Ricky Church on Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs…
Yesterday we received the sad news that director Jonathan Demme passed away after losing his battle to cancer and heart disease. Demme had a long career in a variety of film, from working with Roger Corman on 70s B-movies to powerful dramas like Philadelphia to documentaries and concerts films like Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids.
What I consider to be his best film though, as well as my personal favourite Demme picture, is without a doubt The Silence of the Lambs. So much about that film is great – from its cast, music, cinematography – that makes it a memorable and excellent piece of film. The story behind how Demme became the film’s director is just as interesting as the film itself.
Before he signed on for the film, no studio wanted to touch Silence of the Lambs. Many thought Thomas Harris’ book about a young FBI agent turning to a cannibalistic serial killer for help to catch another serial killer was untouchable. They thought the story was too dark and the subject matter too risqué, especially after Michael Mann’s adaptation of Harris’ novel Red Dragon, titled Manhunter, didn’t fare too well at the box office.
That didn’t stop some interest, though, as actor Gene Hackman and Orion Pictures teamed up and bought the rights to the story 50/50. Hackman was interested in directing and playing Dr. Hannibal Lecter, but, as the story goes, dropped out of both roles at the urging of his daughter, who read the book and didn’t want her father to star in it. Orion then bought out Hackman’s share in the story, and hired Demme without a completed script. Demme was interested because he, too, read Harris’ book.
Even the casting of the film could have been very different. Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster weren’t Demme’s first choices for the roles of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. Rather, he sought former James Bond actor Sean Connery for Hannibal and Michelle Pfeiffer for Clarice, but both actors were turned off by the subject matter while Foster was always Orion’s pick for Clarice. Eventually Demme settled on Foster and Hopkins signed on for the part.
It is unimaginable to picture Silence of the Lambs without Hopkins and Foster in those roles. Both their performances are electrifying, but they shine through so strongly because of the way Demme chose to frame their conversations. For the majority of the film, whenever Hannibal and Clarice converse with each other, its done through intimate close-ups where you can really feel the emotion pouring from Foster and nothing but creepy dread from Hopkins. Hannibal isn’t so much speaking to Clarice in his close-ups, but speaking directly to and seeing right through the audience.
Demme is also responsible for what I believe to be one of the greatest cinematic entrances for a character ever, yet it is presented in total irony. Clarice Starling descends the stairs of Baltimore’s psychiatric hospital, the lights changing from blue to red as she’s told how dangerous Hannibal Lecter can be. As she reaches his hallway, the door clangs loudly shut behind her, and she walks down. Each cell she passes is dark and dank with its prisoners pacing about and speaking energetically until she reaches Hannibal’s cell: his is lit, but there he is standing right in the centre of the room, unmoving, as he gives a courteous “Good morning”.
He doesn’t even move, yet ironically has one of the best entrances ever for either a hero or villain. In fact, the only thing that does move are Hopkins’ eyes as he slowly watches Clarice approach his cell. The whole scene conveys Hannibal’s power; despite being behind a glass wall, he is in total control of the situation and relishes the power he can wield.
Demme also made the very smart choice to make this film more than just a typical serial killer/cop thriller. Silence of the Lambs is a mix of psychological thriller and horror, but a lot of the violence is more implied or done off-screen, allowing viewers to use their imaginations to picture Hannibal or Buffalo Bill’s deeds. The climax, though, with Clarice Starling stuck in Bill’s dark basement as he watches her through night vision goggles, with the whole scene taking place from his POV, created an incredibly tense finale that seemed like it could have come right out of a typical horror like Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street.
But where the film really succeeds is in its focus on Clarice Starling. Any other director might have just taken Harris’ template and used it to make a cop thriller, but Demme followed the author’s lead and zeroed in on the young female hero. The film focuses entirely on her arc as she races to save the life of a young woman. Foster nails the role and the power of her performance is easy to see thanks to Demme’s close-ups. The role has become an easy favourite among Foster’s fans and became a large inspiration for FBI Special Agent Dana Scully of The X-Files, another favourite character of mine.
Little can be said of Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal that hasn’t already been said. His performance has been widely hailed as one of cinema’s greatest ever villains, despite the fact that he’s not even the main antagonist and only gets a mere 15 minutes of screentime. Hopkins eats up (no pun intended) the role, using every minute to his advantage as he sells the character’s intelligence, contradictory compassion and absolute danger. What makes Hannibal such an evil and compelling villain isn’t his cannibalistic nature, but the way he gets inside your head and stays there.
Combined with all of this, Demme’s Silence of the Lambs is my favourite film of his. It’s been cemented as one of the best films ever made and became the little engine that could at the Academy Awards. Released by a studio that was going bankrupt and put it in theaters in February, a space most awards movies don’t go to flourish, it beat out competitors like JFK, The Prince of Tides and Beauty and the Beast to nab all five of the most coveted Oscar categories: Best Actor, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Director and Picture. To me, Silence of the Lambs will always be my favourite of Demme’s films for the strength of the cast, cinematography and subverting the typical police thriller. Regardless of Silence of the Lambs’ standing, though, Demme will be missed.