The Silence of the Lambs is a 1991 American psychological horror film directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Ted Tally, adapted from Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel. It stars Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee who is hunting a serial killer, “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), who skins his female victims. To catch him, she seeks the advice of the imprisoned Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer. The film also features performances from Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald and Kasi Lemmons.
The Silence of the Lambs was released on February 14, 1991, and grossed $272.7 million worldwide on a $19 million budget, becoming the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1991 worldwide. It premiered at the 41st Berlin International Film Festival, where it competed for the Golden Bear, while Demme received the Silver Bear for Best Director. It became the third and last film (the other two being 1934’s It Happened One Night and 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) to win Academy Awards in all the major five categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It is also the only Best Picture winner widely considered a horror film, and one of only six horror films to have been nominated in the category with The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), The Sixth Sense (1999), Black Swan (2010), and Get Out (2017).
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The Silence of the Lambs is regularly cited by critics, film directors and audiences as one of the greatest and most influential films. In 2018, Empire ranked it 48th on their list of the 500 greatest movies of all time. The American Film Institute ranked it the fifth-greatest and most influential thriller film while Starling and Lecter were ranked among the greatest film heroines and villains. The film is considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant by the U.S. Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2011. A sequel, Hannibal, was released in 2001, followed by the prequels Red Dragon (2002) and Hannibal Rising (2007).
In 1990, Clarice Starling is pulled from her FBI training at the Quantico, Virginia FBI Academy by Jack Crawford of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit. He assigns her to interview Hannibal Lecter, a former psychiatrist and incarcerated cannibalistic serial killer. Crawford believes Lecter’s insight could prove useful in the pursuit of a psychopath serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill”, who kills young women and removes their skin from their bodies.
At the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Dr. Frederick Chilton makes a crude pass at Starling before he escorts her to Lecter’s cell. Although initially pleasant and courteous, Lecter grows impatient with Starling’s interviewing and rebuffs her. As she is leaving, a prisoner named Miggs flicks semen at her. Lecter, who considers this an “unspeakably ugly” act, calls Starling back and tells her to seek out his old patient. This leads her to a storage facility, where she discovers a jar containing a man’s severed head. She returns to Lecter, who says the man is linked to Buffalo Bill. He offers to profile Buffalo Bill on condition he be transferred away from Chilton, whom he detests. Another Buffalo Bill victim is found with a death’s head moth lodged in her throat.
Buffalo Bill abducts Catherine Martin, the daughter of a United States senator. Crawford authorizes Starling to offer Lecter a fake deal, promising a prison transfer if he provides information that helps them capture Buffalo Bill and rescue Catherine. Instead, Lecter demands a quid pro quo from Starling, offering clues about Buffalo Bill in exchange for personal information. Starling tells Lecter about her father’s murder when she was ten years old. Chilton secretly records the conversation and reveals Starling’s deceit to Lecter before offering him a different deal. Lecter agrees and is flown to Memphis, where he meets and torments Senator Martin, then gives her false information on Buffalo Bill, including that his name is “Louis Friend”.
Starling figures out that “Louis Friend” is an anagram of “iron sulfide”—fool’s gold. She visits Lecter, who is now imprisoned in a cell in a Tennessee courthouse, and requests the truth. Lecter says all the information she needs is contained in the Buffalo Bill case file, then insists on continuing their quid pro quo. She recounts a traumatic childhood incident of hearing spring lambs being slaughtered on a relative’s Montana farm. Lecter speculates that Starling hopes that saving Catherine will end the recurring nightmares she has of lambs screaming. Lecter returns the Buffalo Bill case files to Starling as Chilton arrives and has the police escort her from the building. Later that evening, Lecter kills his guards (one of them is graphically disemboweled), escapes from his cell, and disappears.
