Our heroic FBI trainee and stalker-stalker Clarice Ann Starling is direct, honest, determined—and smart enough to know when she should be scared spitless. She agrees to tangle with one of the most violent, brilliant, and dangerous criminals ever to practice psychiatry.
Yeah, he's behind bars for now, but he's still a nightmare-worthy scary guy.
Clarice isn't quite sure of herself at first, but she seems to know how to manage her insecurities in order to do what she has to do to get Lecter's cooperation and track down Buffalo Bill. Jodie Foster's Oscar-winning performance shows us both Clarice's vulnerabilities and her substantial strength.
While most people don't typically encounter severed heads and otherwise mutilated bodies in their job, we all face struggles similar to what Clarice deals with. She wants to succeed in a world where the odds are stacked against her. She's a trainee. A fantastic one, but still a trainee, in a position where she has to work extra hard to earn respect. She's also a woman in a male-driven world, a small-town girl in a big-town job.
These things, complicated with a tragedy in her past, complicate Starling's journey more than your average girl-meets-boy-serial killer, girl-uses-boy-serial-killer-to-find-another-boy-serial-killer tale.
Clarice is smart. Very smart—a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Virginia and obviously doing very well in her FBI training. But there are pros and cons to being really good at what you do. On the pro side, you get respect (not-so-coincidentally, respect is one of the major themes of the movie). On the con side, sometimes your instructors or superiors assign you a lot of more work. You might be called on to lead a group discussion, write extra papers, or interview a known serial killer who might bite your face off.
That's where Clarice finds herself at the beginning of The Silence of the Lambs. The head of the Behavior Science Unit, Jack Crawford, gives her a job. "More of an interesting errand," he says. She's a stellar student, and Crawford knows she's up to the task. And she manages to figure it out—with Lecter's help, sure, but she does a bang-up job of piecing together clues and intuition to track down Buffalo Bill and rescue his surviving captive. When she graduates from the Academy, everyone, including Lecter, is proud of her.
Crawford knows that Clarice isn't only smart, but he trusts her grit enough to assign her to a case involving two of the most deranged and dangerous men imaginable (three if you count the dirtbag Dr. Chilton). "Do you spook easily, Starling?" he asks her. She's nervous, yes, but if she gets spooked, she hides it well. Later, when finding a severed head, she describes her feelings as "Scared at first, then, exhilarated." She likes what she does, even when it involves finding body parts in jars.
It's not like Clarice doesn't experience fear—in fact, she looks uneasy much of the time—but her curiosity makes her push through it. Just thinking about Hannibal Lecter is enough to keep most of us awake nights. He intimidates her, but she manages to stay on her feet.
LECTER: Why do you think he takes their skins, Officer Starling? Thrill me with your acumen.
CLARICE: It excites him. Most serial killers keep some sort of trophies.
DR. LECTER: I didn't.
CLARICE: No. No, you ate yours.
Even after Lecter zings Clarice with his uncanny insights about her rural West Virginia background ("You're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Officer Starling?"), she doesn't wilt even though you can see her wince.
It's not completely clear why—maybe because her dad was a cop and she wanted to please him—but Clarice has chosen a traditionally male profession. She's the only important woman in the film, and she's surrounded by male psychiatrists, instructors, and cops. She puts up with a lot of condescension and intimidation and tries her best to deal with it. When the sleazy Dr. Chilton unsuccessfully tries to hit on her, then suggests that her instructor was clever to send a pretty young woman to get Lecter's sexual interest, she retorts,
CLARICE: I graduated magna from UVA, Doctor. It's not a charm school.
She also decides that she'd rather not have to deal with Dr. Chilton any more than absolutely necessary:
CLARICE: Dr. Chilton, if Lecter feels you're his enemy as you've said, then maybe I'll have more luck by myself. What do you think?
CHILTON: (annoyed) You might have suggested that in my office, and saved me the time.
CLARICE: But then I would've missed the pleasure of your company.
