Jodie Foster plays a young FBI cadet who must work...

Jodie Foster plays a young FBI cadet who must work with an incarcerated killer/cannibal to help catch another serial killer in "The Silence of the Lambs" ($272,742,922). Credit: Orion Pictures

Below is Newsday's original film review of "The Silence of the Lambs," which premiered in theaters on Feb. 14, 1991.


Anthony Hopkins is devastatingly demonic in Jonathan Demme's truly horrifying thriller of an FBI trainee in pursuit of a serial killer. Rated R, but don't take the family. Screenplay by Ted Tally. With Jodie Foster, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Ted Levine. At neighborhood theaters.

IN "THE SILENCE of the Lambs," Anthony Hopkins makes the most unforgettable anti-entrance of any screen villain in years. His character, Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist and serial killer with a taste for eating his victims, does not enter in the conventional sense, since the movie really comes to him. When it arrives, he is as still as a guillotine blade perched to drop. 

The opening steps of the film's breathless path are a preparation, a psyche-up, for us and FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who has been summoned to question the incarcerated Lecter in hopes of gleaning clues about another grisly killer known as Buffalo Bill. Those 15 minutes are a crackling swirl of movement, rife with an apprehension that sets your stomach churning like a tumble dryer.

See Clarice run through a trainee obstacle course (an apt metaphor for the investigation to come). See Clarice make her way through the imposing labyrinth of FBI school. See Clarice inspect photos of Buffalo Bill's victims, who have been skinned after being shot. See Clarice absorb last-minute warnings about Lecter. Don't let him get inside your head. Don't go near the glass. The camera winds through a dank jailhouse cellar right out of Charles Dickens. The soundtrack rumbles with enough ominous foreboding for the "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" series put together.

Then, all at once, it stops. And there he is, fixed behind a thick pane of glass like some embalmed diorama at the Museum of Natural History. He stands at attention, expectantly, his hair pomaded back in such a way as to heighten the forehead and isolate the eyes raccoon-style: a skull-and-bones caution label that reads "Lethal brilliance lodged inside." When he opens his mouth, we know he will speak with the pinched elegance of a very cultured Nazi commandant. Let me see your credentials, Clarice. Come closer, please.

Hopkins is so chillingly submerged in this creature that you may occasionally feel the need to look away from the screen. The coiled potential of Hannibal Lecter - our imaginings of what could happen if we got too close to the glass reflecting ourselves - is the real horror of this truly horrific movie. What keeps "The Silence of the Lambs" just this side of exploitation is its decision to keep the brutality off-screen: we feel the awfulness of Buffalo Bill's murders without bearing witness. Until the rather nasty last half hour, we are kept on edge by Clarice's efforts to draw Lecter out without succumbing to his head trips. Here is a man, after all, who has the manipulative talent to talk someone into swallowing their tongue.

Jodie Foster, her arrow nose and sea-glass blue eyes poised to cut through crap, is a natural born smart cookie. She may be a little too smart to convince us that Clarice would expose her past demons for Lecter's destructive analysis, as she does in a confrontation scene of bristling psychological tension. To writer Ted Tally's credit, however, Clarice maintains a distance from all of the men in the film, not only because she is a professional, but because they are all so creepy. Clarice is a determined lamb dancing precariously with wolves, from the unctuous prison psychiatrist (Anthony Heald) to her patronizing boss, played with sinister reserve by Scott Glenn.

Since all of the men are implicated in a kind of predatory brotherhood, Tally and director Jonathan Demme might maintain they are skirting homophobia in portraying the ultimate target of Foster's search as a demented transsexual. Unfortunately, however, homophobes do not make the sort of subtle distinctions we are asked to make in this movie. Tally muddles the exact nature of Buffalo Bill's dementia; prancing about in his wig and nipple earrings, Bill is as gratuitously over-the-top in his own fashion as was the repressed gay villain in "No Way Out" with Kevin Costner.

Buffalo Bill's hangups are but one casualty of a final stretch that becomes so mired in the accumulating details that we lose a few crucial connecting threads. (What about those moths, anyway?) If we make allowances for the convoluted unraveling, it is because Demme has platformed the suspense so skillfully that the idea of a solution becomes almost moot. By the end, we just want the reassurance of an "Exit" sign.

With "The Silence of the Lambs," Demme reaffirms his position as the most adaptable of Hollywood directors since John Huston. You wouldn't know it was a Demme film but for the credits and a wry attention to mise-en-scene: a copy of Bon Appetit magazine in Hannibal's cell and an obstacle course sign that reads "HURT, AGONY, PAIN. LOVE IT." Perhaps the only joke sicker than these is the studio's notion to release the film on Valentine's Day. Be mine, indeed.


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