Wednesday, August 24, 2011

classic cinema : the silence of the lambs

It is with a sense of disbelief that I notice it is now just slightly over 20 years since the silence of the lambs was released. A bit of research says that I wrote a piece on the film just over 3 years ago, but what the heck, let me expand on that and write even more. I will, however, skip recalling the plot and what have you again.

one of the biggest surprises about the film is that it got made at all. When the first novel to feature Doctor Hanninal Lector, Red Dragon, was filmed as Manhunter and subsequently flopped at the box office, legendary film producer gave the rights to any sequel to it away for free to in some financial trouble Orion pictures. In the mean time, though, in a kind of deal that only Hollywood could understand, Gene Hackman had obtained the film rights to the novel of The Silence Of The Lambs and intended to both star in it and direct. Hackman eventually dropped out of the project, though. There were rumours of a health scare for the great actor, but the commonly accepted reason is that he was concerned about the levels of violence in the story, in particular in the light of the somewhat unwarranted and over the top criticism of the violence in his masterpiece of a performance in Mississippi Burning. How exceptionally fortunate, then, than he should have overcome this concern a bit later on to deliver an astonishing, worthy Oscar winning part in Eastwood’s film Unforgiven.

Director duties eventually ended up with Jonathan Demme, which was an interesting choice to say the least. At this point in his career he had never worked with anything as “dark” as this, but had delivered the celebrated Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, along with a couple of well received in every sense bar financial, quirky films in the shape of Something Wild and Married To The Mob.

It was the latter film listed there, and Demme’s preoccupation with trying to just work with the same people again and again, that very nearly led to what would have been an ill-advised, fatal to the film casting decision. Whereas the studio and screenplay writer Ted Tally had Oscar winning, celebrated actress Jodie Foster in mind for the pivotal role of rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling. Fresh from working with her in Married To The Mob, however, Demme really, really wanted to cast no less than Michelle Pfeiffer in the part. I shall leave that to sink in for a moment.

Now, there’s no doubting that Ms Pfeiffer is talented. But talented enough to pass off as Southern Belle, rookie agent Starling? I think not. Gladly, neither did she, and she passed on the film part. As with most who declined to be part of the film the levels of violence were given as the main concern, although you would imagine that her previous experience with a sequel (Grease 2, anyone) also made her hesitant. Considering that Ms Foster had attempted to get the rights to the novel herself to ensure that she got the part of Clarice Starling it does now seem like one of those “just meant to be” roles. And how thankful the entertainment must be that it all fell into place like that – for the last 20 years, from The X Files to the various incarnations of CSI, the influence of her performance in the part on all other female law enforcement characters is perhaps a major legacy of the film which gets overlooked.

In regards of Anthony Hopkins getting the part of Dr Hannibal Lector, well, that’s another fascinating tale. It seems that Brian Cox, the original Lector (or “Lektor” in the film) in Manhunter, was never even considered to reprise his role. The first choice for the part was Jeremy Irons, but he turned it down more or less straight away, citing that he had recently done “evil” in his Oscar winning turn in Reversal Of Fortune and had no wish to return to it straight away. In interviews many years after the film, it turned out the studio really wanted Louis Gossett jnr for the part of Lector. He didn’t so much turn it down as his agent did, an agent that went ballistic that any studio would “dare be so racist as to offer the part of a cannibal to a black actor.”. Louis only found out that he had been offered the role a while after the film had been released, and promptly fired his rather too politically correct agent on the spot.

What is easy to forget now (20 years later!) is that, as with Manhunter, the part of Dr Lector was important but also secondary. With barely 15 – 20 minutes of screen time in the accepted screenplay for The Silence Of The Lambs, it was “unlikely” that they would be getting an A-listed star to take on an inherently evil character in the sequel to a poorly received film. Nonetheless, the likes of Jack Nicholson, Robert Duvall Sean Connery and Robert De Niro were all approached for the part, and all turned it down. It’s an interesting turn of events that the last two listed there went on to appear in films which liberally borrowed from key plot points of The Silence Of The Lambs (Just Cause and Backdraft respectively).

Where Jonathan Demme nearly went so wrong with casting Clarice Starling it has to be said that he went very, very right with the part of Lector. With Irons declining and Louis Gossett jnr unaware of being offered the part, he went with his third choice for the role, a respected but relatively little known Welsh actor called Anthony Hopkins. The reason for wanting him was because of the heartfelt, decent man he played in the film The Elephant Man. This surprised Hopkins, as he couldn’t quite grasp how playing a perfectly decent, compassionate doctor had made the director somehow envision him as someone who, on paper at the least, was pure evil.