Even when meeting the terrifying Lecter for the first time, she manages not to fall apart in the face of his challenges:
CLARICE: I'm still in training at the Academy.
LECTER: Jack Crawford sent a trainee to me?
CLARICE: We're talking about psychology, Doctor, not the Bureau. Can you decide for yourself whether or not I'm qualified?
Clarice endures a lot from the men around her. She gets hit on by everyone from psychotic killers to psychiatrists and entomologists. (You know those entomologists—always bugging people.) We see her in an elevator looking small as she's surrounded by tall guys in uniforms, and we're constantly aware of men looking at her. As she walks down the corridor of the state hospital, an inmate shouts obscenities and flings semen at her. In her first meeting with Lecter, she's sitting and he's standing, looking slightly down at her and gazing intently with his creepy, intimidating stare. (Source)
Clarice comes into her own during the course of the film; one of her big moments is when she finds her authoritative voice and kicks the guys out of the autopsy room when they're staring at a victim's corpse:
CLARICE: Excuse me! Excuse me, gentlemen! You officers and gentlemen, listen here now. Uh, there's things we need to do for her. I know that y'all brought her this far and that her folks would thank you if they could for your kindness and your sensitivity. And now please, go on now and lets us take care of her. Go on now. Thank you.
You go, girl.
A brief scene in The Silence of the Lambs shows Clarice engaging in a practice FBI operation. She bursts into a room to save a captive, but someone pulls a fake gun on her and fake shoots her. The instructor asks her,
INSTRUCTOR: "Starling, where's your danger area?"
CLARICE "In the corner, sir."
INSTRUCTOR: "Did you check the corner?"
CLARICE: "No, sir."
INSTRUCTOR: "That's the reason you're dead."
Clarice's "corner" is her family history. Raised by a single father, Clarice idolized her daddy, a sheriff. He was killed when Clarice was a young girl, and she was sent to live with relatives on a farm. When they slaughtered lambs, the screaming of the lambs drove Clarice crazy, and she tried to run away, but not without trying to save the lambs first.
Even at this age, young Clarice didn't spook easily. "I was so scared to look inside, but I had to," she said, a skill which serves her well as an FBI agent. She couldn't save her lamb, though:
CLARICE: "I thought if I could save just one, I thought… but… he was so heavy. He was so heavy."
We learn all this this when Dr. Hannibal Lecter learns it in a bit of quid pro quo with Clarice Starling. Quid pro quo being Latin for "most uncomfortable OKCupid profile survey ever." But by grilling Clarice like a lamb chop, he forces her to look into this dark corner of her past. "You think if you save poor Catherine, you can make them stop, don't you?" Lecter says.
Lecter also susses out early on that even though she's smart and polished, she didn't come from a "good" family—he notes her cheap shoes and the hint of a rural West Virginia accent. He tells her that she ran far away from home, all the way to the FBI. You can see these comments strike home. It's these initial hints that make him probe Clarice for more of her stories and eventually reveals the episode with the lambs.
We're meant to understand that Clarice's insecurities about coming from a small-town West Virginia drive her ambition to succeed at the Academy where she's an outsider because of her gender and her social class. Maybe she identifies with Bill's victim Frederika Bimmel, who left her own small town to look for work in Chicago. And by saving Catherine, Clarice can also save herself. Catherine's not the only damsel in peril in this film.
Thinking of cannibals usually conjures up one image: a racist caricature of a tribal native with sharp teeth and a bone (from his last human meal) through his nose.
Serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter is not that image.
He's solitary, not part of a tribe. He wears tidy, pressed clothes. And he probably brushes and flosses after every meal, even if that meal did involve a nurse's tongue served extra rare. He's brilliant and sophisticated and knows it. Roger Ebert's description nails it: "His speaking voice has the precision of a man so arrogant he can barely be bothered to address the sloppy intelligence of the ordinary person" (source). Anthony Hopkins said he modeled his character after the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey—brilliant, logical, and unemotional. Check out the vocal resemblance—it's uncanny.