Starling analyzes Lecter’s file annotations and figures out that Buffalo Bill knew his first victim, Frederika Bimmel. Starling travels to her Ohio hometown and discovers both she and Buffalo Bill were tailors. At Frederika’s home, she notices unfinished dresses and dress patterns identical to the patches of skin removed from the victims. She phones Crawford and says Buffalo Bill is making a “suit” with human skin. Crawford is already en route to make an arrest, having cross-referenced Lecter’s notes with hospital archives and finding a man named Jame Gumb. Gumb smuggled death’s head moths into the U.S. and was refused a sex-change operation, mistakenly believing he was transsexual. Starling continues interviewing Frederika’s friends while Crawford and an FBI HRT storm Gumb’s address in Illinois, finding the house empty. Meanwhile, Starling goes to interview another person who knew Frederika. At the house, she meets “Jack Gordon”, but realizes he is Gumb after spotting a death’s head moth flying loose. She pursues him into a cavernous basement and finds Catherine trapped in a dry well. In a dark room, Gumb stalks Starling with night-vision goggles, but reveals himself by cocking his revolver. Starling reacts quickly and shoots Gumb dead.
At the FBI Academy graduation party, Starling receives a phone call from Lecter, who is at a Bimini airport. He assures her that he has no intention of pursuing her and requests that she return the favor, which she says she cannot. Lecter subsequently hangs up the phone because he is “having an old friend for dinner.” He trails a newly arrived Chilton into the crowd.
The Silence of the Lambs is based on the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris. It was the second film to feature the character Hannibal Lecter; the first, Manhunter (1986), was also adapted from a Harris novel. Prior to the release of the Silence of the Lambs novel, Orion Pictures partnered with Gene Hackman to adapt it for film. With Hackman set to direct and possibly star in as FBI agent Jack Crawford, negotiations were made to split the $500,000 cost of rights between Hackman and the studio. The producers also had to acquire the rights to the Lecter character, which were owned by Manhunter producer Dino De Laurentiis. Owing to the financial failure of Manhunter, De Laurentiis lent the rights to Orion for free.
In November 1987, Ted Tally was brought on to write the adaptation; Tally had crossed paths with Harris many times, with his interest in adapting The Silence of the Lambs originating from receiving an advance copy of the book from Harris. When Tally was about halfway through with the first draft, Hackman withdrew from the project and financing fell through. However, Orion co-founder Mike Medavoy encouraged Tally to keep writing as the studio took care of financing and searched for a replacement director. Orion sought director Jonathan Demme to helm the project. With the screenplay not yet completed, Demme signed on after reading the novel. From there, the project developed quickly; Tally said: “[Demme] read my first draft not long after it was finished, and we met, then I was just startled by the speed of things. We met in May 1989 and were shooting in November. I don’t remember any big revisions.”
Jodie Foster was interested in playing FBI agent Clarice Starling immediately after reading the novel. However, in spite of the fact that Foster had just won an Academy Award for her performance in The Accused (1988), Demme was not convinced that she was right for the role. Having just collaborated on Married to the Mob (1988), Demme’s first choice for the role of Starling was Michelle Pfeiffer, who turned it down, later saying, “It was a difficult decision, but I got nervous about the subject matter.” He then approached Meg Ryan, who turned it down as well for its gruesome themes, and then Laura Dern, of whom the studio was skeptical as not being a bankable choice. As a result, Foster was awarded the role due to her passion towards the character.
For the role of Lecter, Demme originally approached Sean Connery. After Connery turned it down, Anthony Hopkins was offered the role based on his performance in The Elephant Man (1980). When Hopkins’s agent told him a script was en route titled The Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins responded, “Is it a children’s story?” Hopkins called his agent back after reading the first 10 pages, saying, “This is the best part I’ve ever read,” then had dinner with Demme and accepted the role.
Other actors considered for the role included Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Derek Jacobi and Daniel Day-Lewis. The mask Hopkins wore became an iconic symbol of the film. It was created by Ed Cubberly, of Frenchtown, New Jersey, who had made masks for NHL goalkeepers.
Hopkins created his interpretation of Lecter based upon the voice of the HAL 9000 as voiced by Douglas Rain in 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as the vocal cadences of both actor Katharine Hepburn and writer Truman Capote. He was initially scared to talk to Foster, knowing that she had just won an Oscar.
Gene Hackman was cast to play Jack Crawford, the Agent-in-Charge of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI in Quantico, Virginia, but he found the script too violent. Scott Glenn was then cast in the role. In preparation for the role, Glenn met with John E. Douglas. Douglas gave Glenn a tour of the Quantico facility and also played for him an audio tape containing various recordings that serial killers Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris had made of themselves raping and torturing a 16-year-old girl. According to Douglas, Glenn wept as he listened to the recordings, and even changed his liberal stance on the death penalty.
