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 Graduate

Graduate 01“Hello, darkness, my old friend… I’ve come to talk with you again…”

Packed like a factory assembled doll among a throng of passengers, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) sits anonymously on an airplane about to land in Los Angeles.  As “The Sound of Silence” plays, he steps up onto a conveyor belt, his figure black against a white wall, as if he were on an assembly line about to be delivered for final packaging.

A recent graduate of a prestigious east coast college, Ben has no idea what to do with himself, no idea what he wants to do with himself.  He feels lost, adrift.  His parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) hold a party to celebrate his graduation, but it is attended only by their wealthy friends, not one person his own age.  Lying in bed, in front of his fish tank, he stares blankly out into the world.  Forced to attend the party, he searches for some escape, but is cornered by a man who has only one word for him: plastics.

Retreating to his room, his privacy is broken by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s law partner (Murray Hamilton), who nearly forces him to give her a ride home.  Getting him inside on the pretense that she needs the lights on, she fixes him a drink.  Ben figures out that she’s trying to seduce him and attempts to escape, but can’t seem to get away.  Mrs. Robinson then invites him up into the bedroom of her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) to see the girl’s portrait.  She is currently away at school attending the University of California-Berkeley.  Mrs. Robinson begins to undress in spite of Ben’s obvious nervousness, but is interrupted by the return of Mr. Robinson.  Ben quickly runs downstairs and sits with his drink when the man comes in the front door.  Mr. Robinson encourages him to date Elaine when she returns to L.A. on a school break.

Graduate 02At her request, Ben calls up Mrs. Robinson and she agrees to meet him at a hotel.  Overcome with nervousness, Ben goes through with his tryst and begins a summer of laziness, lying around in the pool during the day and meeting Mrs. Robinson for sex at night.  Gradually, he begins to want more from their relationship and forces Mrs. Robinson to begin talking about herself.  When the conversation comes around to Elaine, she forbids him to date her.  Ben rebels and they each say hurtful things, but when Mrs. Robinson begins to dress to leave, he apologizes and they continue their sexual meetings.

After Elaine has returned, Ben’s parents force him into dating her, over Mrs. Robinson’s objections.  In order to make it a horrible date, Ben takes Elaine to a strip joint and the stripper on stage twirls her pasties directly over Elaine’s head as silent tears fall from her eyes.  Humiliated, Elaine runs out and Ben follows her, feeling horrible about what he’s done.  He catches her, apologizes profusely, and they go out for burgers.  Whether through guilt or genuine attraction, Ben falls for Elaine and she seems to be falling for him.  He makes another date with her, but when he pulls up at the house, in a rainy downpour, Mrs. Robinson gets into his car instead, once again forbidding him to see Elaine, this time with the threat that she will tell Elaine about their affair.

Graduate 03Ben runs back to the house and reveals to Elaine that he has been having an affair with her mother.  Appalled, she throws him out and tells him she never wants to see him again.  Ben watches from a distance as she returns to Berkeley, then he follows her there and finally gets her to admit that she loves him, too.  Mr. Robinson shows up at Ben’s apartment and forbids the relationship, leading Elaine to leave school and marry her boyfriend.  Frantically driving back and forth, Ben finds the church, but he can’t get in.  Running up to the second story, he looks down as the wedding vows are concluded and begins to scream her name.  Seeing the vicious faces of those around her, Elaine screams back Ben’s name.  Using a cross to fight off the angry wedding party, Ben and Elaine escape, getting into the back of a bus and riding away.

The Graduate, released in 1967, still stands today as one of the best films ever made.  The screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Charles Webb.  Produced by Lawrence Turman and directed by Mike Nichols, the movie was delayed for several years because they simply could not find the right cast.  Almost every big name in Hollywood was considered for every major role, but no one seemed to fit.

Actresses considered for the role of Elaine included Patty Duke, Faye Dunaway, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Raquel Welch, Joan Collins, Carroll Baker, Candice Bergen, Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda, Ann-Margret, Elizabeth Ashley, Carol Lynley, Sue Lyon, Yvette Mimieux, Suzanne Pleshette, Lee Remick, Pamela Tiffin, Julie Christie, and Tuesday Weld. 

