For the third in our series about scenes that we love to see, I wanted to gain a whole new perspective and invited my wife Lydia to discuss her favorite scene. Lydia, as well as being a huge movie fan and CEO of our company, has a background in nursing and a keen interest in mental health and psychology. What better mental health case study than Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Scenes That Left a Mark – Lydia Hurlbut
Without a shadow of a doubt, the scene which knits together all of my tropes comes from Jonathan Demme’s “Silence Of The Lambs”. As a person who is fascinated by the mind and exploring how people think, this movie made me want to go down the criminal psychology route. The absolutely terrifying way in which Hannibal Lecter is introduced to the audience is a masterclass in visual storytelling by writer Ted Tally and Director Jonathan Demme.
Something else that inspires me about this scene is Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling. As a female starting out in the FBI, Starling is obviously going to be under an intense amount of pressure. Not just that, she’s a young FBI trainee tasked with interviewing the most dangerous, most revered serial killer in the world in order to find out information that will stop a deranged killer from taking more lives. That’s a tall order!
In this scene, we notice the sexual suggestiveness of Dr. Chilton when he accompanies her to see Lecter.
Clarice’s response leaves us in no doubt about how strong, independent and intellectual she is as opposed to the lecherous Chilton.
This is vital for the next part of the scene where she meets Hannibal. We have seen how smart and capable of holding her own she is in preparation for meeting a diabolically brilliant criminal mastermind.
It is important to remember one thing here; until this scene, we have only heard of Hannibal, only been told about this monster, “cannibal” by FBI agent Jack Crawford, then by the head of the asylum, Chilton who gives a chilling story followed by a photograph, then finally by the orderly, Barney, who tells her “not to get near the glass” and to “keep to the right”. Moreover, with Lecter being kept in the final cell “beyond all of the others,” it adds that extra element of anticipation and tension before Clarice (and us) meet with “Hannibal the Cannibal.”
Lecter’s reputation is such that even we are absolutely terrified to encounter him before he has graced the screen. And it is heightened by the walk to his cell… shot, by Demme in Clarice’s POV so we are experiencing it as she does.
The introduction of these gruesome, vile beings as she walks to the cell only helps to add fuel to the fire; Who is this monster that is spoken of as worse than the ones that we have just passed? And before we come to what is, arguably, the most famous moment in movie history, it is important to revisit the script to see just how the writer had imagined it to look…
Now, when you see the shot, you’ll notice that Lecter is certainly not lounging on his bunk, is wearing a blue boiler suit and is standing in the centre of shot. What this does is, catches us off guard. Lecter just appears in the center of the screen behind a panel with air holes like a . The decision to stand this way was suggested by Anthony Hopkins. He knew it would be unsettling for the viewer and it has become one of the most original and disconcerting moments in movie history.
Note the copy of Vogue on the bed – still staying somewhat true to Tally’s script
Here’s why Jonathan Demme is so phenomenal. The shots give us everything we need to know about who has the power in this conversation. We begin with over-the-shoulder shots of both characters flickering back-and-forth as their dialogue is short and shallow – sizing each other up. And then… Lecter does this…
And we, and Clarice, are broken! Demme moves in, “closer…clo-ser” and Clarice tries to hold the gaze, but eventually looks away. Hannibal has won.
Another reason why I am obsessed with this scene is the analysis that he conducts upon meeting her, just from her smell. Lecter uses the fact that he has been cooped up in a cell for most of his life as an advantage when taking in smells, observing, and psychoanalyzing people. He furthers this with his analysis of the way in which she interviews him showing that he is fully in control and the whole dance results in his withering put-down of her past before she leaves.
When Thomas Harris (the author of the novel), Tally, Demme, and Hopkins created Dr. Hannibal Lecter, it was nothing short of a masterpiece. They built him with an eye constantly on psychology. They crafted a character that would both intrigue, deceive, test, and petrify. Through the juxtaposition of Lecter and Starling, we are enthralled by their dialogue and the way that they verbally duel and yet have mutual respect for each other.
Most intriguingly, we don’t hate Lecter. It’s true! We actually perceive Chilton as the demagogue, as the one to hate. That is why, at the end of the movie, when he tries to run and hide, we get a sense of satisfaction when Lecter follows him placing a fedora on his head that he is going to be killed and even eaten!
This movie is as much a psychological evaluation of us as it is of the characters and that is why it is the movie that made its mark on me.