The Silence of the Lambs

Silence Lambs 01When a serial killer dumps the bodies of several young women into various rivers between Ohio and Pennsylvania, with parts of their bodies skinned, newspapers anoint the unknown assailant as “Buffalo Bill.”  The head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI recruits a beautiful young agent-trainee, who is earmarked for his division, to help him out by interviewing one of the most notorious serial killers of all: Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal.

The following review contains a detailed analysis of the plot, so be forewarned.

Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) recruits Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) for this job without telling her why: he wants to get Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to help them profile Buffalo Bill so they can catch the killer before he acts again.  Even before she can leave Quantico for Baltimore, they are already too late.  Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) lures young Catharine Martin (Brooke Smith) into his van and abducts her, putting her down in an empty well in his basement and forcing her to use lotion to soften her skin while his little toy poodle Precious looks on.  Sitting at a sewing machine, surrounded by rare moths, he sews his collected skin together.

Silence Lambs 03In Baltimore, Clarice meets Lecter’s prison psychiatrist, Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), who has taken to using subtle torture to try to make a name from Lecter, who was at one time himself a brilliant psychologist.  Given the antagonism between the two, she requests to see Lecter alone.  As she walks up the corridor to the special cell, one of the other inmates, Miggs, whispers obscene things to her.  In his cell, protected by glass, he is prohibited from contact with anything that might be used as a weapon or to escape, even pens, although he is allowed pencils to complete intricate drawings.  Clarice asks him about an especially detailed drawing of Venice and he remarks that it is his only way of having a view of the outside world.  Fascinated by her, he picks out her perfume and tries to get inside her mind without revealing anything of himself.  Frustrated, he dismisses her, but on the way out, Miggs throws a ball of come at her and this upsets Lecter who yells at her to come back.  He tells her to find an old patient of his, giving a few verbal hints and a fake name.

Clarice unravels his clues and follows them to a self storage garage outside Baltimore with an old car that contains a mannequin and a jar containing the head of Lecter’s former patient.  She revisits Lecter and he reveals that he did not kill the man, but that it is the world of a serial killer in the making.  Using a quid pro quo dialogue, he reveals bits and pieces while learning of Clarice’s youth, including the death of her father and her brief time on a sheep ranch in Montana staying with cousins afterward.

Another body is found and Clarice accompanies Crawford to examine the body.  Although he appears to be playing psychological games with her, Clarice stands up for herself and earns the fair treatment she deserves.  While examining the body, they find the pupa of moth wedged inside the girl’s mouth.  The investigation leads Clarice to university specialists who tell her that the pupa is a rare species of Asian moth.

Back in Quantico, she sees a television report that Senator Ruth Martin’s (Diane Baker) daughter has been kidnapped by Buffalo Bill.  Martin attempts to humanize her daughter to the killer by showing pictures of the girl growing up and referring to her over and over by her name: Catherine.  Oblivious to the broadcast, Bill continues to sew the skin of his victims together.

Silence Lambs 02Promising Lecter a transfer away from Dr. Chilton, Clarice tells him that if he can help them find Buffalo Bill, he will even be allowed some time on a beach.  Recording the conversation, Dr. Chilton checks with Senator Martin and discovers that the FBI has lied to Lecter and no such deal is in place.  He reveals this to his patient and brokers his own deal with Martin.  During his conversation with Hannibal, who is restricted with a straight jacket and face plate, Chilton leaves his pen lying in the office, then leaves Lecter to his assistant with the instruction to clean him up and get him ready for transfer.  In Memphis, Tennessee, Lecter is taken off the plane, but when Chilton goes to sign his release, he can no longer find his pen.  Lecter watches him anxiously until a guard offers a pen instead.

Introduced to the Senator, Lecter gives her false information as to the identity of Catherine’s abductor and is then escorted to a special cell on an isolated floor of the courthouse.  Clarice comes to see him, even though it is no longer her case, to try to find out why he gave the Senator false information and to keep trying to get the real killer’s name.  Playing quid pro quo again, he gets her to reveal that the reason she ran away from the ranch in Montana was that she was awakened by screaming because the spring lambs were being slaughtered.  Appalled, she opened the pen to let them go, but they wouldn’t leave, so she took one lamb and ran away, getting caught several miles from the ranch.  Lecter gets her to admit that she sometimes still has nightmares about the screaming of the lambs.  As Chilton and the officers escort her out, Lecter gives her back her case file and tells her that all she needs to know is there.  When the guards deliver Lecter his dinner, they handcuff him to the bars of his cage, but using components from Chilton’s pen, he unlocks his cuff and kills the two guards, cleverly making his escape.

Silence Lambs 04Piecing together bits of what Lecter has given her, she realizes that the killer might live close to the first victim because in the beginning these killers covet those who are nearby, that they see every day.  With this knowledge, she goes to visit the family of the first victim and stumbles upon the killer.  I won’t revel the ending, even though it is very exciting.

