What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
“Closer, please. Closer!”
—Hannibal Lecter, The Silence Of The Lambs
When was the last time you watched The Silence Of The Lambs? It’s a terrifically accomplished potboiler, very different from the other interesting Thomas Harris adaptations (Michael Mann’s Manhunter, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal) in that it’s specifically about evil. