'The Silence Of The Lambs' At 30: How The Influential Thriller Forged Empathy Through Clarice Starling's Eyes

Last night, CBS viewers said hello to Clarice, a new network procedural that serves as a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. Rebecca Breeds is the latest actress to embody Clarice Starling, the courageous FBI agent who faced off with two serial killers in one watershed 1991 thriller. One killer shall have to remain nameless. Clarice's cousins, however, are numerous and known by plenty of other names. When Jodie Foster originated the role three decades ago, she inspired a whole generation of screen heroines. The Silence of the Lambs also ensured its own franchise's longevity and informed a whole host of copycat thrillers. It was an unlikely prestige pic that still holds up as a work of master filmmaking.

Clarice's premiere comes just in time for the movie's thirtieth-anniversary date, which happens to fall on Valentine's Day this weekend. Some cinephiles may be eating chocolate and watching romcoms this weekend, but others will be opening Chianti bottles to revisit the only horror film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. Let's hope someone at this morbid party brought fava beans and an eye for camera angles.

There's an elephant in the room and it may or may not be eating people. Since 1986, when Brian Cox first showed up onscreen in his sock feet, bearing the name Hannibal Lecter, audiences have watched an entire film and television franchise build itself up around a cannibalistic killer. Michael Mann's Manhunter first introduced moviegoers to Lecter, but it wasn't until his second go-round in The Silence of the Lambs that the character really seized the public imagination.

In film and other mediums, great heroes are defined by their villains and vice versa. Lecter, as brought to life by Anthony Hopkins, and later, Mads Mikkelsen, is an iconic villain who has had more than one nemesis to act as his foil. The other major one, aside from Clarice Starling, is, of course, Will Graham, the protagonist of Red Dragon and NBC's Hannibal. 

With Hannibal the Cannibal being the one constant throughout this franchise, it's easy to lose sight of his place in The Silence of the Lambs, where he's more of a scene-chewing — and face-chewing — sideline character. IMDb puts Lecter's screen time at just under 25 minutes, with other sites registering even lower tallies, perhaps because they're breaking down the individual shots with him in them (and not counting moments when he's speaking or listening offscreen). Buffalo Bill, meanwhile, doesn't make his entrance until after the half-hour mark.

Lecter may get some of the best lines, but scene by scene, from script to screen, it's Starling's story through and through. She's the first character we meet, running through the woods near Quantico, Virginia. We see her get on the elevator in the FBI Academy, with men towering over her. The head of Behavioral Sciences, Jack Crawford, sends her to interview Lecter and soon she's descending into the dragon's dungeon.

The famous walk-and-talk where the supercilious Dr. Frederick Chilton issues her instructions ("Do not touch the glass," etc.) bottoms out in a subterranean security station. Starling looks around and we see the monitors and racked guns from her point-of-view before it lands on the orderly Barney. As she enters Lecter's cell block, we're in her perspective, too. She sees Barney and various inmates behind bars; the chair that awaits her in front of Lecter's cell; and then, finally, Lecter himself, standing straight up behind the glass, with no more bars to obstruct our view of him.

Foster saw The Silence of the Lambs as the "story of a young woman trying to save the life of another young woman." This is the meaning of the film's abstract title, which does not become evident until late in the movie when Starling reveals how she, as a girl, once witnessed lambs being slaughtered and was powerless to stop it. Lecter spells it out minutes before he demands a second dinner of lamb chops and lures two hapless guards into his cell:

"You still wake up sometimes, don't you? You wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs. And you think if you save poor Catherine, you could make them stop, don't you?"

That's the surface-level plot: Starling's attempts to understand the killer's psychology and keep Catherine Martin from becoming his sacrificial lamb. The need within her to do that springs from a deep empathy formed under horrific circumstances. Down in the dungeon, on a subtextual level, The Silence of the Lambs is really a film about empathy. 

The film's many POV shots — a trademark of its director, the late Jonathan Demme — reinforce this, enabling the viewer to take on not only Starling's perspective but also that of other characters (even Buffalo Bill in his night-vision goggles). Essentially, we become the characters, seeing things through their eyes, looking directly into the eyes of our scene partners.

It lends the film an intimate quality and gives it an experiential flow, forcing viewers to share the gendered view of a woman in a man's world. Suddenly, male viewers feel what it's like to have a guy leering at you or hitting on you at every turn. Uniformed male gatekeepers box you out of important discussions, while in the car, you're stuck in the backseat, looking at the back of your boss's head, trying to make him understand that it does matter when he plays into old stereotypes and treats you a certain way.

On Hannibal, Will Graham was a high-level empath, someone who could use "pure empathy" to put himself in a killer's shoes. In The Silence of the Lambs, likewise, it's Starling's empathy that enables her and Lecter to establish an unlikely bond (visualized memorably when his c**k-eyed reflection superimposes itself over her head in the glass). Crawford and Chilton regard him as a monster, to be managed accordingly, but Starling listens to him and learns from him, showing him the sort of respect and understanding no else will. He returns the favor by encouraging her skills and not underestimating her like so many of the men around her do.

