"Closer, please. Closer!" : An Examination of Frontality in the Silence of the Lambs and the Relationship Between
Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter
July 8, 2014
I wrote this as part of my application to Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. I didn't end up going there, but I'm still proud of this analysis of my favorite movie of all time.
The Silence of the Lambs, directed by Jonathan Demme, was the third movie in cinema history to win the Big Five at the Academy Awards when it won the awards for Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Motion Picture in 1991. Critics have acclaimed the film as the genesis in the now common genre of serial-killer psychological thrillers, which include Seven and the Saw franchise. There is no doubt that those films following in the footsteps of Silence have achieved success and followings worldwide, but these films still fall short of the psychological intensity of Silence. The characteristic that set Silence a step above any of the many psychological thrillers and serial-killer horror films that followed in its footstep was the personal nature of the film provided by the extensive use of fourth-wall-breaking extreme-close-ups and point-of-view shots. The decision to use extensively the frontality shown in Silence breaks away from the standard method of continuity editing shown in Hollywood blockbusters, making these shots extraordinary and worth further examination. Tak Fujimoto, the director of photography responsible for the magnificent visuals in Silence, perfectly utilizes space and directness to incorporate his audience in the film, making the film more than just a story being shown, but an experience being felt. Undoubtedly the most successful scenes in Silence in terms of developing the theme and profundity of the film are the four meetings between our heroine, Clarice Starling, and the now horror icon, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Within these four meetings, there is an easily discernable development of the relationship between Starling and Lecter and of that between the audience and the duo. Thus, these scenes are especially crucial to both the momentum of the film, as well as what the audience will ultimately take away from their viewing of Silence: an understanding of the dual nature of humans. When we come to the infamous first meeting between Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the fourth-wall-breaking close-ups that up to this point have placed the audience in Starling’s place take on a new importance. While shots from Starling’s point-of-view continue to progress the development of the audience’s relationship with our heroine, similar shots from Lecter’s perspective begin to also create the sympathetic villain that enthralled Silence’s audiences. Furthermore, the relationship between the fourth-wall-breaking close-ups (that they are shot in a point-of-view manner between Lecter and Starling) creates the iconic intimacy between the “evil” Dr. Lecter and the “heroic” Agent Starling. The amount of facial (and emotional) interaction between Lecter and Starling in the dungeon scenes is permitted by Demme’s decision to place Lecter behind a glass wall rather than the iron bars (as the other criminally insane are in the dungeon). The annoying solid bar transecting his face thus never interrupts Lecter’s image, and his belittlement of Starling and own unsettling air are able to reach the audience in fullness. The spark of the partnership between Starling and Lecter is, truly, the most important consequence of their first meeting, and it is mapped in the scene’s cinematography. When Starling approaches Lecter’s cell, the audience is introduced to this “monster” for the first time in a point-of-view long-shot of Lecter, standing straight in the middle of his cell, in anticipation of Starling’s visit. “Good morning.” With Starling acting as our conduit, the audience is undoubtedly surprised by his appearance. One does not meet a prim and proper cannibalistic psychopath everyday. In fact, Lecter’s unexpected southern hospitality (Anthony Hopkins based the role partially on Katherine Hepburn) is a mute point for some academic reviewers of Silence. In their analysis of Lecter as a horror movie “nemesis”, Mark Blake and Sara Bailey point that “a real psychopath would not be nearly so charming” and that he “would have no empathy with people and certainly not with a child-like detective”(69). Lecter’s psychopathology is, in fact, unrealistic in a medical sense. Yet, it is his politeness that shocks the viewers' mind into recategorizing Lecter from the “evil villain” that he has been described by Crawford and Chilton as to a “good guy” that allows for the allegorical truth behind Lecter and Starling’s relationship to reveal