Robert Osborne of TCM said, “Mike Nichols wanted Doris Day for Mrs. Robinson, Robert Redford for Benjamin Braddock, and Gene Hackman for Mr. Robinson.”

Other actresses considered for Mrs. Robinson included Jeanne Moreau, Joan Crawford, Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Patricia Neal, Geraldine Page, Claire Bloom, Angie Dickinson, Sophia Loren, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Susan Hayward, Anouk Aimee, Jennifer Jones, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Rosalind Russell, Simone Signoret, Jean Simmons, Lana Turner, Eleanor Parker, Anne Baxter, Shelley Winters, Angela Lansbury, Natalie Wood, and Ava Gardner.  All were either turned down, refused to appear nude, or were unimpressed with the part.  Anne Bancroft, an accomplished stage and screen actress, wife of director Mel Brooks, took the part even though she was only seven years older than Dustin Hoffman

Graduate 05Hoffman and Ross were both chosen as Ben and Elaine when they tested together.  He was a 29 year old New York actor who was virtually unknown outside the live theater, but Turman brought him to Los Angeles to test.  Even though he was very much against the type they wanted for Ben, Nichols liked him very much and gave him the role.

The Graduate was also Nichols’ first film, although he was very well known from his Broadway successes.  It is surprising that a stage director should create one of the best films ever made in his first effort.  Maybe the long wait while they searched for the right cast gave him the extra time to craft the film into the beauty that it became.  Every single shot is lovingly assembled and extraordinarily powerful.  Hitchcock had mastered the art of framing long before this film was made, but Nichols uses camera angles in an even more powerful way.  The most iconic shot in the film is, of course, the one that shows Ben framed behind Mrs. Robinson’s leg, sheathed in a black stocking, but it is only one of hundreds of nearly perfect shots.

The creative use of dark and light in a color film was nearly unprecedented at the time.  For example, there is a scene early in the seduction when Mrs. Robinson is sitting at the bar in her home and Ben nervously paces back and forth in front of her.  It is shot from behind Ben who appears only as a black silhouette moving with a kind of nervy relentlessness back and forth, revealing Mrs. Robinson sitting with one leg propped on a bar stool, allowing Ben a tantalizing view.

Mirror shots are used to extreme advantage, the most obvious one when Mrs. Robinson takes Ben to Elaine’s room to seduce him.  As he looks at the portrait of Elaine, Mrs. Robinson appears nude in the reflection off of the glass.  Brilliant!  Not only is it a visually stunning image, but it also points up the terrible situation that Ben will be in later when he has to choose between the mother and daughter.

The use of music and sound is also brilliant.  “The Sound of Silence” is such a perfect representation of Ben’s state of mind at the beginning of the movie that the simple image of Ben’s head framed against the aquarium as it plays tells a whole story without any dialogue whatsoever.  The other Paul Simon songs, performed by Simon and Garfunkel, are super appropriate and set the mood wherever they are used.  The song “Mrs. Robinson” was adapted by Paul Simon especially for the film and it went on to become a huge hit.  Quite often Nichols uses silence itself to punctuate that deep, dark mood that Ben brings into the movie, relieving it with the beautiful Paul Simon melodies.

The acting is all superb.  Dustin Hoffman is wonderful as Ben, creating all kinds of great little mannerisms that make him a complete person, not the least of which is the short falsetto “Humpf” that comes out when he is particularly nervous.  Anne Bancroft gives a great performance as Mrs. Robinson, terribly restrained, yet allowing the viewer to see how great her own boredom is and how much her affair with Ben means to her, despite the fact that it is exclusively sexual.  Although Katherine Ross’s part is not huge, she does a great deal with it, especially in the scene where Ben reveals he’s been having an affair with her mother.

In addition, the supporting roles are extremely well done, most especially William Daniels as Mr. Robinson.  The cast list isn’t dense, but there are also a large number of cameo appearances, including Buck Henry, Alice Ghostley, Elaine May, Mike Farrell, and Richard Dreyfuss.