Only the third film to win Academy Awards in all the top five categories, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Adapted Screenplay, it is also the first horror film to be named Best Picture.  All five awards are richly deserved.

This 1991 film truly established Jonathan Demme as a master of the art of film directing and in The Silence of the Lambs he has created a masterpiece that even Alfred Hitchcock would have loved.  The airtight script by Ted Tally, based on the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, melds several genres in a stew that is absolutely compelling.  A friend of Harris, Tally’s first draft was accepted by Demme and the film went into production with very little revision.  It is virtually unheard of in the film industry for a script to be so well written is taken on a first draft basis.

Murder mystery, detective story, horror, and psychological drama all work together under Demme’s expert hand.  Running just under two hours, the story is so gripping that it is extremely difficult to pull oneself away.  The music by Howard Shore feels invisible, yet it is coldly calculated to lead the viewer steadily and deeply into the grisly scenario.  Shore said of his score, “I tried to write in a way that goes right into the fabric of the movie.”  Bullseye.

Demme’s use of close-ups in the intense dialogue between Starling and Lecter, especially with the camera moving ever so slowly in tighter and tighter, creates such a feeling of intimacy and gripping suspense as to make it palpable.  In addition, the movie is a prime example of brilliant editing, each scene cut perfectly for the story.

The acting is pure gold.  This is by far Jodie Foster’s best performance in a long and distinguished career and she earned her Oscar by imbuing Clarice Starling with such a rich and subtle layering of character that she was completely believable and utterly compelling.  Opposite her, Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal with such brilliance, both believably intelligent far beyond most people and yet eerily spooky in his madness, one moment perfect British manner, one moment biting someone’s nose off.  Whenever he is present, a scene is elevated to the deepest level of psychological complication.  Great acting!  The supporting cast all do their jobs, each actor invested in their little part of the tapestry.

I’ve now seen this movie six times and each time I still find every single moment of it to be utterly compelling.  It stands the test of time with no effort at all and must be considered deep within anyone’s list of the Top 100 films of all time.

Adults only, this is a must-see movie!!!

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The Big Sleep

The-Big-Sleep Bogart BacallThis 1946 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novel remains one of the best films ever made for a variety of reasons.

Start with Chandler’s novel, written in a unique voice and style, that delved into the underworld of big city vice, using dangerous and edgy behavior that were normally hidden from the public eye: pornography, promiscuity, and homosexuality. Phillip Marlowe stood out as a character.  He was mature, worldly, manly, direct in a way that even criminals found disarming.  Finally, you have a plot that wastes no time on deliberation or description.  It moves forward relentless, with a certainty that is not obvious until the reader finds himself breathless in wonder.

The film is directed by the brilliant Howard Hawks, who understood the story arc and knew he wanted to make a film that wasted no time. He hired the same writers who had fashioned his 1944 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, the great novelist William Faulkner and science fiction/crime wizard Leigh Brackett (one of the first women to break through into either genre) and told them to waste no time.  Unlike other screen adaptations, he wanted this one to leap directly from the page to the screen.  Working separately on different parts of the book, they finished the first screenplay in eight days.

Private eye Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called to the mansion of wealthy retired General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). With two wealthy, bored daughters who move in a racy crowd, the old man finds himself blackmailed with the gambling debts of his youngest girl, Carmen (Martha Vickers).  Sternwood’s former detective, Sean Regan, an old acquaintance of Marlowe’s, has disappeared.  Before leaving, Sternwood’s older daughter, Mrs. Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) asks him if he has been hired to find Sean Regan, who had been seriously interested in Carmen, but he won’t tell her anything, but the wisecracking and banter between them creates a sexual tension that is palpable.

Marlowe begins by investigating the man who holds the gambling debts, a rare bookstore owner named Geiger, but he discovers the man’s assistant, Agnes Lowzier (Sonia Darrin) knows nothing about rare books and she stonewalls him on her boss. Hiding out in a rival bookstore across the street, he spends a rainy afternoon with the sexy proprietress (Dorothy Malone) before following Geiger home.  Waiting in the car, he hears gunshots, sees a car roaring away, and then finds Carmen inside, high as a kite, with Geiger’s body on the floor before her.  He finds a camera hidden inside a statue, but the film is missing.  Looking around, he finds Geiger’s notebook, filled with names and unreadable ceiphers.  Taking the book, he returns Carmen to the Sternwoods and finds that Mrs. Rutledge has no answers.

An old friend, Police Detective Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey) brings Marlowe along when they fish a car out of the ocean just off a local pier. It belongs to the Sternwoods and the driver turns out to be a former Sternwood chauffer who had also been in love with Carmen.  It has been made to look like a suicide, but the driver had been killed before the car was driven off the pier.

