Celebrating the Least Influential Element of the Very Influential ‘Silence of the Lambs’

The Silence of the Lambs, which hit theaters 25 years ago Sunday, was one of the most influential films in recent memory – you can see its bloody fingerprints on pretty much every serial killer thriller that followed, on film and television, good (Seven, Zodiac), bad (Jennifer 8, Hannibal Rising), and indifferent (Copycat, The Bone Collector). But much of its success was unpredicted, and unprecedented; it’s one of only three films to win the “Big Five” Academy Awards of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress, and despite the Academy’s notoriously short memory, that sweep came a full year after its theatrical release. (As the recent anniversary of Taxi Driver reminded us, there was once a time when studios would release serious movies for grown-ups year ‘round, rather than just in the traffic-jammed fall.) What’s more, Anthony Hopkins won his Best Actor prize for less than 20 minutes of screen time (but please do go on about the recent scourge of category fraud). Yet Lambs’ most interesting innovation was director Jonathon Demme’s groundbreaking use of the subjective camera – in a way that has, oddly, seldom been replicated or even attempted since.

Subjective camera is nothing new; throughout the history of cinema (and particularly in the canon of thrillers and horror), directors have used point-of-view to show us what a character sees, and how and when they see it. So the innovation is not how Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto use their camera to show us what protagonist Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is seeing – although there is plenty of that, with the camera taking on her perspective in a Quantico fight training session, after she shoos the deputies from the autopsy room, as she looks down on the bug experts playing chess, as she discovers the story of Buffalo Bill’s latest victim on a student lounge television.

Such moments – usually bracketed by reverses of Clarice looking, or reacting to what she’s looking at – are common cinematic language. But the most interesting of these shots go a step further, and propel us into Demme’s primary flourish. When she surveys the holding area outside the block of maximum security cells that house Dr. Lecter, the filmmakers end a full 360-degree pan around the room by landing on orderly Barney (Frankie Faison), who addresses her by speaking directly into Fujimoto’s lens. Her rough, jangly POV shot down that terrifying hallway, facing forward then glancing to the side, again lands on another person (Lecter this time, standing at attention in his cell), who speaks straight into camera. And continues to.

When most filmmakers shoot one-on-one dialogue scenes, they either frame their subjects looking slightly off-camera (as though the other character is just out of frame), or they place the camera over the other party’s shoulder, making the speaker’s focus even clearer. What Demme does, in scene after scene of Silence of the Lambs, is drop those distancing devices and place his camera directly in the middle of the conversation: his characters/actors speak straight into camera, as though it is the other actor, and he reverses to show the other actor doing the same. It’s initially a jarring effect, simply by virtue of unfamiliarity; we’re used to off-camera eyelines and over-the-shoulder shots, so it’s unnerving for a filmmaker to flip the script.

But it’s never done arbitrarily, or even immediately. In several scenes – Clarice’s first sit-down with boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), for example, or her analysis of the case files late in the film with classmate Ardelia (Kasi Lemmons) – we begin in conventional compositions, over-the-shoulders and two-shots, only moving in to straight-on close-ups once the characters have made intellectual or emotional connections.

This holds especially true in the first of the four Starling/Lecter duets, in which director manipulates the characters’ emotional proximity like an orchestra conductor: after the introductory image of Lecter, the scene is framed in medium-wide over-the-shoulders, until Lecter demands that Starling come “Closer, please,” after which we’re moved into a straight-on close-up, followed by his firmer “Closer,” and they both step forward from that close-up into extreme close-up. Both speak directly into camera, but we pop back into over-the-shoulders when Lecter realizes Starling is a mere “trainee,” and don’t return to straight-on close-ups until his questions about Miggs (he’s engaged again), yet after he bristles at her clumsy segue into the questionnaire, Fujimoto’s camera pulls back, and off axis. And on it goes, in and out of the direct engagement with camera (and thus, with each other), no longer making eye contact during his vicious “poor white trash” speech or her shaken response, where both eyelines are out of frame. Throughout this and all of their interactions, Demme’s compositions follow closely the beats of their conversation, and thus their relationship.

Their second duet follows a similar orchestration, in no small part because they cannot see each other at its outset — Lecter’s cell is darkened, punishment for his treatment of next-door neighbor Miggs, and he is seen from Clarice’s perspective as she peers unsuccessfully (almost frantically) into his darkness. The first half of the scene, then, is shot in complimentary, slightly elevated off-angles (an almost Kubrickian composition), and the dialogue matches; they circle each other here, as he dangles his knowledge of Buffalo Bill’s identity and tries to bait her with lurid questions about Director Crawford. Then the lights fire up, and Demme moves back into the straight-to-camera close-ups as they talk more candidly, and float the bargain (“I’ll help you catch him, Clarice”) that kick-starts the narrative.

