ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 21, 1991
By Steve Newton
In Richard Attenborough’s superb 1978 thriller, Magic, British actor Anthony Hopkins played a struggling ventriloquist who loses touch with reality and transfers the murderous side of his personality into his wooden dummy. Hopkins portrayed the doomed performer as so pitiable that–even while he was knocking off good guys (his agent, played by Burgess Meredith) and creeps (an Ed Lauter-portrayed wife-beater)–you kept hoping he’d somehow snap out of his psychosis and destroy the creepy doll that embodied his madness.
In The Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins plays another sick killer with heroic tendencies, the imprisoned psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, and even though Lecter gains his nickname “Hannibal the Cannibal” by chomping on the inner organs of his victims, Hopkins once again manages to portray a sympathetic side to the human monster. He achieves this duality with a chillingly believable performance that even tops that of the always-great Jodie Foster.
Foster portrays FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who’s been chosen by her mentor, agent Frank Crawford (Scott Glenn), to interview Lecter in hopes of gaining some insight into the motivations of a serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill”, who kills women and uses their skin to sew dresses. In return for clues and hints about Bill–whose identity Lecter knows–Starling must open up to him about her own tortured past (the death of her policeman father; her horrifying childhood memory of lambs “screaming” before slaughter). The odd psychological interplay between the gutsy, but green, Starling and the deranged, yet fascinating, Lecter provides the basic tone for Jonathan Demme’s well-made, insidious shocker, the same way it did for the Thomas Harris novel on which it’s based.
While the last film made from a Harris thriller (1986’s Manhunter) spent half its time dealing with the technicalities of investigative police work, The Silence of the Lambs forgoes the FBI lab and keeps the camera on Starling as her Lecter-inspired hunches put her hot on the grisly trail of Buffalo Bill, a.k.a. Jamie Gumb (played with giddy, demented relish by Ted Levine). Demme’s passion for vibrant colours and clever pacing makes the film’s few gore sequences–a decapitated head in a jar, a bloody fingernail jutting from a wall–all the more effective.
Following an FBI foul-up, the inexperienced Starling gets in over her head and is forced to take on the killer in a nail-biting showdown, and Demme, known for his quirky, stylish comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob, leaves things wide open for a sequel. With director Demme and all the principal actors reportedly keen on doing the follow-up that Thomas is currently writing, it shouldn’t be long before thriller fans are lucky enough to see Starling and Lecter in action again.