Principal photography on The Silence of the Lambs began on November 15, 1989, and wrapped on March 1, 1990. Filming primarily took place in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with some scenes shot in nearby northern West Virginia. The Victorian home in Perryopolis, Pennsylvania used as Buffalo Bill’s home in the film went up for sale in August 2015 for $300,000. The home sat on the market for nearly a year, before finally selling for $195,000. The exterior of the Western Center near Canonsburg, Pennsylvania served as the setting for Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In what was a rare act of cooperation at the time, the FBI allowed scenes to be filmed at the FBI Academy in Quantico; some FBI staff members even acted in bit parts.
The design for the basement and pit used by Buffalo Bill was inspired by the real-life kidnappings and murders performed by Gary M. Heidnik.
The musical score for The Silence of the Lambs was composed by Howard Shore, who would also go on to collaborate with Demme on Philadelphia. Recorded in Munich during the latter half of the summer of 1990, the score was performed by the Munich Symphony Orchestra. “I tried to write in a way that goes right into the fabric of the movie,” explained Shore on his approach. “I tried to make the music just fit in. When you watch the movie you are not aware of the music. You get your feelings from all elements simultaneously, lighting, cinematography, costumes, acting, music. Jonathan Demme was very specific about the music.” The music editor was Suzana Peric. A soundtrack album was released by MCA Records on February 5, 1991. Music from the film was later used in the trailers for its 2001 sequel, Hannibal.
In addition to Shore’s score, recordings of popular music are used prominently in the film. This includes British post-punk music, such as the song “Hip Priest” by The Fall which can be heard playing during the climactic scene in which Starling enters Buffalo Bill’s house.
The Silence of the Lambs was released on February 14, 1991, grossing almost $14 million from 1,497 theaters over the 4-day Presidents’ Day weekend, placing at number one at the US box office. It remained at number one for five weeks.
The film opened at the Odeon Leicester Square in London in June 1991 and grossed £290,936 in its opening week, which distributor Rank claimed was a world record opening week from one theatre. The following week it expanded to 281 screens and grossed £4,260,472 for the week, a UK record.
The film grossed $131 million in the United States and Canada with a total worldwide gross of $273 million. It was the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1991 worldwide.
The film was released on VHS in October 1991 by Orion Home Video. It was the most rented video in the United States upon release. It was released on DVD on March 6, 2001 by MGM Home Entertainment. The Criterion Collection, which had released the film on LaserDisc in 1994, released a DVD special edition in 1998, and later a Blu-Ray edition in 2018.
The Silence of the Lambs was a sleeper hit that gradually gained widespread success and critical acclaim. Foster, Hopkins, and Levine garnered much acclaim for their performances. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 96% of 104 film critics have given the film a positive review, with an average rating of 8.90/10. The website’s critical consensus reads: “Director Jonathan Demme’s smart, taut thriller teeters on the edge between psychological study and all-out horror, and benefits greatly from stellar performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.” Metacritic, another review aggregator, assigned the film a weighted average score of 85 out of 100, based on 19 reviews from mainstream critics, indicating “universal acclaim”. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of “A–” on an A+ to F scale.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, specifically mentioned the “terrifying qualities” of Hannibal Lecter. Ebert later added the film to his list of The Great Movies, recognizing the film as a “horror masterpiece” alongside such classics as Nosferatu, Psycho, and Halloween. However, the film is also notable for being one of two multi-Academy Award winners (the other being Unforgiven) to get a bad review from Ebert’s colleague, Gene Siskel. Writing for Chicago Tribune, Siskel said, “Foster’s character, who is appealing, is dwarfed by the monsters she is after. I’d rather see her work on another case.”
