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The Silence of the Lambs:The Criterion Collection

Voyager Home Video

Starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster

Written by Ted Tally
Adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris

Directed by Jonathan Demme

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

Who would have thought that a film about a face-eating serial killer could sweep the Oscars? That's what happened in 1992, as the breathtaking moral flamboyance and cinematic classicism of The Silence of the Lambs earned it Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay statuettes — only the third time that such a sweep has happened. Since it's solid theatrical run and historic Oscar-night, and despite the disturbing nature of its subject-matter, Silence has entered the language, the consciousness, and the fabric of society. And after a many year's wait, novelist Thomas Harris wrote a sequel that appeared in spring of 1999 and which is scheduled for release as a movie directed by Ridley Scott on February 14th, 2001.

The Silence of the Lambs has the status of a film that people know all about without having necessarily seen it. FBI student Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is summoned by psychological profiling division chief Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) for a special assignment ("an errand, really"). She is to visit Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in a Baltimore criminal asylum for an interview. But Crawford is fishing for info about "Buffalo Bill" (Ted Levine), a new serial killer who skins his victims' corpses. Despite their vast differences, Starling soon forms a bond with Lecter, who may be fond of the young FBI agent but still manages to manipulate events in his favor, leading to a thrilling group of sequences towards the film's conclusion.

Among the more gruesome delights of Silence are a head in a bottle; a moth in the throat of a victim; a man scalped and defaced; another gutted and hung out to dry; a young woman kidnapped and terrorized. But in reality you come away from the film with a sense that more has happened that is actually there. Director Jonathan Demme and scenarist Ted Tally have orchestrated an elaborate feat of misdirection, wherein characters are talked about so much, and over such eerie music (by Howard Shore), that by the time they show up we are terrified, even when they are just standing there.

But the film is much more than just a thrill-ride. Demme and Tally, in collaboration with noted cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (who helped supervise the transfer to DVD), have also carefully laced the film with interesting visual thematics. The look of the film alternates between Starling running a series of mazes — starting with the obstacle course at Quantico, and culminating in the rabbit's warren in the basement of Buffalo Bill's house — and the intimacy of extreme close-ups, in which characters who are talking to each other look directly into the camera, in violation of long term classical Hollywood codes. In essence, Starling is immersed in people, but she is running her own solitary course at the same time, with the goal that of saving a young life, graduating into a career, and catching Lecter. Almost everywhere Starling goes in the film, she needs to wend her way through a maze of obstacles, be it the basement of an insane asylum or the hallways of the FBI training school. And almost every conversation thrusts the viewer right into the mix. It's scary to be that close to the characters.

And despite its gruesome content, the film is fun to watch, over and over. Demme has accumulated some great faces over his career, and he puts them in almost all his movies, including the late Kenneth Utt, his producer, as a mortician, and CW star Brent Hinkley as a cop. Scott Glenn is especially enjoyable, and the way he ducks his head and moves his body around a desk is fascinating. And of course, Hopkins and Foster are both brilliant. Foster hasn't put herself into a movie this much since then, and one might speculate that the experience soured her on the cinema (though her commentary is enthusiastic), and might explain why she decided not to do the sequel (aside from the fact that the book betrays Starling's character).

Criterions' DVD, released in 1998, is based on their 1996 Laserdisc, and as is the custom of Criterion, it is filled with extras, even if some of them are illusory. The best additions are the deleted scenes and the commentary track, which follows the edited comments pattern (as opposed to the unedited sitting-around-re-watching-the-film mode). The director, writer, stars, and an FBI agent (a wet blanket who keeps reminding the viewer that serial killers are bad and that the film doesn't always follow FBI procedure), all have fascinating, enriching things to say about the film, which only serves to increase one's pleasure. There are seven deleted or variant scenes, taken off a videotape of Demme's (which explains why the transfer image and sound isn't so hot). The key thing they show is that there was something of a subplot, now muted, in which Starling and Crawford were in much more trouble for a trick deal they offered Lecter. Other extras are storyboards, which are OK, and a rather useless selection of quotes from the FBI manual, as well as textual quotes from a book about serial killers — included perhaps to remind us, as FBI agent John Douglas does on the commentary, that such killers are not romantic figures. There is no trailer, isolated film score, or subtitles. The menu isn't animated, but it is illustrated with the eerie sound of moth wings. The chapter-selection menu lacks illustrative pix, but there is a four-page booklet inside the keep case.

Video quality is excellent. The early parts are true to the desaturated, sometimes dark look of the film, and grow richer later with glowing reds and oranges, particularly in chapters 18 and 19, when Starling sees Lecter for the last time. The Dolby 2.0 Surround audio is good, and one is grateful that no effort was made to tart up, and thereby alter, the soundtrack in a DD 5.1 remix. There are few rear directional effects, mainly to highlight the music (which, by the way, is slightly better than normal, but is another one of those modern sawing scores that sound like the tuneless humming of a guy standing at a urinal).

— D. K. Holm

(Editor's Note: This disc is now out of print and is considered a collector's item.)

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