of different psychoses, just as he is trying to build himself up of different women.
- The position in front of the camera, his arms outstretched, is the same moth-like position that Lecter left one of the cops in after his escape.
28. Clarice: Following the Trail
Action: Clarice talks to one of Frederica’s friends. She gets the name of a sewing friend.
29. Clarice and Crawford: Finding Bill
Action: As the police close in on the house in Illinois, Catherine holds Precious, threatening to break her neck if Bill doesn’t let her go. The doorbell rings only to find Clarice in front of Bill, not Crawford and the FBI, who quickly realize the danger of Clarice.
- The crosscutting between Bill trying to save his dog and answer the doorbell and the FBI breaking into the house builds tension as the audience expects the FBI to burst through and save the day. When Clarice opens the door instead, this opens up an element of surprise and now Clarice must save herself.
30. Clarice: The Confrontation
Action: Clarice is invited into the house of Bill. As she looks around, she notices a moth fly by. She takes out her gun, ordering Bill to freeze. He disappears around the corner. Clarice descends the stairs into Bill’s lair, seeing all the evil about her. She finds Catherine, promising to be back for her. After discovering a mutilated body in the bathtub, the lights are turned off, leaving her in total darkness. Through the lens of Bill’s night goggles, she stumbles, unaware of the danger around her. After hearing Bill cock his gun, she spins around and shoots him.
Act Three Climax: Clarice- Clarice faces the demons of patriarchy and her past to defeat Buffalo Bill.
- As Bill searches for the phone number of Mrs. Lipton’s son, the previous owner of the house, the music builds in tension. The camera moves in closer and closer to Clarice as she slowly realizes that this is in fact the killer. As she confronts him, the rest of the business cards in his hands fall out, showing how his world is crumbling before him.
- Clarice descends into Bill’s house and each shot uncovers something horrifying, a new piece of information about the killer. From maps of the United States to women mannequins, the shots become progressively darker and more contrasty. Subtle signs everywhere point to the Ku Klux Klan. Moths fly everywhere around her.
- Bill looking at her through the night goggles offers the male perspective once again that she has had to deal with all movie, simultaneously hating her and demeaning her while also valuing her beauty. He reaches out to her, only to touch her, but she is hidden in the dark, very much still haunted by her past, unable to see the way forward. Only by facing this gaze does Clarice escape with her life.
- Bill dies with his arms outstretched, still in the moth position, now “transformed” in a different manner.
31. Clarice and Catherine: After the Fact
Act Three Climax: Catherine- Catherine is rescued and safe.
Action: Crawford comforts Clarice as Catherine is safely led away by rescue workers.
32. Clarice: Reward
Clarice and Crawford Act Climax: They shake hands as friends with respect for one another.
Action: Clarice receives her FBI license. She shakes hands with Crawford.
- Crawford is seen in the back, clapping for Clarice. As soon as she passes, he leaves, showing that he was just there for her. Though there was some connection between them, he chooses not to pursue it, admiring her not as a lower woman, but as an equal.
33. Clarice and Lecter: Odd Friends
Act Three Climax: Lecter- Lecter is Free and Out in the World.
Action: Lecter calls Clarice and asks if the lambs have stopped screaming. He tells her that he will not stop calling because he is so interested in her. He tells her that he is going to have an old friend for dinner (Chilton) and hangs up. Clarice stays on the line, asking for him, terrified, but he is gone.
- Lecter is shown wearing sunglasses and in a tropical climate, showing that he can move quickly and be anywhere. As he walks away, he blends in with the crowd around him, joining the masses around us.
- The camera pulls back on Clarice’s face as she continues to ask where he is, terrified of the world she has opened up to herself, one she thought she had vanquished with the death of Buffalo Bill. But monsters are still out there. And who knows if she will ever really be free.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) continues to elicit scares even twenty years after its release because of its timeless themes of manifested evil in our society and solving childhood trauma. It works because it does not adhere to cheap scares, but to lurking psychological trauma that creeps under your skin and festers long after viewing. It creates engaging characters that the viewer reviles, but is forced to empathize with. One of the most absorbing horror films ever made, it addresses real fears about adulthood, murder, fear, transformation and the nature of evil.