The image of Lecter standing alone in a cell, or with his iconic face mask, seems to dominate the movie, even though he's only in the film for 16 minutes. Most of what we know about Lecter—he ate a census-taker's liver with some fava beans and wine, he bit a nurse's tongue out—is all told to us. It took place before the movie even started. At the end, we do see Lecter brutally murder two cops and use one of their skinned faces as a mask, in one of the film's more horrific sequences. So there's that.
But before the possibility of escape, what does Lecter want? He wants a window. That's about it.
LECTER: What I want is a view. I want a window where I can see a tree, or even water.
It's almost quaint. But Dr. Lecter is a cultured man who appreciates the art and beauty in life, even if he does eat people. The drawings on his wall are of views from his memory. "Memory, Agent Starling, is what I have instead of a view," he tells Clarice. He's being punished for his crimes by having these views taken away; by helping Clarice catch Buffalo Bill, he'll be rewarded.
Lecter is so smart and so deadly, that even though he's locked up in a cage with guns pointed at him from every direction and a mask at the ready of he gets hungry, we just know he's going to escape somehow and there will be blood. He notices everything, and all it takes is someone to carelessly leave a pen on the table, and Lecter's ten steps ahead of everyone else. That makes the film unbearably suspenseful.
A big part of our fascination with Lecter is the way Demme stages his first appearance.
Dr. Chilton leads Starling down some stairs into what appears to be a medieval dungeon, describing all the awful things Lecter has done. We never see the picture of the nurse he mutilated—or the like—which lets our mind fill in the hideous details. Then we see a guard station with enough guns to storm the beach at Normandy, followed by a long walk down a row of cells containing the most hideous monstrosities we can imagine.
At the end is the monster we've just spent five minutes hearing about...neatly groomed, standing politely, and greeting us with an understated "good morning."
Now that's how you introduce a villain.
Lecter gets an unexpected view when trying to get his transfer: a view into the mind of Clarice Starling. While feeding her clues to Buffalo Bill's identity, he wants to figure her out. The idea of it is a turn-on.
LECTER: Quid pro quo. I tell you things, you tell me things. […] Quid pro quo. Yes or no?
He does this to get inside her head without cutting off her skull and eating her brain (he saves that for the sequel). Anyway, he's a psychiatrist; he's trained to draw people out and probe deeply into their past. And he's very, very good at it. He figures Clarice out within minutes of their first meeting:
LECTER: You're so ambitious, aren't you? You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition has given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Officer Starling? That accent you're so desperately trying to shed—pure West Virginia. […] you could only dream of getting out, getting anywhere, yes? Getting all the way to the F…B…I.
Strangely, he seems to care about Clarice. He's concerned for her well-being, and he wants to see her succeed. He even gets one of her prison tormentors to kill himself. (Awww...how sweet is that?) Is it because she's the first woman he's seen in almost a decade? One of his clues regarding Buffalo Bill, "We covet what we see every day," could apply to Lecter too. The more he sees Clarice, the more he covets her. He wants to take care of her.
After he escapes to a tropical island, giving him a better view than he ever dreamed of, he calls her to congratulate her on her training academy graduation. Even more sweet! "Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?" he asks, which is his creepy serial-killer way of serving as a surrogate father figure looking after his not-daughter's well-being. He assures her he won't kill her, saying, "I have no plans to call on you, Clarice. The world's more interesting with you in it."
Evidently, the world's not a more interesting place with Dr. Chilton in it. Lecter's traveled to a spot where the smarmy shrink has just stepped off a plane for a lovely vacation. As he watches Chilton arrive, Lecter tells Clarice, in one of the film's most famous lines:
LECTER: I do wish we could chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner.
You know that movie trope, the cannibalistic serial killer with the heart of gold?
Oh, right. That's because it's not a thing.