itself. Whilst we are wary of Chilton, Buffalo Bill, and later the masculine prejudice of the local authorities because we feel they pose a threat to Starling’s quest for success, we grow comfortable with the “monster” of Silence, Lecter, even if he is somewhat unsettling. Essentially, Lecter’s charm is the first step to forming the mutualistic union between audience, heroine (Starling), and villain (Lecter). The second step to finalize this bond is held in the subconscious impact of Fujimoto’s camera work. In Starling’s first interview with Lecter, after the over-the-shoulder shots standard to Hollywood two-person dialogue scenes have become worn out, the audience again assumes Starling’s identity and Lecter’s lines come as fourth-wall-breaking close-ups. Lecter’s observations on Starling’s scent and “the embarrassing truth about Miggs” are obviously more personally disconcerting than those made by Crawford in the previous scene, the first to use point-of-view close-ups to force the audience to assume Starling’s position. Lecter also belittles Starling to a certain extent, as he offers her a chair sitting in front of his cell, thus all of Lecter’s point-of-view shots of Starling are high-angle shots. The audience sees Starling, our guide in the world of Silence, become subservient to this madman (ironic as Starling is the iconic “woman fighting for respect in a man’s world”), and suddenly we too feel challenged by Lecter’s intellect and upper hand. The coup de grace that compels the audience to assume the roles of Lecter and Starling simultaneously comes with the cut between the frontal close-up of Lecter to that of Starling. Lecter questions Starling on the origins of the nickname “Buffalo Bill”, to which she replies (directly to the audience) that it “started as a bad joke”. Just as the audience plays the role of Starling when those characters to whom she is talking are shot head-on, we assume the role of Lecter when Starling speaks directly to us through our screens. While the idea of assuming the role of a psychopathic cannibal may be unappetizing for some (no pun intended), this shot plays largely into one of the theme’s of Silence: that a certain level of “evil” lurks in everyone. While Lecter’s interest in Buffalo Bill may be chopped up to his past as a psychiatrist or the fact that he is a serial killer himself, his questions are precisely those that the audience has been rolling around in their skulls since we first see the gruesome crime scene photos and newspaper clippings in Crawford’s office. It is an innate human interest to search for knowledge of the horrific. Anyone who has passed a car accident while driving will recall his or her own rubbernecking and grim fascination in the bent steel (and possibly tissues) smoking on the side of the road. Our visual integration with Lecter caused by assuming his point-of-view in this scene only heightens the commentary provided on the shameful curiosity shared by both the insane cannibal and the average moviegoer. But the audience is (thankfully) not a horde of Hannibal Lecters, and we are soon returned to Starling’s point-of-view and removed from that of our crazed psychopath. Lecter points out that, unlike the excitement and trophies that Starling conjectures to be Buffalo Bill’s motives for killing and skinning, he did not kill for trophies. He ate his, as Starling almost comically points out. Immediately following the point-of-view close up of Lecter revealing his reaction to Starling’s snarky comment, the audience exits his point-of-view of Starling. The acceptance that we could be as morally destitute as Lecter, has been broken by the realization that, unlike Lecter, we have not crossed the clearly defined societal taboo of cannibalism. “I am still not as evil as Hannibal Lecter.” The idea that the sane person has anything in common with Lecter in the way of morality, though, is disturbing and a startling revelation. No, not everyone is a cannibal and not everyone is a murderer, but everyone derives some sort of sadistic pleasure from hearing about the pain of others, if only because we are glad that it isn’t happening to us. Silence presents this interesting truth about the human mind by allowing the audience to assume both the role of Starling and that of Lecter, pointing out the duality of humans. The sane person can be both in essence good and in theory evil. Like Starling, we can heroic and seek out justice, even at the risk of our own integrity or even our own life. But even Starling has a fatal flaw, a prideful thirst for respect and success that Lecter spots immediately. And like Lecter, we crave horror and gore as a means to catharsis, explaining our rubbernecking and intrigue in hyper-realistic crime dramas. But unlike Lecter, we have stayed within the societal