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The Silence Of The Lambs

The Silence Of The Lambs

By Patrick Samuel • July 20th, 2012
DECONSTRUCTING CINEMA, ailment PART 44: THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Orion Pictures

Original release: February 14th, 1991
Running time: 118 minutes

Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Ted Tally, Thomas Harris (novel)
Composer: Howard Shore

Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald

What became of the lamb, Clarice?01:03:50 to 01:10:00

Deconstructing Cinema: One Scene At A Time, the complete series so far

The Silence Of The Lambs

In each of our pasts there’s a moment which remains forever etched in our psyche, driving us forward in our daily lives as we to attempt to either recreate or free ourselves from them.

Whether it’s a feeling of letting down someone important in our lives, performing badly academically, professionally or even sexually, or not taking action or responsibility when we should’ve, these moments are part of what make us who we are, as much as the moments of happiness, success and achievement.

For me, I know it’s the moment I realised no matter what I did in my life, I’d never be what my father wanted. Now he’s gone I should feel some release from that impossible obligation but I know, subconsciously, it will always be part of me.

It’s interesting to see how characters in literature and film handle similar situations and how a plot is built around them which eventually show us how they overcome them. In Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ psychological thriller, The Silence Of The Lambs, this happens when the story’s main character, Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, is finally forced to confront, and thus free herself from, those moments which have remained with her for so long.

The plot sees Clarice pulled from her FBI training at Quantico by her mentor, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the Agent-in-Charge of the Behavioural Science Unit, to interview Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a former psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer who’s locked away at Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Her task is to gain information from Lecter that might be helpful in tracking down a serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), who kidnaps women, kills them and skins their corpses.

The Silence Of The Lambs

Things aren’t that simple though, Clarice is woman in what appears to be a male dominated world and undeterred by her gender and petite size. She’s also a woman haunted by her past, specifically the loss of her father and an event which took place shortly after his death. These are things Lecter picks up on when she meets with him; he gets into her head as much as she gets into his and the psychological foreplay between them to gain the upper hand against each other is part of what makes The Silence Of The Lambs a fascinating film to watch.

With its intense and focused performances by Foster and Hopkins, The Silence Of The Lambs has many moments that reveal something about its complex characters. From Clarice and Lecter, to Buffalo Bill and even Crawford’s terminally ill wife, they’re characters reaching for release from something; whether it’s a childhood trauma, a prison, a body they’re born into or a disease they’re suffering from, they all want it – they need it.

In her first meeting with Lecter, a nervous Clarice walks along a corridor, passing the cells of patients/inmates who rush forward to have a look at the tasty treat being paraded in front of them. One of them leaps up onto the bars like a wild animal and excitedly reveals to her “I can smell your cunt”. Clarice flinches momentarily and continues walking forward.

Lecter’s cell is at the end and it feels like forever before she reaches it; she first sees the folding metal desk-chair in front that’s been left for her, the thick glass instead of the bars separating them, his bolted-down furniture and his books and papers, and then she sees him, standing like a gentleman with glittering eyes and a wet mouth – the look of a man whose date has just arrived. He greets her with a polite “Morning” and subtle nod of the head, but Clarice isn’t there for niceties and gets down to business, intent on doing what Crawford and Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) instructed her to do.

The Silence Of The Lambs

CLARICE:
Dr. Lecter… My name is Clarice Starling. May I speak with you?

LECTER:
You’re one of Jack Crawford’s aren’t you?

CLARICE:
I am, yes.

LECTER:
May I see your credentials?

Clarice is surprised by the request, but fumbles in her bag to fish out her ID card and holds it up for his inspection.

LECTER:
Closer, please… closer…

She complies each time, trying to hide her fear. Lecter steps forward, out of the shadow and into the light and stress intently. He’s not only inspecting her ID, he’s inspecting Clarice and she’s looking right back at him.

LECTER:
That expires in one week. You’re not real FBI, are you?

CLARICE:
I’m – still in training at the Academy.

LECTER:
Jack Crawford sent a trainee to me?

CLARICE:
Yes, I’m student. I’m here to learn from you, maybe you can decide whether or not I’m qualified enough to do that.

LECTER:
Mmmmm… That’s rather slippery of you, Agent Starling. Sit. Please.

She sits on the chair and Lecter waits politely before making his next request.

LECTER:
Now then. What did Miggs say to you? “Multiple Miggs,” in the next cell. He hissed at you. What did he say?