But film critic Michael Henley thinks the film works so well because, among other reasons, Lecter is such a complex character:
"[…] the secret of The Silence of the Lambs […] is that Hannibal Lecter is not a bad man. Certainly he is an evil man: capable of it, willing to do it. But "bad" indicates he is without positive qualities, which is inaccurate. In addition to his intelligence and manners, he has a streak of compassion that is endearing. There's something almost perversely chivalric about the way he retaliates against Miggs's attack by convincing the inmate to swallow his own tongue in shame. Nasty, yes, but such is the life of a civilized killer. The relationship between Clarice and Hannibal, which becomes deeply intimate and semi-paternal, […] subverts our expectations for how a serial killer would behave […]." (Source)
A civilized killer? What weird dynamic accounts for the fact that we feel confident as the movie ends that Clarice is totally safe from Lecter? And where does the weirdest relationship in serial-killer history go from here?
You'd have to watch the sequel to find out.
At the end of the movie, you totally got a thrill in knowing that Lecter was going to eat Dr. Chilton. Dude's a creep, after all, so why wouldn't you want him to get what's coming to him?
That there is Lecter expressing some forbidden audience desires for us.
In a movie with two serial killers, Buffalo Bill manages to be the "bad" one.
Hannibal Lecter has a sense of manners and a moral code, however twisted it may be. But Buffalo Bill, whose real name is Jame Gumb, has no sense of…anything. Dr. Lecter is sure of who he, himself is. Buffalo Bill hates himself and wants to change.
Buffalo Bill decides to change himself by killing women and making himself a woman suit. Because what's more irresistible than a man wearing the skin of another person?
Um, barf. Bill's M.O. is to kidnap a plus-size woman, keep her in a pit for three days, starve her to loosen her skin, skin her, and dump her in a river. While the women are in the pit, he yells at them and taunts them, "It rubs the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again." No self-respecting serial killer would wear dry skin. At least they're well-moisturized.
While Catherine screams from the basement, Bill tucks his man-parts between his legs, strikes a sultry feminine pose, and tells his mirror image what he'd like to do to her if he could.
In one odd moment, Bill almost seems sad when his captive Catherine Martin cries out for her mother. His own mother would have to be Mrs. Norma Bates times a hundred to turn her son into a man as crazy and violent as Buffalo Bill, but what was his upbringing like?
In a conversation with Clarice, Lecter speculates about it. Bill's ex-lover was a patient of Lecter's and Lecter hints that he met with Bill once, so he knew something about him:
LECTER: Billy is not a real transsexual, but he thinks he is. He tries to be. He's tried to be a lot of things I expect. […] There are three major centers for transsexual surgery: Johns Hopkins, the University of Minnesota, and Columbus Medical Center. I wouldn't be surprised if Billy had applied for sex reassignment at one or all of them and been rejected.
CLARICE: On what basis would they reject him?
LECTER: Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our Billy wasn't born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual.
As Officer Krupke would understand, "he's depraved on account of he's deprived." It's impossible to sympathize with him, though. After this one moment where he almost has emotion, he quickly beings to vulgarly mock Catherine. He does have one soft spot remaining: his dog, Precious. Catherine almost kills the dog to get what she wants from Bill. That seems to be the only thing that makes him angry.
Unlike many killers in movies, Buffalo Bill isn't exceptionally crafty. He's not leaving weird clues or sending Clarice on a chase; he's simply lucky to have not been caught yet. When Clarice finally gets on his trail, his luck has run out. Clarice shoots and kills him after a creepy chase through his underground lair.
Jack Crawford is the head of the FBI's Behavioral Science Services. He's well-respected, and Clarice idolizes him as a father figure of sorts. A father who sends his daughter to interview the most dangerous and demented man on the planet, evidently.
Despite Hannibal Lecter's insinuation that there's something sexual between them, we know Clarice doesn't feel that way. She wants to earn Crawford's respect, not a way into his pants.
We don't know what he's thinking, though. His character is mainly used for exposition and driving the plot forward. It's Crawford who sends Clarice to interview Lecter. It's he who brings Clarice along when a new victim's body is found. But we do know that the respect goes both ways between them. He admires her determination in the Academy, saying "You grilled me pretty hard, as I recall, on the Bureau's Civil Rights record doing the Hoover years." And when he says, "I gave you an A," she corrects him: "A-minus, sir." He likes her brave frankness.