does-and-don’ts. Silence presents two extremes, a heroic innocent in Starling and a terrifyingly callous Dr. Lecter, but they are not flat characters. Just as humanity is dual sided and “evil” lies within even the best of us, even a psychopath can be courteous. Our duo’s second meeting follows Starling’s discovery of Benjamin Raspail’s head at the “Your Self Storage Facility” and begins with Lecter sitting in the shadows of his cell and Clarice fully illuminated close to the glass wall that separates them. Their discussion of the circumstances around the storage facility and the implications of the state that Raspail’s head was found in (covered in drag makeup) is shot using high-angle close-ups. The lack of frontality within the beginnings of this scene speak to the impersonal nature of the case. Yes, to Starling solving the case is everything, as it is her salvation from the screaming of the lambs. But the audience, at this point in the film, has begun to focus more on the Lecter-Starling chemistry than the case that the film centers around. (This is largely due to the fact that Katherine Martin has not yet been abducted, thus there is as of yet no identifiable victim to be concerned for, only Starling’s pride.) We are returned to Starling’s point-of-view of Lecter once the lights are again turned on in Lecter’s cell. This makes Lecter’s rise and approach of Starling a great deal more unsettling, as he is shot from a low-angle, giving him the power of Starling. This directly correlates to his lines in this moment, that he knows that he will never escape his cell. Whilst being confined in a mental institution would generally make one the underdog, Lecter uses his condition to manipulate Starling’s (and the audience’s) emotions. Lecter has nothing to lose by not helping Starling, and there appears to be little good (as of yet) that helping Starling will do to assuage his torment by Chilton. Thus, Lecter is in power. There is very little that Starling can do to convince him to help her, yet she needs him desperately. Moreover, the audience needs him in order to uncover the truth of Buffalo Bill (which we have been craving since the beginning of the film) and that of our enigmatic heroine, who we know little about besides her career aspirations and a fragmented childhood memory. It is the audience’s need of Lecter that makes the point-of-view aspect of Lecter’s approach so impactful. As their meeting draws to a close, though, Lecter holds off the demands of Starling and the audience for information on Buffalo Bill with a simple reminder delivered in total frontality: “All good things to those who wait.” Indeed, Lecter’s response not only foretells the escape he completes through patient manipulation of Starling and the FBI, but also the building suspense that ends in climatic catharsis of the ends by the end of the film. The third meeting between Starling and Lecter, and the last to take place in the Baltimore dungeons, focuses mainly on the development of Starling’s background and the creation of a sort of twisted pull for Lecter by the audience. Breaking the fourth-wall, Starling offers to Lecter (and the audience) a chance of escape, in a sense, by claiming that the senator (and mother of Buffalo Bill’s latest catch) has agreed that if Lecter helps to save Katherine, he will be relocated to a hospital away from Chilton that fits the descriptions of his optimal incarceration that he delineated in their previous meeting. Lecter’s reaction to Starling’s offer of his possible salvation, shown in a close-up, is one of intrigue and even shows a glimmer of excitement. The audience almost begins to feel sympathy for Lecter, especially given Chilton’s interference just encountered as Starling comes to meet with Lecter. The audience realizes that Lecter’s confinement, personified by the sadistic Chilton, is a common enemy of Starling, our heroine. We begin to identify Lecter as yet another victim that Starling (and the viewer) must save, if only because of a sympathetic understanding of Lecter built from the “American Dream”. Instead of a white picket fence, though, Lecter wishes for a cell with a view. When the famous “quid pro quo” agreement is brought up by Lecter, we return to Starling’s point-of-view, and Lecter asks us to give him some sort of personal information. This is the very act that Crawford warned Starling and the audience about from the beginning: “You don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” But like Starling, the captive viewer, at this point in the film, will do anything they can to save Katherine Martin from becoming one of Buffalo Bill’s skin suits. We identify with Starling’s hubris -the life’s need defining her character- to know the truth about Buffalo Bill. But whereas Starling’s motivation is to be the hero and to