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‘The Silence of the Lambs’: Why Clarice and Hannibal still thrill us after 30 years

The crime classic endures, thanks to a magnetic serial killer, a feast of quotable lines (fava beans, anyone?) and some smart, tough women.

Despite her youth and small stature, FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) holds her own against male lawmen and criminals in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Orion Pictures

Oscar tradition is for the previous year’s best actress winner to handle the best actor category at the next ceremony, and so it was at the 1992 Academy Awards when Kathy Bates announced, “And the Oscar goes to Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’”

How fitting it was that the actors who had portrayed two of the most memorable and we dare say beloved serial killers in cinematic history would share the stage that night. Just as Bates in “Misery” burnished the character of Annie Wilkes into the cultural landscape with such memorable lines as, “I’m your No. 1 fan,” Hopkins created an unforgettable movie legend in Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who told his FBI inquisitor Clarice Starling, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice CHIANTI.”

We’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the debut of “The Silence of the Lambs,” which arrived in American theaters on Feb. 14, 1991. (Must have made for some interesting date nights.“You thought THAT would be the movie we should see on Valentine’s Day?”) Over the last three decades, 1991 blockbusters such as “City Slickers” and “Backdraft” and “The Addams Family” and “Hot Shots!” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” no doubt have retained their ardent fans, but the only ’91 film that comes even close to “The Silence of the Lambs” for enduring popularity, quotability and what I like to call “repeatability,” i.e., the kind of film you can watch again and again, is “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

And even “T2” has to take a back seat to “Lambs,” which became only the third motion picture to win the “Big Five” categories of the Academy Awards (best picture, director, screenplay, actor and actress), joining “It Happened One Night” (1934) and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975). To this day, lines such as “It places the lotion in the basket” and “I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner” (along with the aforementioned “fava beans” quote) remain part of the lexicon — and while some classics of a particular era age poorly and lose their power to captivate us, “The Silence of the Lambs” has aged as well as a fine Chianti and only improves upon repeated viewings — as I was reminded upon a recent revisit. (The extended Lecter/Starling film and TV universe continues to expand, with the latest entry the CBS series “Clarice,” debuting Feb. 11.)

Some elements of Jonathan Demme’s classic worth noting if you’re going to watch it for the first time, or the first time in a long time:

• The real-life serial killer Ted Bundy often would fake an arm or leg injury in order to lure a victim into helping him. In “Lambs,” Ted Levine’s Jame Gumb wears a cast on his arm and struggles to load a couch into his van, which leads Brooke Smith’s Catherine Martin to put down her bag of groceries and walk over to help.

Big mistake, Catherine. Huge.

• Clarice is constantly traveling down stairways and taking winding paths to dark corners, whether it’s Jack Crawford’s windowless FBI office, with its cold, cinderblock walls; Hannibal’s cell in a remote and fortified corner of the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane, or Buffalo Bill’s basement lair in his house of horrors.

For his chilling work as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins was one of several Oscar winners from “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Orion Pictures

• Yep, that’s a copy of Bon Appetit magazine in Lecter’s makeshift cell on the top floor of the Shelby, Tennessee, County Courthouse, and no, I still don’t understand why those two security guards would actually open Lecter’s cell (with Hannibal handcuffed) to deliver his gourmet meal, which included extremely rare lamb, yikes. (Or why they’d have two cops on Lecter’s floor and 20 downstairs.)

• You’ll never see a better example of precision editing than in the sequence when Starling is approaching Jame Gumb’s home in Belvedere, Ohio, just as the feds are ringing the doorbell at the Calumet City house where they THINK the killer lives. (CAUTION: This clip gets intense.)

• And by the way, as the FBI plane carrying Crawford and his team approaches Chicago, that mountainous terrain sure doesn’t look like Chicago. Even the great films take a few liberties.

• Starting with Jodie Foster’s fierce and vulnerable and tough and empathetic work, there’s a strong feminist element in “Lambs.” Time and again, male figures from lawmen to prison inmates gawk at and objectify Clarice, and we’re often reminded of how she’s younger and physically smaller than her male counterparts, e.g., an early scene when she gets on a crowded elevator with a group of men, all of whom are about a foot taller, or when a bunch of state troopers stare at her just before an autopsy, or when Anthony Heald’s Dr. Frederick Chilton actually hits on Clarice just before he takes her to Hannibal’s prison cell.

But Clarice continually asserts herself. She deftly deflects Chilton’s pass, she tells the state troopers, “Officers and gentlemen, listen now, there’s things we need to do for her … go on now and let us take care of her, go on now!” and of course she more than holds her own with Dr. Lecter and eventually with Buffalo Bill himself.

Then there’s Brooke Smith’s Catherine Martin, who’s pretty damn resourceful in luring Precious the dog into the pit; Diane Baker’s Sen. Ruth Martin, who responds to Lecter’s vile taunts by quietly saying, “Take this thing back to Baltimore,” and Kasi Lemmons as Clarice’s roommate Ardelia, who helps her piece together a key clue late in the story. The women rule in “Lambs.”