Study Guide

The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs Introduction


Release Year: 1991

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

Director: Jonathan Demme

Writer: Ted Tally, Thomas Harris (book)

Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins


Gory killings and serial murders? Been there. Done that.

It's hard to bat an eye at cinematic gore when folks are biting off people's faces in broad daylight  and others are being killed and dismembered in the alleys of Daytona Beach.

But in 1991, people were a little less…used to it.

Released that year, The Silence of the Lambs is the tale of a young FBI trainee who uses one serial killer to catch another. Lambs swept the 64th Academy Awards, earning trophies for Jonathan Demme (Best Director), Anthony Hopkins (Best Actor), Jodie Foster (Best Actress), and Ted Tally (Best Adapted Screenplay). Of course, it also won Best Picture, showing Disney's Beauty and the Beast, a fellow Best Picture nominee, what a true beast looks like. 

(P.S. Count those Oscars. There are five of 'em. The "Big Five," in fact—a feat only two other movies have accomplished: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and It Happened One Night.)

Despite dominating the Oscars, it didn't get unanimous praise from critics. Although these two dudes are outliers (the film has a 94% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes), Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune called it a "gnarled, brutal, highly manipulative film" (source) and Siskel and Ebert argued so vehemently over it, we're surprised they didn't literally kill each other (source). Silence was also criticized for its graphic violence and its unfavorable depiction of transgender people.

You be the judge.

Of course, these minor criticisms didn't silence Lambs' popularity. The film spawned tons of serial-killer films and TV shows (Dexter, anyone?) and made bona fide celebrities out of its stars. Jodie Foster, a child actor from Taxi Driver (1976) and already an Oscar winner for The Accused (1988), would go on to play roles beside Mel Gibson in the comedy/western Maverick (1994), inside David Fincher's Panic Room (2002), in a time-space warp in Contact (1997) and aboard Neill Blomkamp's Elysium (2013). Anthony Hopkins would go on to star in Dracula (1992), Amistad (1997), The Mask of Zorro (1998), RED 2 (2013), and countless other films; and he reprised his role as Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal (2001) and Red Dragon (2002).

The victim in the pit, first-time actress Brooke Smith, climbed to fame with roles in Weeds and Grey's Anatomy. Even veteran actress Darla the dog, who plays Buffalo Bill's pooch Precious, appeared in Batman Returns (1992) before retiring from showbiz (i.e. going to doggy heaven). Fictional character Hannibal Lecter even got a life of his own with the The NBC show Hannibal.

Everyone knows these actors and these characters because everyone went to see this movie in 1991—back when you still had to leave your house to see movies. With a budget of only $19 million, Lambs racked up over $270 million worldwide, a nice payday for Orion Pictures, which had already gone bankrupt and later shut down in 1999. (Source)

But just because the studio is gone, it doesn't mean the film disappeared, too. The Silence of the Lambs persists in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of millions of movie goers. In fact, Lecter's cold genius and Buffalo Bill's barbarism will always be shocking, no matter what.

So dim the lights, pop some popcorn (maybe no hot dogs during this one), and get ready for one of the greatest psychological thrillers on film.

Oh, and some gore, too.

What is The Silence of the Lambs About and Why Should I Care?

We know you've spent hours wondering what chewing someone's face off is really like.

Well, a close viewing of Silence of the Lambs will give you an in-depth look at the psychology of one of the most terrifying screen killers in the history of film. The character of Hannibal Lecter has taken on a life of his own (while taking many fictional lives in the process). Author Thomas Harris has written four books featuring this character (we're still waiting for the Hannibal Lecter Cookbook), and the character has been played by four actors in film and on TV.

Everyone has their favorite Hannibal, but we'd be willing to bet that nine out of ten Lecter fans would pick Anthony Hopkins as their number one. (Don't eat us, Mads.)

What makes Hannibal Lecter so fascinating? He's one of the most compelling anti-heroes of our time. Even though he's a far more dangerous killer than Buffalo Bill, we find ourselves rooting for Lecter in a way. It's like cheering for Godzilla or Jaws. Except unlike those characters, Lecter has charisma—which makes him the most dangerous. He's a psychiatrist, so he's able to go straight to Clarice's most vulnerable places and make her feel defenseless. It's Hopkins' chillingly riveting performance that draws you in, which is exactly what Lecter wants.

Lecter's piercing stare and the film's numerous close-ups bring you as close to the inside of Lecter's head as you're ever going to get. Just as Clarice Starling wants to study Lecter for the Behavioral Sciences division of the FBI, viewers, too, get a glimpse at the mind of a serial killer. We're all amateur psychologists, trying to pick apart a brain. (Not literally…Lecter saves that tactic for the sequel.) Because Lecter's in only in less than a quarter of the film, he always leaves you wanting more.