save the day, the audience of Silence is only in it for the gory details. Starling delivers to Lecter, in total frontality, the truth of her worst childhood memory, the death of her father, and of her stay on a ranch following his death. Lecter’s apparent joy in the secretive tidbits of Starling’s childhood matches that of the audience, who have been awaiting this moment when they would gain a greater understanding of their heroine since the beginning of the picture. Starling’s declaration of individuality so late in the game is vital to the formation of the connection between she and the audience very early in the film. Because Starling’s background is only vaguely defined initially, she could be anyone, from any walk of life. This animosity makes her more broadly relatable than the over-defined, cliché, hardboiled cop (as in Seven) or the moody, haunted detective (depicted in the Saw series). It is only once the audience has invested itself in Starling impendent success or failure that details about her origins are given out sparingly. And the tragic death of her father in adolescence, a not too uncommon occurrence, serves only to strengthen the audience’s sympathy and backing of Starling, as we impose our own tragic stories on Starling’s character, making her the manifestation of all of our pain, and lending to an ease in rooting for Starling’s success, if only to have our own sorrows become something beautiful or useful. Lecter’s control over Starling and the defining of Starling’s drive to save climaxes in their final meeting, which takes place between the iron bars of the giant cage in which Lecter is being held after being moved from his dungeon cell. After Lecter refuses to give Starling any information on the case before answering his personal questions, Starling reveals the origin of the film’s title and of her blinding need to succeed in saving Katherine by confessing her childhood failure to save a lamb from slaughter at her uncle’s ranch. This is the cathartic release that has been building in Starling since her first meeting with Lecter, in which he saw through her façade and guessed her humble origins. Still in this scene, Lecter is still portrayed as all knowing, almost as a priest-figure. During Starling’s bitter remembrance of the screaming of the lambs, Lecter’s reactions are captured in frontality, with an extreme-close-up of his face angled down at Starling, shadowing his visage from the bright light emanating from above. Like a repenting sinner, Starling confesses to Lecter her failure to save the lamb, which has haunted her since childhood. Lecter surmises that she wishes to rescue Katherine because, metaphorically, the lambs will stop screaming, and Starling will have reconciled her childhood inability with the capture of one murderer. This scene then presents the most important revelation to Silence’s audience in their self-evaluation initiated by the development of their heroine: that we all attempt to make good our wrongs at some point. Lecter speaks to the audience directly when he states Starling’s motivations, thus also accusing the sympathetic viewers who have become entangled in Starling’s quest of such selfish motives. We don’t want Starling to find Buffalo Bill because we fear the death of Katherine Martin for the sake of Katherine Martin, but because we identify with Starling’s selfish attempt to purge herself of the guilt created by a failure to be the hero. It’s the real-life equivalent of donating to a charity out of a regrettable failure to physically volunteer one’s time at an orphanage. Whether our guilt will be assuaged by our selfishly spawned charity is unknown, as Starling confirms by saying that she doesn’t know whether the lambs will stop screaming even if Katherine is saved. As Starling and Lecter part ways for the last time in Silence, their fingers touch, symbolizing the arrival at their inevitable union and setting of the duo’s impact on their audience. Throughout Silence, the audience is provoked to assume the mindset and perspective of both Starling and, occasionally, of Lecter. The parallelism between the superficial “good” of Starling and the prejudiced portrayal of “evil” of Lecter by those around Starling allows for the commentary on human duality, as the audience is able to sympathize with both their heroine and a cannibalistic psychopath. And in assuming the roles of each, we see our own hope for escape from our personal dungeon cell and our own quest for a reprieve from a guilty consciousness, for the silence of our lambs.
Works Cited Blake, Marc, and Sara Bailey. "Chapter 5: Creating the Nemesis." Writing the Horror Movie. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. 57-73. Print.
The Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine. Orion Pictures Corp., 1991. DVD.