CLARICE:
He said – “I can smell your cunt.”

LECTER:
I see. I myself cannot. You use Evyan skin cream, and sometimes you wear L’Air du Temps, but not today.

In this short time, Lecter’s already managed to make Clarice bow his requests 3 times in a row, playing in to her willingness to please a father figure which he’s already sensed from her. She’s already deviated from the protocols laid out for her own safety and Lecter’s already entered her mind, getting a feeling for the things rattling around in there. Clarice passes him the questionnaire on Buffulo Bill. He thumbs through it and offers a wink before beginning his own dissection.

LECTER:
Oh, Agent Starling, you think you can dissect me with this blunt little tool?

CLARICE:
No. I though that your knowledge –

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 – Agent Starling…? And that accent you’re trying so desperately to shed – pure West Virginia. What was your father, dear? Was he a coal miner? Did he stink of the lamp…? And oh, how quickly the boys found you! All those tedious, sticky fumblings, in the back seats of cars, while you could only dream of getting out. Getting anywhere. Getting all the way – to the F – B – I.

The Silence Of The Lambs

Clarice swallows hard, trying not to show Lecter how true his words might or might not be. She has protocol to follow and she can’t let him any further into her mind than he’s already been.

After she tries to get him to answer the questionnaire, Lecter informs her,

LECTER:
A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. You fly back to school now, little Starling. Fly, fly, fly.

Realising she’s not going to get any more from him, Clarice shakily gets up to leave. Walking back through the corridor, she spies Miggs naked on his cot with his back to her, mumbling that he bit his wrist so he could die. He throws something at her face, but it’s not blood. Clarice wipes the white sticky goo off her face as Lecter yells for her to come back.

Disregarding her protocols, Clarice runs back to Lecter and both are inches from each other’s faces, separated by glass, and it’s an almost passionate and frenzied exchange that takes place between them.

LECTER:
I would never have had that happen to you. Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly.

CLARICE:
Then do this test for me.

LECTER:
No, but I will make you happy, I’ll give you a chance at what you love the most.

CLARICE:
And what is that?

LECTER:
Advancement of course. Listen carefully. Look deep within yourself, Clarice Starling. Go seek out Miss Mofet, an old patient of mine. M-O-F-E-T. I don’t think Miggs could manage again quite so soon, even though he is crazy. GO NOW!!!

The Silence Of The Lambs

Clarice goes, almost running out, making sure this time to stay at the other end of the corridor and away from Miggs. This first meeting with Lecter gave her a little bit but it was Lecter who came out with more. Despite having the upper hand though, the meeting opened the door to much more between them – a game of quid pro quo which will see Clarice offering up personal information to Lecter in exchange for him helping her to advance her career in the FBI and track Buffalo Bill. He might also even help her overcome those moments which remain etched in her psyche.

It’s in her third meeting with the good doctor that she agrees to this deal.

LECTER:
What is your worst memory of childhood?

CLARICE:
The death of my father.

LECTER:
Tell me about it and don’t lie, or I’ll know.

CLARICE:
He was a town marshal. One night he surprised two burglars coming out of the back of the drugstore. They shot him.

LECTER:
Was he killed outright?

CLARICE:
No, he was very strong, He last more than a month. My mother died when I was vry young. My father had become the whole world to me, and, when he left me, I had nothing. I was ten years old.

LECTER:
You’re very frank, Clarice. I think it would be quite something to know you in private life.

CLARICE:
Quid pro quo, Doctor.

It’s now Lecter’s turn to answer questions about the case, which he does, but then he brings the discussion back to Clarice.

LECTER:
After your father’s murder you were orphaned. What happened next? I don’t imagine the answer is on those second-rate shoes, Clarice.

CLARICE:
I went to live with my mother’s cousin and her husband in Montana. They had a ranch.

LECTER:
Was it a cattle ranch?

CLARICE:
Sheep and horses.

LECTER:
How long did you live there?

CLARICE:
Two months.

LECTER:
Why so briefly?

CLARICE:
I ran away.

LECTER:
Why, Clarice? Did the rancher make you perform fellatio? Did he sodomise you?

CLARICE:
No. He was a very decent man.

The Silence Of The Lambs

The fourth meeting with Lecter, which takes place in a special cell in a Tennessee courthouse, is where Clarice has nothing left to use as bargaining chips and he knows it. She’s come to see him on her own free will and Lecter teases that others might think they’re in love. On the surface she wants Lecter’s help to find the killer before it’s too late, but beneath the surface she has one more part of herself left to bare and him helping her find Buffalo Bill might also help end her personal torment.