When Empire Online compiled its list of the 100 Greatest Movie Characters, they pegged Dr. Hannibal Lecter at number 5, and they chose only one version of Lecter—the one played by Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal, Red Dragon, and of course, The Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins wasn't even the first Lecter, but it feels like he originated the role because he just may be the best.

Watch Silence of the Lambs and study the masterful portrayal of a killer.

He's already studying you.

Trivia

The Silence of the Lambs is a full-course Oscar meal. What we mean is that as of 2015, it's one of only three films to sweep the five major Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Screenplay (Ted Tally), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), and Best Actress (Jodie Foster). The only other two films are It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Source)

Brooke Smith, who plays Catherine Martin, had never acted before this movie. Jonathan Demme chose Smith to rub the lotion on her skin because he wanted an unknown performer to "dramatically honor people who have been confined." She also put on 25 pounds for the role. (Source)

No one in The Silence of the Lambs found themselves walking in Memphis. The Shelby County Courthouse was actually part of a military museum on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, many many miles from Beale Street. (Source)

Like moths to a movie poster, movie fans love The Silence of the Lambs cover artwork for the poster. There's a hidden secret in it which some may have missed: the skull on the back of the moth is actually copied from a Salvador Dali artwork of naked women in the shape of a skull, adding even more depth to the movie's most prominent symbol. (Source)

When Anthony Hopkins first heard the title The Silence of the Lambs he thought "it was a movie for kids." Goriest Little Golden Book ever? (Source)

Anthony Heald played another sleazy, pompous psychiatrist in the 1996 film A Time to Kill. This time, he's outed as a paid shill for the prosecution who's never found anyone not guilty by reason of insanity. (Source)

The Silence of the Lambs Resources

Websites

Lamb Chopped
Clarice uses a microfiche machine in the movie because the Internet didn't exist yet, so it's no surprise the website is pretty bare bones. Nice trailer, though.

94% Fresh
Check out Rotten Tomatoes for an amalgam of critical response to the film.

Ko Jagenjcki Obmolknejo
IMDb has the Slovenian title of the film and everything else you always wanted to know about SOTL but were afraid, very afraid, to ask.

Book of TV Adaptations

Have the Pages Stopped Turning, Clarice?
The movie is adapted from the book by the same name, a book with hundreds of pages of additional gruesome content!

Ripa'd from the Big Screen
Kelly Ripa loves the musical parody adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs called Silence! The Musical

Mad About SOTL
Mad magazine has their own special take on the film.

Articles and Interviews

Apples and (Blood) Oranges
Ted Tally, screenwriter, compares a book and a screenplay to apples and oranges. We'd think he'd use more gruesome imagery, like hamburgers and lamb chops, but we're not an Oscar-winning screenwriter, so what do we know?

Not-So-Surprise Ending
Tally wants anything he adapts to come ready-made with a good ending.

Film Proof
The Times notes all the bulletproof glass used in the film, but doesn't believe the film itself is exactly bulletproof.

Lecter's Warm and Fuzzy Side
Film critic Michael Henley thinks Hannibal's not all bad.

Thumbs Up
The late great Roger Ebert thought that the outstanding performances made for an outstanding film despite the presence of every terrifying cliché you can think of.

Video

Ted Talk
Ted Tally talks about just how darn good everyone is in this movie.

A Role to Relish
Anthony Hopkins, who still has hair in this interview, talks about meeting Clarice as Lecter for the first time.

Bloopers of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs gag reels teaches us that gloves are hard to put on, Jodie Foster wants her enemies to be sassy, and Anthony Hopkins has a horrible Sly Stallone impersonation.

Behind the Silence
No actors were eaten during the making of this movie.

Talking about Silence
Siskel hates it! Lecter's going to bite his thumbs off after this critically panning review.

Masked Man
Here's some video of Anthony Hopkins screen-testing different masks for his role as Hannibal. Very, very creepy.

Audio

American Girl
This is the Tom Petty song sung by Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith) before getting kidnapped so Buffalo Bill can use her skin to transform himself into a real-life American Girl doll.

Gooey Center
Clarice and audiences are both repulsed and attracted to Hannibal Lecter. Just don't get too close.

Images

A Face Only a Moth-er Could Love
Ted Levine, who plays Buffalo Bill, adorned with moths: still creepy even behind the scenes.

The Man in the Iron Mask
Hopkins makes Lecter's iconic mask look downright happy in this behind-the-scenes photo.

Close-Up
Hopkins gets a taste of directing.

What's It All About?
You couldn't tell from the original movie poster for the film. But note that it's Clarice, not Hannibal, on the poster.