The genius of what Jonathan Demme brought to the film was behind the reason. Whereas at a superficial level Dr Hannibal Lector is a psychopathic killer who eats his victims, there’s the fascinating back story of the character – a great intellectual man, capable of care and compassion. Demme wished to highlight this in at least equal measure to the brutality of the man – there is no killer quite so dangerous, after all, as the charming killer who seduces you to your fate. It would be safe to assume, then, that Louis Gossett jnr was very much wanted for the part on the basis of his superb Oscar winning turn as the drill instructor in An Officer And A Gentleman, where he played the part with the required compassion and brutality.

Here’s an understatement for you – Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Dr Hannibal Lector became an instant icon. It is a performance which has been frequently declared and voted as the most terrifying in cinema, and rightly so. He towers over the entire film despite being in it for barely fifteen minutes – a dominance with limited time not seen since Brando in The Godfather. In both cases, both were full worthy of the Best Actor Oscar for the year with a quality performance over quantity of time, although infamously Brando did not particularly want his award.

The great casting did not end there. Scott Glenn is note perfect as senior agent Jack Crawford, and one of the most excellent overlooked performances in the history of cinema is that of Ted Levine as the actual villain of the piece, Buffalo Bill. It is perhaps because of the preposterous controversy around the character that few have dared to celebrate the performance. The usual politically correct lobby groups were up in arms over the idea of presenting a transsexual / transvestite as a deranged serial killer. To this day I am still not at all sure what it is that upset them – was it that there’s absolutely no way, in their eyes, that a transsexual could be a criminal, or did they think that everyone who saw the film would assume all transsexuals are criminals? Either way, a very stupid argument and one which rather unfairly cast a big shadow over the excellent work by Levine here.

Since we are on the subject, another ridiculous controversy around the film was, apparently, it being “sexist”. A fair part of this argument was that Buffalo Bills victims were all women. That’s an interesting conclusion to get to, really. What would they have preferred, that he attacked people equally of both genders and indeed every race, religious belief and sexual persuasion in the name of equality?

The other argument as to why it was a “sexist” film is one of the most ridiculous complaints ever issued about this or any film. There were complaints because of the sexist treatment the character of Clarice Starling was faced with at practically every turn. Well, yeah! That’s the whole point, really. Starling is a determined woman trying to carve her place in a world that is seen – rightly or wrongly – as an exclusively male preserve. Neither the character nor Jodie Foster’s performance would have been quite so interesting and extraordinary if it was bereft of the dimension of fighting sexism on the right side of the law as well as tracking down those who were on the wrong side of it.

Leaving aside the content of the actual film, the success of it took just about everyone by surprise. It was a “sleeper hit” – perversely released, some might say, on Valentine’s Day in 1991, word of mouth and astonishing reviews led to it being viewed as the “must see” film of the year. The box office figures reached, over $270 million worldwide, was unprecedented for a film with a distinctly horror tone to it.

Also unprecedented for a horror film was Oscar nominations. Few horror films, or any film with subject matter that could be interpreted as “dark”, ever get formal recognition. That this film not only got nominations but also went on to win the “Big 5” (actor, actress, director, picture and screenplay), the first time a film had done so since One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, tells you all of the calibre of film this is.

The Oscar wins also give a third unprecedented level of success for the film. The film was released at a time considered to be “out of competition” usually, and the fact that the ceremony at which it was honoured occurred more than a year after the release date also indicates just how this movie lives in the minds of those who have seen it. It was the first time a film had won Best Picture whilst it was already available on home video; this point often being listed as “helpful” to its winning awards, as people were able to be reminded of how good the film was in the comfort of their own home before casting their votes for winners. No surprise, then, that “Oscar screener” videotapes were issued in time for the next awards to Academy voters in the hope of reaping the same benefits.

It’s little surprise that the well crafted film lived in the memory of the Oscar voters, really. Visually the film is superbly crafted, with Demme bringing the “isolate the subject, ignore the peripherals” approach to this that he showed off in the Stop Making Sense concert film, where the audience actually seeing the concert being film are all but ignored. A wonderful, understated soundtrack and flawless performances inspired by a superb script made this a textbook definition case of how to craft a film that shall live on forever.

Another level of influence this film has had is on your humble narrator. A number of people have expressed their dismay and confusion at the fact that I rarely use capital letters correctly in my posts here. Well, blame this film! I love how the title looks on the poster in all lower case letters, and ever since then I have tried to more or less replicate it in all that I do!

If for some reason you have not seen this film, I trust that all you have read has said this to you : “see it.”. I am somewhat surprised by the lack of “fan sites” across the net for this film; I can only hope that this second post of mine about it encourages those last few people yet to see it to watch it soon!

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