What people most think of when they think of The Silence of the Lambs is probably the tense, talky tangos between these two characters, which are spread out over the movie like set pieces. The average moviegoer likely doesn't pay much attention to camera angles, but the film offers an interesting case study in how those can subtly shape or underpin our perception of a scene.

Clarice and Hannibal's first dialogue exchange starts out with over-the-shoulder shots, but when she holds up her credentials and he says, "Closer, please. Closer," it switches to straight-on POV shots and closeups. The movie's visual language synergizes with Ted Tally's script language, which offers a masterclass in the shifting power dynamic of a great dialogue scene. In effect, it's a fight scene with words. This video essay from Every Frame a Painting offers a quick demonstration of how the camera changes sides during their verbal jousting. Whether they're sitting down or standing up or looking offscreen or straight at the camera, there's an ongoing push-and-pull, or "quid pro quo."

One way that Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto show who is in command, at any given moment, is through the use of high-angle and low-angle shots. Perhaps the ultimate example of this comes when Buffalo Bill is talking down the well to Catherine Martin. He's got her at his mercy and has completely dehumanized her to the point where he's referring to her as an "it." All she is to him is a sack of skin for the woman suit he's sewing. High and low angles also frame Lecter and his victim when he stands over a guard, beating him to death with his own nightstick.

Fandom's shipping tendencies being what they are, it's natural for some viewers and even writers to want to play matchmaker with characters, but in The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter functions more like Starling's evil fairy godfather. He may flirt, delivering lines like, "People will say we're in love," but if there's an undercurrent of romance to their interactions, it seems one-sided. 

The moment when they brush fingers, making physical contact for the first and only time, is effectively an inversion of Michelangelo's famous fresco, with Eve and the devil touching instead of Adam and God. When Lecter starts talking about Jack Crawford (same initials as Jesus Christ), you have to wonder if he isn't projecting his own desire for Clarice onto her other mentor. At one point, she flat-out says that his innuendos don't interest her. Call it an unrequited love story, then, with Lecter's escape massacre forming his bloody Valentine.

While there is some overlap between them and slasher movie villains (some of whom display supernatural invulnerability), there's a very specific kind of film that involves serial killers and the efforts to catch them or their efforts to hunt and evade capture. In the 1980s, these were more independent or cult films, such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the aforementioned Manhunter. What The Silence of the Lambs did was bring the genre into the mainstream.

Though the movie hit theaters in the dumping ground of mid-February, Oscar voters would remember it over a year later when it became one of only three films to win the "Big Five" Academy Awards. Some of its immediate '90s heirs, like The X-Files and Seven, carved out their own identity while others, like Just Cause and Kiss the Girls, felt more derivative, relying on similar plot elements like the hero consulting an incarcerated serial killer or facing off with one in a house alone (not to mention the kidnapped women in underground cells).

The above examples also featured actors who were either considered for The Silence of the Lambs (Sean Connery and Morgan Freeman) or actors who would later become associated with the same franchise (Gillian Anderson and Laurence Fishburne). There was even a film called Copycat, which taught theatergoers about the agoraphobic lifestyle a quarter-century before the pandemic put us all in that boat. It starred Sigourney Weaver, whose Ellen Ripley character came in a close second to Starling, the top heroine in movie history on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest Heroes & Villains.

The influence of The Silence of the Lambs has continued into the twenty-first century, though its own 2001 sequel and other genre entries like American Psycho tipped the scale in favor of the villain, beginning with their titles. In Hannibal, Julianne Moore's older, more self-assured version of Starling leaves the screen for a full twenty minutes as the film transfers its focus to the doomed Italian inspector played by Giancarlo Giannini.

The operative question, here in 2021, is: what is Clarice Starling without Hannibal Lecter? With that new CBS procedural on the air, it's the first time anyone's seen the character in this context. In principle, she's self-sufficient enough to carry her own TV series, but it remains to be seen whether Clarice will be able to justify its existence amid a sea of similar network shows. The landscape has changed since 1991, and in some ways, Starling's legacy is out in front of her now, with thrillers like Sicario and Mindhunter doing a better job of putting us in over our heads with a Clarice analog than anything co-showrunner and professional franchise hopper Alex Kurtzman could probably dream up.

Hannibal, too, started out as a procedural, with the Minnesota Shrike and a murder victim mounted on deer antlers kicking off the case-of-the-week format. Yet that show had more of a visionary developer, Bryan Fuller, overseeing it. Time will tell whether Clarice is able to leave its own mark or whether it quickly goes down in entertainment history as yet another unnecessary retread of Hollywood's bygone glories. Whatever happens, we'll always have The Silence of the Lambs, a film that remains the peak of the serial killer genre and one of the greatest movies ever made.