1991

Film #411: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

All the way back in the eighth post of the blog I discussed Oscar’s Big Five awards; Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay. At the time I was looking at the first film to win the award, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, and since then we also covered the next movie to achieve that honour in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Shockingly there is only one more film to date that has been able to snatch the Big Five awards that being Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.

In my opinion, what’s even more surprising about The Silence of the Lambs’ multiple wins is the fact that it’s the type of film that’s rarely recognised by the Academy in the first place. Widely considered by some to be a horror film, The Silence of the Lambs is the second film of the genre to garner a Best Picture nod after The Exorcist. In my mind, The Silence of the Lambs is more of a psychological thriller as it deals with an FBI trainee’s attempts to track down a serial killer by getting inside the head of another mass murderer. The trainee in question is Clarice Starling and the mass murderer is former psychiatrist turned cannibal Hannibal Lecter. Some of the best moments of the film focus on the interplay between Hannibal and Clarice as each try to outwit one another. Clarice’s attempts to find out about serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’ are exchanged with Hannibal”s need to hear about the FBI trainee’s childhood. As we learn through a number of flashbacks, Clarice’s upbringing wasn’t the most stable as she was orphaned at an early age. The title of the film refers to Clarice’s experiences at her uncle’s farm in which she heard a group of lambs being slaughtered, something that has haunted her ever since. Clarice admits that she hopes to silence the sound of the lambs by bringing Buffalo Bill to justice especially after he kidnaps the daughter of U.S. senator Catherine Martin. When Hannibal claims to know the name and location of Buffalo Bill, Martin is forced to cut a deal with the psychopath promising him a new cell in which he can see outside. But a promise made from one of cinema’s most famous villains isn’t exactly going to be kept and, in one of the film’s most thrilling sequences, Hannibal escapes. Meanwhile, it’s up to rookie Clarice to follow her instincts and track down Buffalo Bill single-handedly after several of her superiors try to solve the crime as a way of attracting media glory.

I had a feeling after watching The Silence of the Lambs similar to the one I did after I’d finished The Fugitive. Both were refreshing changes to the cavalcade of historical dramas and feel good flicks that I’ve been mostly subjected to throughout the last couple of decades. The Silence of the Lambs is particularly distinctive due to its themes of cannibalism and mass murder neither of which regularly feature in Best Picture nominees. As I’ve never watched the film some of the more shocking moments go to me and I found there were a number of genuine shocks throughout the movie. Jonathan Demme’s Best Director Oscar was more than deserved as he kept each shocking sequence tightly paced and I never lost focus during the film. I rarely say this about any of the films on this challenge, but if anything I would’ve liked The Silence of the Lambs to be a little bit longer as I felt Clarice’s capture of Buffalo Bill needed to have more time devoted to it. I found that Ted Tally’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ source novel boiled down the essential elements to create a thrilling narrative. As Clarice, Jodie Foster is absolutely captivating and it’s great to see her capitalising on the talent we already saw she had as a child star in Taxi Driver. Right from the opening training sequence, Foster conveys Clarice’s inner turmoil and allows the audience to care for the character in order for us to root for her in the final scenes. Of the Big Five Oscars the film won the one that puzzles me the most is Anthony Hopkins’ award for Best Actor especially considering that he’s on screen for less than twenty minutes. There’s no denying that Hopkins gives a captivating turn and bounces well off Foster, but Hannibal is much more of a supporting character than he is a lead. As I’ve previously mentioned, I would’ve preferred Hopkins to have won the Oscar for his turn in The Remains of the Day as his win here seems to be more for the character than the performance itself. But that’s a minor niggle in a film that’s a real treat to watch due to its tightly-paced script, genuinely terrifying moments and a great central performance.

Watching The Silence of the Lambs also got me thinking about why more films haven’t won the Big Five in the following years. In fact of the almost 500 films nominated for Best Picture over the years, only 42 have been nominated in all five categories. The main issue appears to be that very few films are nominated in both the Best Actor and Actress category meaning that there are few opportunities for movies to get this very special accolade. But I don’t think it’s out of the question for another film to equal the success of It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs and it’s simply a case of when rather than if.

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