The film won the best picture Oscar 25 years ago – and as both a heart-stopping chiller and a commentary on sexual harassment and the male gaze, was miles ahead of its time, writes Nicholas Barber.

It’s 25 years since The Silence of the Lambs became only the third film in history to win Oscars in five of the major categories: best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, best actress and best actor. But it sometimes feels as if its diabolical anti-hero, Dr Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter, has never been away. Hopkins returned to the role that made him a superstar for two further films, Hannibal and Red Dragon; Gaspard Ulliel was Lecter’s younger incarnation in Hannibal Rising; and Mads Mikkelsen played him in the recent series Hannibal. And that’s not counting all the Lecter clones in other films and television shows.

The character may have been born in Thomas Harris’s novels, and he may have been brought to the screen by Brian Cox in 1986’s Manhunter, but it is Hopkins’ Silence of the Lambs interpretation that has been the template for dozens of other suave, sadistic, formidably brainy villains – and heroes, too. Watch the scene in which he identifies skin cream and perfume brands by sniffing the air, and you can see where Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes came from.

How many other Hollywood heroines – or heroes – are anything like Clarice?

But maybe it’s about time we grew out of our Lecter fixation. The psychotic psychiatrist is an extraordinary creation, written and performed with tremendous ghoulish panache, but ultimately he’s just another cartoon monster, with as much to do with reality as Count Dracula or Freddy Krueger. His brave, quick-witted but vulnerable young sparring partner, Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, is the more radical character in many ways. And she still seems radical after a quarter of a century.

One striking aspect of The Silence of the Lambs is the care taken by its director, Jonathan Demme, and its screenwriter, Ted Tally, to establish Starling and her well-ordered world. A trainee FBI agent, she pounds through the Bureau’s woodland assault course at the start of the film. Demme goes on to stage several long scenes which were shot at the actual FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, so that we can see Starling’s colleagues doing their paperwork, practising their shooting, drinking their coffee. Most films about law-enforcement agencies have maverick protagonists: agents who either break the rules (James Bond) or turn against their nefarious handlers (Jason Bourne). But Silence of the Lambs has a deep respect for the FBI’s methods, and so does Starling. She isn’t a rebel. She doesn’t rely on intuition or luck. She is a clever, dedicated professional who succeeds by doing everything by the book and with the encouragement of her superiors.  How many other Hollywood heroines – or heroes – are anything like her?

Boys’ club

When Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, sends Starling to meet Lecter in his cell at the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Demme moves us from her ascetic domain to his rococo one, from meticulous authenticity to nightmarish fantasy, from detective thriller to horror movie. In the process, Demme gives Lecter one of cinema’s all-time great introductions. The hospital’s slimy director, Dr Chilton (Anthony Heald), recounts the stomach-turning story of how Lecter ate a nurse’s tongue, and he and Starling descend from modern offices, via staircases and corridors, into a shadowy subterranean dungeon.

We’re terrified of Lecter even before we see him – and Hopkins exceeds our expectations with his statue-like stance, his reptilian winks, his teasing, sing-song voice. I’d defy anyone to get through his first scene without wishing the Plexiglass sheet between him and Starling was several inches thicker. 

Silence of the Lambs is a film about what it’s like for women to be stared at by men

Lecter is so electrifying, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook what a preening, immature bore he soon reveals himself to be. He is, of course, a snob who wants everyone to know about his taste in fine wines and expensive shoes, but he also has the grubby one-track mind of an adolescent schoolboy trying to shock his teacher. At his initial meeting with Starling, he speculates about her upbringing, and “all those tedious, sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars”. At his second, he asks whether Crawford “wants you sexually”. At the third, he drools over the thought of her being abused by her mother’s cousin. “Did the rancher make you perform fellatio?” he leers. “Did he sodomise you?” And then when he speaks to a US senator whose daughter has been kidnapped by another serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), Lecter again turns into a cheeky schoolboy, ranting about the effects of breast-feeding on her nipples. He may not have seen a women in his eight years of incarceration, but that’s no excuse for his behaving like a tabloid gossip columnist.

Role model

Starling isn’t fazed. “That doesn’t interest me, Doctor,” she says in response to one of his prurient jibes, and she goes so far as to compare him to ‘Multiple’ Miggs, the madman in a neighbouring cell who flung semen at her. She makes a fair point. Lecter’s male chauvinism may surface in a more sophisticated form than his fellow inmate’s, but Demme and Tally leave us in no doubt that he has more in common with Miggs than he likes to think.

It might have been healthier for society if Foster’s dogged agent became as famous as Lecter

This lasciviousness isn’t confined to the asylum’s patients, either. The film keeps reiterating that, as a young woman trying to get on with her job, Starling has to put up with advances of various kinds from the men around her: the smarmy Dr Chilton, an entomologist she consults. (Refreshingly, she doesn’t become involved with any of them.) Demme also includes a remarkable number of shots of Starling jogging or walking, purely to show the heads turning as she passes. More than anything else, Silence of the Lambs is a film about what it’s like for women to be stared at by men. It’s no accident that Buffalo Bill got started as a serial killer by spying on his female neighbour, or that in his climactic showdown with Starling, he is watching her through night-vision goggles. Amazingly, Demme fashioned both a heart-stopping chiller and a militant feminist commentary on sexual harassment and the male gaze.

The most decent man in the film is Crawford, Starling’s boss, who isn’t trying to get his protegée into bed, despite what Lecter may imagine. But even he can slip into sexism. After they’ve been to examine the body of Buffalo Bill’s latest victim, Starling upbraids him for belittling her in front of the local sheriffs. “Cops look at you to see how to act,” she explains, as resolute with Crawford as she is with Lecter. “It matters.” The film then cuts to a shot of Starling striding through a natural history museum surrounded by dinosaur skeletons, the suggestion being that while Crawford may be progressive compared to most men, compared to her he is a dinosaur.

But that, as it turned out, was wishful thinking. Demme and his team may have hoped to usher in a new age of intelligent, independent, inspiring Hollywood heroines, but instead it was haughty homicidal maniacs who caught the public imagination. Misogynistic dinosaurs still roam the earth. As for Starling, she did turn up in the sequel, Hannibal, but she was treated so shabbily that Demme, Tally and Foster all turned the project down. In place of Foster in a tracksuit, she became Julianne Moore in a frontless evening dress, and instead of keeping her distance from Lecter, she was as enthralled by him as the rest of us are. What a waste. It’s obvious why Hopkins’ bloodthirsty gourmand became a Halloween staple, and why he topped the American Film Institute’s list of best-ever movie villains, but it might have been healthier for society if Foster’s dogged agent had taken off in the same way. Today, you can see versions of Hannibal Lecter every time you switch on the television. But there’s still only one Clarice Starling.

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