Saturday, April 12, 2008

the silence of the lambs

i first read the novel The Silence Of The Lambs by Thomas Harris in either 1989 or 1990. it caught my attention for two reasons; firstly it was lined up to be made into a film by Gene Hackman,and secondly it apparently featured the same characters as the excellent film Manhunter. i confess, i was ignorant of knowledge of the book Red Dragon at this stage.

Hackman's film version never came to being, but the book was a spectacular read anyway, and it was with interest a year or so later that i saw that a film was to be made of it, starring Jodie Foster and a then somewhat unfairly little known Anthony Hopkins. little known in the States, really, although anyone who saw The Elephant Man would never have forgotten him.

i saw the film on release in, i think, 1991, and it was brilliant. it cast a rather large shadow of neglect over the smaller scaled but visually stunning Manhunter, and it was no surprise that nothing released for the rest of that year could stop the film marching on to Oscar glory. it was, alas, perhaps the last time that all the Oscars went to all the right people, sadly.

finding myself a bit stuck for something to watch last night, i decided to pull the disc of the silence of the lambs off the shelf. it was a weird feeling, really - i probably have not watched the film for about 10 years now, but it felt rather fresh in the mind. guessing that i might doze off or something if it all got too familiar, i put it on anyway. my word, how this film has held up over the years.

there is little or no point in going over the plot here - you have either already seen it, do not wish to see it, or may want to see it if you for some reason have not gotten around to it. there may be the occasional ** SPOILERS ** from here on out, so you have been warned if you are in the latter category.

the first thing that comes to mind after watching it again is that there has been no performance in the past 17 years that has come close to being as good as Jodie Foster's in this film with regards to actresses or, if you will, by a "female actor in a leading role". this is easily the pinnacle of her career, which is saying something when you can hold up her work in Taxi Driver and The Accused as being some of the best the cinema screens have ever shown.

other than in the opening training sequence, there's not a moment in which Foster's Clarice Starling does not give a sense of being under overt or covert scrutiny, attention and threat. she gives, if you will excuse the play (of sorts) on the title, an indelible portrayal of the sacrificial lamb to the slaughter that she is cast into, only to remain true to her belief of determination that she is in a world and position to which she belongs when all around her tells otherwise. oogled, abused, manipulated and toyed with at various instances, Clarice clutches emotionally to her dignified pride whilst her physical characteristics give subtle subconscious hints of doubt.

i cannot speak highly enough of Jodie Foster's performance in the silence of the lambs. i would encourage you to watch it and see if you can tell me a finer performance by a "female lead" since this film and i will be glad to have a look.

the somewhat accidental star of the show, of course, was Anthony Hopkins for his career redefining role as Dr Hannibal Lecter. so much has already been written of the chilling brilliance with which he plays the restrained psychotic cannibal that i suppose there is very little i could add, really. i will try anyway!

just how strong the performance Hopkins gives is reflected in the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, he has a rather small amount of on-screen time for the "lead male actor". the only comparison you can give him, and this is intended as a badge of honour, is to Marlon Brandon in The Godfather - a small amount of screen appearances in which a performance is delivered to such startling strength and conviction that the character dominates the mind of the audience as they watch the film. and here comes a possible *** SPOILER SECTION ***

although the film has a fair amount of violence, the two moments of sheer terror from Anthony Hopkins come via suggestion rather than action. the first is when Hannibal hands Clarice the Buffalo Bill case file, and his finger lingers across hers for all of a second. i remember well the whole cinema (the Middlesbrough Odeon no less) giving a collective stunned gasp at that point. the second is when Hannibal escapes. the first you know if it is when you see a hand clamp a handcuff on the wrist of actor Charles Napier. the camera pans up, and the look of horror on Napier's face as he is confronting a free Dr Hannibal Lecter makes you shudder.


the films that followed, Hannibal, Red Dragon and Hannibal Rising never quite captured the brilliance of this film. this is perhaps because Hannibal became the central character, rather than the subtle figure lurking in the background. they are fine films all the same, but none could claim to be the masterpiece of cinema that the silence of the lambs very much is.

the legacy of this film is out there for all to see - films like Se7en and The Usual Suspects owe a debt to the iconic work done by Jonathan Demme and co. the silence of the lambs has also had its fair share of rip offs, the worst of which was easily the laughable Backdraft, in which a "deranged arsonist" in the form of Donald Sutherland traded information about a mysterious arsonist on the loose in exchange for stories from one of the Baldwins (i think) about how his father died in a fire. a deliberate and lame rip off of the silence of the lambs, and i remain amazed that so many top calibre actors (and a Baldwin) appeared in it.

righty-ho, off you go and watch the silence of the lambs, then, or go watch it again. preferably before you have an old friend for dinner................
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