In spite of Ben’s heavy attitude coming into the film, it is really a first rate comedy and also a feel-good movie.  Although it was made in 1967, the comedy isn’t dated at all.  In fact, it could have been made last year and still hold up to scrutiny.  The only real reference to the time it was made was when Ben gets a room in Berkeley, his landlord tells him that he won’t tolerate any “agitators.”  In places, the costumes or hairstyles may give away the time, but they are nearly invisible, unlike many other period movies where they are obvious.  It comes in at under two hours and it doesn’t feel long at all.  In fact, it moves really fast.

The only “error” I found in the movie is that when Ben is driving north to see Elaine in Berkeley, he crosses the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, which he wouldn’t have done without a specific purpose.  It doesn’t really make sense in an otherwise perfectly crafted movie.

All of the parts of this film work so harmoniously that it should stand the test of time going forward in the future.  Many other good films may be made, but I believe that The Graduate will remain one of the best films ever made.  It certainly makes my Top Ten.  Because of the adult situations, I will recommend it for mature viewers.

A brilliant, long-lasting movie with great comedy, great angst, and a feel-good ending!

Graduate 04

Torn Curtain

Torn Curtain 3Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 cold war thriller is unique among his films because it contains some of the best filmmaking since he moved to America and also some of the worst.  I will discuss the plot in detail, so there will be spoilers.

American physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) arrives in Copenhagen with his fiancée, colleague Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) to attend a conference.  Receiving a call that a book is waiting for him at a local book store, she picks it up for him.  Taking it into a toilet at the hotel, he reads a secret message telling him to “Contact π.”  His behavior disturbs Sarah and when she discovers he has changed his plans and will be flying to Stockholm, she decides to follow him, but he isn’t going to Stockholm, he’s actually boarding a plane for East Germany.  In a state of shock, she watches as he defects, stating to the press that he was disappointed that the United States shut down his missile program and he plans to develop an anti-missile system in Leipzig with Professor Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath) that will end the threat of nuclear war.  They have been shadowed by Professor Karl Manfred (Günter Strack) who arranged the defection.

Michael is angry that Sarah has followed him and repeatedly tells her that she should go back home while she can, but the East German government asks her to stay and work as Michael’s assistant.  Despite her disillusionment, Sarah decides that she loves Michael enough to stay and support his work.  At the time of the interview, he is informed by East German Security that he has been assigned a security watchdog, Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who is to follow him around and watch his actions.

The next morning, Michael leaves the hotel and hops a bus.  Gromek follows him on his motorcycle to a museum where Michael tries to lose him.  Going out the back, he hails a cab and gives the driver an address.  At a farm outside Berlin, Michael has the cab wait while he meets an American agent (Mort Mills) who is under cover as a farmer.  It turns out that π is an escape network and Michael is going to attempt to get information from Professor Lindt that will aid the United States in their own anti-missile system.  Before he can leave, Gromek shows up.  Seeing the π symbol in the dirt where Michael had drawn it for the farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell), Gromek interrogates him.  As Gromek attempts to call the authorities, the farmer’s wife throws a pot at him and Michael attacks him.  As they fight, she stabs Gromek with a knife and they wrestle his head into an oven.  She turns on the gas and he dies.  Indicating that she will bury both Gromek and his motorcycle, Michael leaves.

In Leipzig, Michael is about to be debriefed for Professor Lindt when state security bursts in with the news that Gromek is missing, so they decide to debrief Sarah first, but when confronted with revealing American secrets, she can’t go through with it.  Speaking to her alone, Michael finally reveals to her that he is on a spy mission and gets her cooperation.  The cab driver (Peter Lorre, Jr.) sees the missing Gromek’s picture in the paper and comes forward, telling the police that he drove Michael to the farm.  When they arrive, the farmers are gone, so they commence digging and find the motorcycle 

