The Silence Of The Lambs Ending Explained: A Game Of Cat And Mouse

Remember that scene in Jonathan Demme's "Married to the Mob" where Michelle Pfeiffer's mob wife gets a foot rub from Matthew Modine's FBI agent to the strains of "Goodbye Horses" by Q Lazzarus? Nope, me neither. Demme stuck with the song, however, and used it to iconic effect in his next picture, the Oscar-winning crime thriller "The Silence of the Lambs." You know the scene, where serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) tucks his meat-and-two-veg between his legs and does the little dance?

Demme's slick psychological horror is stacked with those iconic moments, and it remains part of our collective pop consciousness even 30 years later. It was also one of only three films to take home the "Big Five" Academy awards: best picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay (the other two films were "It Happened One Night" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"). Subsequent expansion of the Lecterverse has been hit-and-miss, fleshing out the world of everyone's favorite cannibal while also diminishing his mystique.

Brian Cox may have played Hannibal Lecter first in "Manhunter" and some argue the merits of Mads Mikkelsen in the "Hannibal" TV series, but Anthony Hopkins' version of the character is the one people will still remember in 50 years' time. With only 16 minutes of screen time, Hopkins created an indelible character and won an Oscar for what was practically a cameo appearance. Film buffs love quoting his lip-smacking lines, and he has been parodied so much that it's easy to forget that his Lecter is defined mostly by stillness and watchfulness ... until he sees a chance to escape. Then things get very bloody indeed.

"The Silence of the Lambs" is an expertly crafted and acted potboiler, with a lot of plot points flying around during that barnstorming second hour. Let's dig into the key events of that final stretch.

The Story So Far

"The Silence of the Lambs" stars Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee who is chosen by her mentor, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), to interview the incarcerated serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), a former psychiatrist who got his rhyming nickname, "Hannibal the Cannibal," from his penchant for eating parts of his victims. Sometimes paired with a nice drop of wine.

Crawford thinks that Lecter might offer some insight into the psychological profile of another killer on the loose, nicknamed Buffalo Bill. So far, he has murdered five women, removing sections of their skin before dumping their bodies with a Death's Head moth placed in their throat. Lecter guardedly toys with Starling at first, but after a fellow inmate humiliates her, he decides to give her a clue that sets her on the path to catching the killer. He also offers to profile Bill on the condition that she gets him transferred to another prison away from Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), the head of the psychiatric hospital whom Lecter absolutely loathes.

The stakes are raised when Buffalo Bill snatches the daughter of a senator and imprisons her at the bottom of a dry well in the basement of his house, in readiness for his next murder. Realizing there is only a small window of opportunity to get her back alive, Crawford authorizes Starling to tempt Lecter with a false deal. Meanwhile, Lecter is more interested in probing Starling for her deepest secrets in exchange for more information about the killer.

Hannibal Lecter's Escape

After Buffalo Bill abducts the senator's daughter, Starling approaches Lecter with Crawford's bogus deal. This ruse is scuppered by Chilton, who has bugged the cell and sees an opportunity to grab the limelight by capturing the killer. He plays hardball with Lecter, removing all the comforts from his cell. Lecter gives him half a name, saying he will only tell the rest to the senator in person. Chilton quickly arranges Lecter's transfer to Memphis, where Lecter gives the senator a phoney name and taunts her about her daughter. He is then taken to a makeshift courthouse cell where he awaits transfer back to Baltimore.

Throughout this sequence we see how cunning Lecter really is. He realizes that pretending to play ball with Chilton and the senator will get him transferred to a place with more lax security, giving him the chance to escape. He buys time with the phoney name — Starling later figures out that "Louis Friend" is an anagram of iron sulfide, aka "fool's gold."

After Starling visits Lecter one last time, two guards bring his evening meal. They handcuff him to the bars of the cell as a precaution. Unfortunately for them, Lecter has his own homemade handcuff key. He attacks and kills both the guards. Mirroring Bill's M.O., he removes a guard's face to wear over his own, pretending to be one of the victims to complete his escape by ambulance. 

How did Hannibal get out of his handcuffs? During the shakedown of his cell, we see Lecter in restraints, eyeing Chilton's pen on the bed. When they later arrive in Memphis, Chilton needs to sign release papers but can't find his pen. At some point between the shakedown and the flight, Lecter stole the pen and used it to pick the lock on his handcuffs.

Clarice Starling's Showdown with Buffalo Bill

With the help of Lecter's final clue, Starling figures out Bill knew his first victim, Frederica Bimmel, who was the third body found. Surprisingly, no-one has followed up on this angle previously, and Starling goes to visit Frederica's home in Ohio. The penny drops when she notices some clothes in Frederica's house with sewing darts pinned to them. Their shapes resemble the patches of skin from one of Bill's victims, making Starling realize that he must be a dressmaker or tailor too.

Starling calls Crawford to tell him Bill is making a woman suit from real skin. Crawford is already on his way to Illinois with a lead from John Hopkins about Jame Gumb, a patient rejected for sex reassignment due to his psychological issues. Starling is disappointed to miss out, but follows up a few loose ends, leading her to the address of Frederica's former employer, Mrs. Lippman. Here, Demme serves a brilliant mis-direct. While Bill is dealing with the senator's daughter taking his dog hostage, the doorbell rings. We see Crawford's team outside, ready to go in. But when Bill answers the door, it's not Crawford outside, but Starling.

Bill tells her that Mrs. Lippman passed away, but he might still have her son's number. Although it isn't made clear in the film, the lore reveals that Bill killed Mrs. Lippman for the house, and she is the corpse we briefly seeing rotting in a bathtub. Starling spots a Death's Head moth flying around and realizes she is face-to-face with the murderer with no backup. Rumbled, Bill runs away to the basement with Starling in brave pursuit. He cuts the lights and stalks her with night vision goggles — and just as he is about to kill her, she hears him and opens fire.

Having an old friend for dinner...

Buffalo Bill is dead and Starling graduates as an FBI agent. At the after party, she receives a call from Hannibal Lecter. We see him in the Bahamas, wearing shades and blonde wig, watching Chilton disembark from a plane. Earlier, when we find out what happened to the ambulance crew who were transporting him from the courthouse, it is mentioned that he also killed a tourist. Is that the identity he has assumed in order to travel?

Lecter tells Starling that he has no plans to seek her out, implying that he could get to her easily if he wanted to, and requests that she does the same. She tells him she can't make that promise. This brief conversation demonstrates that Lecter truly respects Starling after their exchanges, and may see her as a worthy adversary now that he's on the outside. Then the film concludes with a jokey little payoff as Lecter rings off, saying he's "having an old friend for dinner," before leisurely following Chilton down the street.

How did Lecter and Chilton end up in the same place? There are two possibilities here. The more prosaic one is that Lecter simply found out that Chilton was traveling to the Bahamas and went there to murder him. It's more satisfying, however, to think that Lecter engineered a situation to lure Chilton there, probably with some ruse that flattered the man's immense self-regard. Either way, there is little reason to doubt that Lecter will make good on his word and feast on parts of the insufferable Dr. Chilton as revenge for all the mistreatment in his care. It's a strange moment where we're left half-cheering for the cannibalistic killer, paving the way for "Hannibal," where Lecter became a kind of supervillain for the audience to root for.