Mrs. Rutledge appears at Marlowe’s office the next morning with scandalous photos of Carmen and a new blackmail demand from a small time gambler named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt). She can get the money through her friend, gangster Eddie Mars (John Ridgely).  Marlowe says he will wait for her call that night before the $5,000 in blackmail money will be paid.  During the day, he tails Brody to his apartment.  That night, Mrs. Rutledge puts him off, but on a hunch, he goes to Brody’s and finds not only Agnes, but Mrs. Rutledge as well.  Although held at gunpoint, he puts together the sequence of events as he understands them.  The chauffer had actually killed Geiger and taken the photos, but Brody stopped him and confiscated them to bribe the Sternwoods, which he had done before.  Marlowe suspects that Brody killed the chauffer, but Brody maintains his innocence and that killing remains unsolved.  Carmen shows up with a gun, demanding the photos.  Marlowe easily disarms all of them, but before he can get more information from Brody the man is shot through the door.

It is a complicated and twisting plot, but it moves forward relentlessly. The smart, sharp dialogue crisply moves the story along and renders it secondary really to the underplot: the growing relationship between Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge.

When Hawks directed To Have and Have Not, he knew he’d found the ideal screen couple in Bogart and Bacall, so he was determined to reunite them for this movie.  By that time, their off-screen romance was big news in Hollywood and the pairing was natural.  With a great script and an excellent cast, Hawks shot the film in 1944, but it was kept on the shelf for two more years, partly because Warner Bros. was working feverishly to release all of their wartime films before World War II was over and partly because there were problems with Bacall.  After the huge hit with To Have and Have Not, she was considered a hot property, but her follow-up film, Confidential Agent, was a flop and she’d been widely panned in reviews.  Her agent, Charles K. Feldman, wrote a letter to Jack L. Warner, asking that several scenes in The Big Sleep be re-shot and the film re-edited to take advantage of Bogart and Bacall’s screen chemistry.  Warner agreed and the two actors were called in to film additional scenes, including the now famous scene in the restaurant that is full of sexual innuendo.

The Big Sleep Martha Vickersbig-sleep-dorothy-malone-humphrey-bogart-toastingbig sleep_cab-driver

One thing that becomes apparent right from the beginning of this movie is that beautiful young women are used in abundance to help create a strong feeling of free sexuality. It begins when Marlowe arrives at the Sternwood residence and the gorgeous Carmen walks in wearing a really short skirt and throws herself into his arms.  Then, you meet Mrs. Rutledge and Lauren Bacall shines as a young urbanite living life on the edge.  It continues with the girl at Acme Books, played by Dorothy Malone, who unpins her hair and closes the store to spend an afternoon drinking rye whiskey with Marlowe.  Then there is the female taxi driver that Marlowe rides with who gives him her card and tells him to call her at night when she’s not working.

In the pivotal scene between Bogart and Bacall that was re-shot, the two of them are talking about having a relationship in terms of horse racing. She wonders just how far he will go and he replies that it depends on her.  Is she willing “to go all the way?”  This tightly wrapped sensuality, contrasted against the violence, the mystery of not knowing exactly what is happening in a plot that moves forward darkly, relentlessly creates a movie that almost impossible to stop watching.  It moves that way right to the end, when we finally sense that Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge will be able to consummate their smoldering desires.

Shot in beautiful black and white, the film has been restored to allow modern viewers to see it as released in 1946. The DVD also includes a documentary on the two versions of the movie, showing scenes that were cut and added, so viewers can see how much the film was improved by the re-shoot.

It is every bit as strong and engaging today as when it was first released and that is one reason it will always be considered a classic, perhaps the very finest example of film noir and one of the best movies ever made.

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

inherent viceI am not a huge fan of Thomas Pynchon, but I have a friend who is quite devoted.  Prior to this book, I had only read Gravity’s Rainbow.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, but was not motivated to read other books by Pynchon.  However, earlier this year, my friend loaned me his copy of Inherent Vice, explaining that it was like Raymond Chandler on acid and I couldn’t resist giving it a try.  Later, reading the review from The New Yorker, which extensively quotes Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder”, I came to understand how much my friend’s explanation made sense.

Others may dwell on the plot, but I would prefer to allow readers walk into it a little blind, so that the book may be a treat. What impressed me the most was the style of writing.  This is a comedy–and for me it was a laugh-out-loud comedy.  In terms of style, I thought Inherent Vice more closely resembled what you would get if you attempted to take some Zap Comix and novelize them.  Yes, Doc Sportello is a private eye, but he is a gumshoe who is permanently stoned.  His adventures involve characters who appear to be permanently tripping.  The “serious” characters are actually full-blown cartoons.  When a house full of surfer band hangers-on turn into zombies and chase Doc and his friends in the Woody from Hell, you can’t tell if it is really happening or if Doc is just tripping, but it is a hilarious sequence.

The book captures the Southern California of the early 1970’s very accurately, populating it with a hilarious beach crowd, throwing in bimbos, policemen on steroids, surfers, lawyers, real estate developers and gonzo bums.  The book could have very easily been a collaboration with R. Crumb.

If you read this book and understand it as a comedy and I think that you will completely enjoy it.