The Silence of the Lambs was criticized by members of the LGBT community for its portrayal of Buffalo Bill as bisexual and transgender, although Bill’s sexual orientation is not stated and Lecter expressly states Bill is “not really transsexual”. Demme responded that Buffalo Bill “wasn’t a gay character. He was a tormented man who hated himself and wished he was a woman because that would have made him as far away from himself as he possibly could be.” Demme added that he “came to realize that there is a tremendous absence of positive gay characters in movies”. Much of the criticism was made towards Foster, who critics alleged was a lesbian.[full citation needed ]
In a 1992 interview with Playboy magazine, the feminist and women’s rights advocate Betty Friedan stated: “I thought it was absolutely outrageous that The Silence of the Lambs won four [sic] Oscars. […] I’m not saying that the movie shouldn’t have been shown. I’m not denying the movie was an artistic triumph, but it was about the evisceration, the skinning alive of women. That is what I find offensive. Not the Playboy centerfold.”
|Academy Awards record|
|Best Picture, Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, Ronald M. Bozman|
|Best Director, Jonathan Demme|
|Best Actor, Anthony Hopkins|
|Best Actress, Jodie Foster|
|Best Adapted Screenplay, Ted Tally|
|Golden Globe Awards record|
|Best Actress, Jodie Foster|
|British Academy Film Awards record|
|Best Actor, Anthony Hopkins|
|Best Actress, Jodie Foster|
The film won the Big Five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Demme), Best Actor (Hopkins), Best Actress (Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally), making it only the third film in history to accomplish that feat. It was also nominated for Best Sound (Tom Fleischman and Christopher Newman) and Best Film Editing, but lost to Terminator 2: Judgment Day and JFK, respectively.
Other awards include Best Film by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, CHI Awards and PEO Awards. Demme won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 41st Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Director. The film was nominated for the Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association. It was also nominated for the British Academy Film Award for Best Film. Screenwriter Ted Tally received an Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. The film was awarded Best Horror Film of the Year during the 2nd Horror Hall of Fame telecast, with Vincent Price presenting the award to the film’s executive producer Gary Goetzman.
In 1998, the film was listed as one of the 100 greatest films in the past 100 years by the American Film Institute. In 2006, at the Key Art Awards, the original poster for The Silence of the Lambs was named best film poster “of the past 35 years”. The Silence of the Lambs placed seventh on Bravo’s The 100 Scariest Movie Moments for Lecter’s escape scene. The American Film Institute named Hannibal Lecter (as portrayed by Hopkins) the number one film villain of all time and Clarice Starling (as portrayed by Foster) the sixth-greatest film hero of all time. In 2011, ABC aired a prime-time special, Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time, that counted down the best films chosen by fans based on results of a poll conducted by ABC and People magazine. The Silence of the Lambs was selected as the best suspense/thriller and Dr. Hannibal Lecter was selected as the fourth-greatest film character.
The film and its characters have appeared in the following AFI “100 Years” lists:
- AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies – #65
- AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills – #5
- AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains:
- Clarice Starling – #6 Hero
- Hannibal Lecter – #1 Villain
- Buffalo Bill – Nominated Villain
- AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes:
- “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” – #21
- AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – #74
In 2015, Entertainment Weekly‘s 25th anniversary year, it included The Silence of the Lambs in its list of the 25 best movies made since the magazine’s beginning.
According to The Guardian, before The Silence of the Lambs, serial killers in films had been “claw-handed bogeymen with melty faces and rubber masks. By contrast, Lecter was highly intelligent with impeccable manners,” and played by an actor with “impeccable credentials”.
When The Silence of the Lambs was re-released in the UK in 2017, the British Board of Film Classification reclassified it from an 18 to a 15 certificate. Silence of the Lambs producer Ed Saxon said audiences had become desensitized and that the film had become less shocking. However, the BBFC’s Craig Lapper felt that audiences had instead become used to procedural crime dramas with serial killers as dramatic tropes, and suggested that The Silence of the Lambs had created interest in these themes.
- Clarice, sequel TV series
- List of films based on crime books
- Silence! The Musical, an unauthorized parody musical adaptation of the film
- List of Academy Award records
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- The Silence of the Lambs at IMDb
- The Silence of the Lambs at the TCM Movie Database
- The Silence of the Lambs at Box Office Mojo
- The Silence of the Lambs at the American Film Institute Catalog
- The Silence of the Lambs at Rotten Tomatoes
- The Silence of the Lambs at Metacritic
- The Silence of the Lambs an essay by Amy Taubin at the Criterion Collection