Duet number three is the most intricate, and most interesting. Demme starts in a two-shot before taking on Lecter’s perspective as Clarice describes the (fictional) island they’ll allow him to visit as part of the trade for information, even following his gaze down to the map against the glass of his cell. The camera reverses as Lecter proposes the “quid pro quo,” but when the impromptu therapy session behinds, he’s looking away from her, and she’s looking at the back of his head. He turns back to her (and back to straight-on close-ups) when they discuss the case – and then away again when they return to her past, as if that is all too personal, giving her some distance, so that he doesn’t look her in the eye as she recalls those memories (though we do).

For their fourth and final duet, Demme gets them into camera right away, with no warm-up. From her entrance into the elaborately staged caging area at the county courthouse, circling Lecter and landing on him (“People will say we’re in love”), they’re straight into a probing conversation, first in mediums, then in close-ups, pushing in on Lecter as he pushes her to tell the story that gives the film its title, then pushing in on her as she tells it, the framing so tight that the edges of their faces are outside the edges of the frame. And that eye-to-eye contact, with the viewer as the middle man, continues up to and including their farewell, as she is dragged from the room.

In that scene, Lecter asks a question that plays like a passkey to unlocking the picture’s visual style: “Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek the things you want?” Throughout the film, Demme is constantly making us aware of people looking at Clarice: he lingers on the FBI instructor watching her go to Crawford in the first scene, the two men outside Crawford’s office shortly thereafter, the deputies eyeballing her when Crawford goes to talk privately with the sheriff, the way Chilton leers at her in their first interactions. We’re more aware of people looking at her because we see so much of the story through her eyes, and see her so often through the eyes of others (especially Lecter).

But Demme takes other visual cues from Lecter’s dialogue; after he suggests Crawford is physically attracted to Clarice, they’re next seen in a low angle medium-wide in the back of a small plane, the framing and proximity goosed by the notion Lecter’s put in her head (as is another two-shot in the car, after the autopsy). And that’s the power of that character; before she’s ever met him, Crawford warns, “Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head,” yet the visual strategy places all of us there, for most of the movie.

Yet the straight-on close-up isn’t used in every dialogue scene – note how, in particular, Demme uses conventional coverage for Lecter’s interaction with Senator Martin. It’s a purely transactional conversation, and thus missing the intimacy that the straight-on close-up requires. Such intimacy is not necessarily borne of familiarity – it’s used in Starling’s conversations with Frederica Bimmel’s father and best friend, but they’re both open and honest, and Starling reciprocates – or even comfort. In their first scene at his desk, Dr. Chilton attempts to create intimacy, but is rebuffed; Buffalo Bill’s scenes with Catherine, from the top and bottom of the well, are by necessity medium-wides to wides, but straight to camera nonetheless, conveying their proximity and intimacy, unwanted though it may be.

Which brings us to the most chilling and effective use of first-person camera in Silence of the Lambs, and the culmination of its use throughout the picture: the climactic face-off of Starling and Buffalo Bill. The latter initially has to elbow his way in; when they speak at his door, Bill is shot directly into camera, but Starling is seen over his shoulder. Her eyeline doesn’t move into camera until she goes into his home, as mediums of her looking the room over are intercut with close-ups of what she sees, and then cut back to close-ups of her shaken face.

The unbearable tension of this sequence, which retains its considerable impact after all these years, is rooted directly in how the story has been visually told – specifically, the degree to which Demme has worked, for the two previous hours, to put us in his protagonist’s shoes. And that’s why it’s so terrifying when he shifts from her point of view to Bill’s, behind those night vision goggles, seeing though the darkness she can’t penetrate. The “killer’s POV” framing is, again, old hat (with the edges of the frame blacked out to approximate his goggles, this shot specifically recalls the iconic opening of Halloween), but when it’s placed at the end of a story where we’ve so often seen Starling through the eyes of a psychopath who wouldn’t kill her, it’s especially disturbing to see her through the eyes of one who would – and, as he raises first his hand and then his pistol, seems as though he’s about to.

Strangely enough, considering how deftly it’s deployed and how effectively it lands in Silence, the straight-to-camera close-up never really caught on in narrative cinema, post-1991; Demme continued to use it in the films that followed, though less with each passing picture, and has dispensed with it altogether in recent efforts like Rachel Getting Married and Ricki and the Flash. (About the only filmmaker who took up the mantel is documentarian Errol Morris, whose “Interrotron” set-up allows him to make eye contact with his interview subjects “through” a camera they look directly into.) Maybe it was simply too much of a departure for other filmmakers, or too readily identified with Demme. Or maybe, like so many other things, everyone decided they simply couldn’t top The Silence of the Lambs.

The Silence of the Lambs is available to stream via Amazon Video, iTunes, and other VOD providers.