In 1975 after seeing the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics one Thomas Harris wrote Black Sunday. It was though some 6 years later that he would put pen to paper for the second time and come up with a franchise which has left him financially secure from that time until now. Red Dragon introduced us to Dr Hannibal Lecter, psychiatrist and cannibal, and was initially brought to our screens by Michael Mann with his excellent Manhunter. Eventually, in 2002, Red Dragon would re-emerge on our screens under its original title, although this second outing was a somewhat weaker affair and in my own opinion does not have the same impact as its younger sibling.
It was though in 1991 that the general movie going public first set their eyes on Dr Lecter, and I say him specifically because although this film is about one period in his life, the franchise is wholly focused around this one character. Harris himself realised this and that is why four of the five books he has published are all about this one man. It was important then that a worthy actor was chosen to undertake this role; that actor was of course Sir Anthony Hopkins.
If you don't know the story by now, and if not where have you been in these intervening 18 years? It concerns the ongoing investigation by F.B.I. trainee Clarice Starling of a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Buffalo Bill kidnaps young, slightly larger women, keeps them captive for some time, kills and skins them. The Bureau have been trying to capture this beast for some time and feel that Dr Lecter's insight into serial killers might help them uncover more clues, and help solve the case. It falls on Clarice's shoulders to interview Lecter and in doing so she finds that it is herself who ultimately becomes the interviewee, forming a professional relationship between herself and Lecter, one which she finds both fascinating and disturbing.
It is more than fair to say that this one film thrust Hopkins into the wide view of Hollywood and the American cinema attendees. Prior to this he had some success in this country with television appearances and some lesser known movies; this one venture though he made his own. When people remember or talk about The Silence of the Lambs do they discuss the investigation by Clarice? No! Do they discuss Buffalo Bill? No! All talk about Dr Hannibal Lecter, his quiet speech, his eyes which seem to burn into your soul, his calculations and ultimately his absolute viciousness. This is the role that Hopkins will be remembered for; he researched the role, and came up with his own vision of how this character should speak, should behave and perform. It was right then that in 1992 Hopkins took away the honour at the Oscars for Best Actor. Anthony Hopkins' portrayal is second to none, performed in such a way that ultimately we warm to this most despicable of characters. The viewer almost relates to the character, believing him somewhat hard done by as he is incarcerated in his windowless cell. Even after his stay in Memphis and the actions he takes there we still cheer a little as he speaks of taking an old friend out to dinner later in the movie; almost championing his cause as he progresses through the film.
That 'friend' though is his jailer and keeper, Dr Frederick Chilton, (Anthony Heald) and at times the viewer wonders just who should be in charge of the mental institution. Dr Chilton is a worthless character and one who perhaps given different circumstances would have been an inmate in his own establishment. As he initially welcomes Clarice or as he is interviewed by the press later you squirm as you realise he's not as amiable or likeable as one of his own inmates. It is this blurring of the lines that attracts me somewhat to part of this story; you could say that the inmates truly have taken over this particular asylum.
Jodie Foster is next up on the list. Still riding high from her 1989 Oscar for her work in The Accused she is the perfect foil for Hopkins' character, the means by which he can talk to the audience. She too would take home another gong for her performance in The Silence of the Lambs but in all reality it was perhaps better if it had gone elsewhere. She and her character would have been nothing if not for Hopkins/Lecter and although she does her job well enough I do feel that she's not the greatest of actresses we have seen in recent years; a little too wooden for my own liking. It's true that her storyline evolves well and we get insight into her character but that is more about the writing than her actual portrayal.
Of all of Harris' writings though it is this that he will be remembered for. The adapted screenplay by Ted Tally is propelled at a good pace for a thriller, one which only reveals its secrets as and when it has to. This does not offer up all the answers on a plate, you the viewer have to interact with the film, joining the dots and piecing it together yourself. It's like you are part of the ongoing investigation and it is this aspect that keeps you entertained, keeps you guessing and offers repeated viewings as you go back and dig out all of the clues you may have missed first time around. It is the writing of Lecter's character though that adds another string to this already impressive bow. As mentioned before you warm to the man somewhat and in one instant you see how brutal he can be; that passing moment catches the viewer off kilter. Like the police guarding him the viewer is totally taken aback and fooled. That writing continues to amaze, with it's own twists and turns, eventually bringing the viewer back full circle with Lecter. Again the viewer almost cheering for him.
Director, Jonathan Demme, had done little of note prior to this; with a lot of television work under his belt his only real feature film that anyone might just remember was the pretty awful Married to the Mob. He had some notable success in the music video industry and admittedly directed one of the greatest video concerts of all time in Stop Making Sense, so he was perhaps an odd choice to lead this film from production to Oscar ceremony. That year of course he would walk away, rightfully so, with his own statue for his work directing The Silence of the Lambs. Demme went onto direct Philadelphia which was a good enough watch and dived back into music videos and concerts; perhaps his first love. Of all people, Gene Hackman was slated to direct this ship and initially wanted to do so. He put up his own money and partly funded this venture, but at the last moment he decided not to take the job, now indicating that he felt he wasn't up to the task. Gene was also slated to play the part of Lecter, and although I have a lot of time for him as an actor I am pleased to say that he passed on this as well. I do not think that Hopkins' performance could have been bettered.
Other performances by Scott Glenn as Jack Crawford and Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill are stunning enough in their own right, with Levine often sending a chill down your spine. There are some sundry, walk on roles to catch your eye so look out for them... Roger Corman as F.B.I. Director, Chris Isaak as a S.W.A.T. Commander and even George Romero as a lowly F.B.I. agent.
The Silence of the Lambs is a superb modern day thriller and set the mark to what would soon follow. Highly recommended and certainly one to keep and watch every so often.
Our Review Ethos