After Michael gets the formula he is looking for, he and Sarah begin a convoluted escape route that includes assistance from a university clinic physician Dr. Koska (Gisela Fischer) and another man from π (David Opatoshu), eventually landing them back in East Berlin.  Their instructions call for them to go to a  post office and along the way the meet exiled Polish countess Kuchinska (Lila Kedrova) who wants them to sponsor her to the United States.  Their escape plan calls for them to go the ballet where state security hunts them down.  Michael’s only resort is to yell “Fire!”  During the ensuing chaos, they are taken backstage and put in ballet trunks for shipment to Sweden, the ballet’s next stop.  As the trunks are about to be offloaded, the lead ballerina (Tamara Toumanova) blows the whistle and a guard shoots up the trunks, but they are the wrong trunks.  Michael, Sarah, and their rescuer have jumped into the water and swim safely to shore.

Normally, Hitchcock’s scripts have been worked over for many months, if not years in advance of shooting.  In this case, the script by Brian Moore was not ready.  Both Hitchcock and Newman knew it and Hitch sought additional help with the dialogue, but the studio had foisted Julie Andrews on him as his leading lady and she had a very short window to film the movie, so they went ahead with a faulty script.  It did not help that longtime Hitchcock collaborators Robert Burks (cinematography) and George Tomasini (editing) had both passed away, so he was working with people he wasn’t completely certain of.  He also had a falling out with his longtime musical director, Bernard Herrmann, and even though Herrmann scored part of the film, Hitch fired him and had John Addison complete the work.

The second problem in the film is that the climax occurs when Michael finally gets the formula from Professor Lindt, but the film continues on for nearly forty-five minutes after that as the elaborate escape, done with Hitchcock’s usual sense of suspense, plays out.  It simply goes on too long and it should have been edited down to fifteen or twenty minutes tops.  It makes the movie drag exactly where you don’t want a movie to drag.  At two hours and eight minutes, the film feels like it goes on forever.

That being said, the movie also contains the best scene Hitchcock ever filmed: the killing of Wolfgang Kieling by Paul Newman and Carolyn Conwell. 

Although both Herrmann and Addison had written music to accompany the gritty scene, in the end Hitchcock opted to only use the natural sound of the three people in their life and death struggle.  We hear grunts, scuffling, and very little dialogue as the two men struggle with each other.  Hitchcock intercut the scene as montage, so the viewer gets glimpses of arms and hands, short close-ups of faces, and two-shots of the struggle.  Almost forgotten is Conwell’s terrific contribution to the scene.  They can’t make any loud noises because the cab driver is still waiting outside, so they can’t shoot him.  She tries to stab him, but in the struggle the knife only goes into his shoulder, the blade breaking off and blood soaking his shirt.  She takes a shovel and bangs his knees to make him go to the floor.  Kieling gets both of his hands around Newman’s neck and tries to choke him, but Conwell begins to drag them across the floor, her face sweaty and creased with the exertion.  In the final moments, Hitchcock shoots the scene from above the oven and we see Newman and Conwell gasping for air as Kieling’s hands go through the paroxysm of death, fighting against the gas and gradually giving in, eventually resting with no movement at all.  If feels like an absolutely real death.

The reactions of Newman and Conwell afterward is just as important. As they regain their breath, the viewer can see the emotional scars of the act of killing: the trembling, the sweat, the redness of their faces, the disbelief that they have just taken a man’s life. 

It is overpowering cinema. 

When I first saw this movie in a theater in 1966, that scene haunted me and I have never forgotten it.  I think it has a much greater impact than the shower killing in Psycho, which is generally considered Hitchcock’s best murder scene.

There are other wonderful things in the movie to delight film students and Hitchcock fans.  The scene in the museum, for example, where Hitchcock never shows Gromek following Michael, but we hear the echo of the pursuer’s footsteps.  The tension on the bus on the escape back to East Berlin is almost unbearable.

However, even with all of the wonderful techniques of Hitchcock at his best, the film as a whole has too many problems to be considered one of his best.  A flabby script, lenient editing, and way too much time at the end all work together to sink this movie.  In fact, in the canon of films that Hitchcock made in America, it must be considered one of his least successful.