This doesn't mean he isn't using her, though. He knows Lecter would respond to a female, and he uses Clarice to present the fake offer to Lecter. But can someone use a person and still respect them? We think Crawford can. He congratulates her and shakes her hand when she graduates, and tells her, "Your father would have been proud today." And Crawford is proud, too.
It takes a special kind of man to be more unlikeable than a cannibalistic serial killer. By "special" we mean "awful," and this kind of man is Dr. Chilton, the know-it-all, self-congratulatory head of Baltimore State Forensic Hospital. He views Hannibal Lecter as a "prize asset" and treats him like an object instead of a person.
This turns out to be Dr. Chilton's downfall. Here, downfall means "probably gets eaten by Hannibal Lecter after the credits roll." It's Chilton who tells Lecter that Starling's offer of a change of scenery is fake. Chilton orchestrates an actual offer of transfer with the Tennessee senator Ruth Martin, and then takes all the credit.
CHILTON: It's only through my own unique insight into Lecter's mind that this breakthrough was possible.
He adds, "I worked in a few conditions for my own benefit as well." Chilton doesn't care about saving Catherine Martin; he cares about his own fame.
Blinded by this quest for acclaim, Chilton accidentally breaks his own rules, rules that he condescendingly lays out for Clarice on her first visit:
CHILTON: Do not touch the glass. Do not approach the glass. Pass him nothing but soft paper, no pencils or pens. No staples or paper clips in his paper. […] If he attempts to pass you anything, do not accept it.
Chilton sets his pen down in Lecter's cell. Hannibal gets it, and later uses it to pick his lock and escape. Chilton probably isn't gloating then.
We last see this sleazeball being tailed by Lecter, who plans on having "an old friend for dinner." Chilton probably won't be alive by the time the sequel begins.
Catherine Martin is the "it" in the famous quote, "It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again." Maybe Buffalo Bill was an English major, because he 100% realizes the dehumanization of his word choice.
Bill targets Martin simply because of her size. He needs bigger girls so he has more skin to work with. Meghan Trainor fails to mention that in "All About that Bass," doesn't she? Once she's kidnapped, Catherine wants to get out of the hole. She's not entirely helpless, tricking Bill's dog, Precious, into the hole and threatening to kill it if he doesn't give her a phone. We don't get to see if her threat works, because Starling saves her soon after.
Catherine Martin's mother is Ruth Martin, a senator in Tennessee. She puts out a plea on TV to save Catherine. She realizes the power of pronouns too. Clarice remarks after hearing the speech that she uses Catherine's name more than once. "If he sees Catherine as a person and not just an object, it's harder to tear her up."
Unfortunately, Bill isn't watching TV, and he doesn't see Catherine as a person at all. However, he made a mistake in kidnapping a senator's daughter. Her resources are enough to get the information out of Lecter that they need to capture Buffalo Bill, and she gets her daughter back.
There are a few other little lambs who flesh out Starling's journey.
A nurse at the state hospital, Barney's the one nice person there, putting a chair out for Clarice and giving her a brief pep talk, "I'll be watching. You'll do fine."
Raspail, or at least what's left of him, is the head found in the storage unit. Lecter says Raspail was "a fledging killer's first effort at transformation," and it's one clue closer toward Buffalo Bill's identity.
He's Lecter's cell neighbor who taunts Clarice and assaults her with a certain body fluid (and There's Something About Mary hadn't even been made yet!). Lecter convinces Miggs to kill himself that night, demonstrating a fatherly protection over Clarice.
These two work at the museum. When they're not playing chess with beetles, they're helping Clarice decipher the species of the death's-head moth cocoon. Maybe Clarice does take up Pilcher's offer for "cheeseburgers and beer" because both show up at Clarice's graduation, and Roden even poses for a picture with Clarice's friend and roommate, Ardelia.
Is there a Silence of the Lambs-themed double wedding in their future?