LECTER:
Why did you leave that ranch?

CLARICE:
Doctor, we don’t have any more time for any of this now.

LECTER:
But we don’t reckon time the same way, do we, Clarice? This is all the time you’ll ever have.

CLARICE:
Later. Now please listen to me. We’ve only got five –

LECTER:
No! I will listen now. After your father’s murder, you were orphaned. You went to live with cousins on a sheep and horses ranch in Montana. And?

CLARICE:
And one morning I just ran away.

LECTER:
Not “just”, Clarice. What set you off? You started at what time?

CLARICE:
Early. Still dark.

LECTER:
Then something woke you, didn’t it? Was it a dream? What was it?

CLARICE:
I heard a strange noise.

LECTER:
What was it?

CLARICE:
It was screaming. Some kind of screaming, like a child’s voice.

LECTER:
What did you do?

CLARICE:
I went downstairs. Outside. I crept up into the barn. I was so scared to look inside but I had to.

LECTER:
What did you see Clarice? What did you see?

CLARICE:
Lambs. They were screaming.

LECTER:
They were slaughtering these spring lambs?

CLARICE:
And they were screaming.

LECTER:
And you ran away?

CLARICE:
No. First I tried to free them. I opened the gate to their pen, but they wouldn’t run. They just stood there confused. They wouldn’t run.

LECTER:
But you could – and you did, didn’t you?

CLARICE:
Yes. I took one lamb and I ran as fast as I could.

LECTER:
Where were you going, clarice?

CLARICE:
I don’t know. I didn’t have any food, any water and it was very cold, very cold. I thought if I could save just one, but he was so heavy. So heavy. I didn’t get more than a few miles when the sheriff’s car picked me up. the rancher was so angry, he sent me to live at the orphanage in Bozeman. I never saw the ranch again.

LECTER:
What became of the lamb, Clarice?

CLARICE:
He killed them.

LECTER:
You still wake up sometimes, don’t you? Wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs?

CLARICE:
Yes.

LECTER:
And you think, if you save poor Catherine, you could make them stop, don’t you? You think if Catherine lives, you won’t wake up in the dark ever again to that awful screaming of the lambs.

CLARICE:
I don’t know. I don’t know.

LECTER:
Thank you, Clarice.

The Silence Of The Lambs

The moment Clarice makes this confession is the moment we learn what’s been driving her to find Buffalo Bill. It’s her chance to free herself and finally save the helpless lamb from slaughter.

As lambs are slaughtered for their meat and their wool both, her task to track a flayer of human skin through an eater of human flesh in order to rescue a human captive slated to die is custom-made to reactivate her poignant trauma.. If she does not herself contrive to relive it, she is no less driven in reliving it by her guilt over the lambs she could save. She could not rectify its vicarious outcome and silence the lambs inside her by the straight rules of reliving. She does so instead by trading her newfound awareness of this motivation for leads to the serial killer’s hideaway. ¹

Yet, even though Clarice saves the lamb this time, has Lecter really helped her overcome the childhood trauma? In his final conversation with her he asks “Have the lambs stopped screaming?”

Although this scene might seem to mark the triumph of Starling – she has saved Catherine Martin, and she has just graduated from FBI training – it is not clear that these compensatory efforts have finally overcome her trauma, for she can find no answer to Lecter’s question. Here, indeed, the ambiguity of the lamb’s silence merges with Starling’s own. ²
SOURCES:

  • Rudolph Binion (2010), Traumatic Reliving in History, Literature and Film, Karnac Books ¹
  • Cary Wolfe (2003), Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanism, University of Chicago Press ²

These scenes with Lecter and their discussions about the personal information she divulges to him are more intriguing than the Buffalo Bill case itself because they also give us an insight into the doctor’s nature. Though he still remains a terrifying mystery, we see that despite his incarceration he still needs to do that thing he does best – get inside people’s heads.

While there’s a multitude of subtexts to pick through in The Silence Of The Lambs, ranging from ideas about transformation, gender and the discriminatory way Clarice is chosen for the assignment, it’s this idea of her finally facing that life-defining moment and the ambiguity of her being able to move past it that always fascinated me, perhaps now more than ever.

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

You can find his music on Soundcloud .

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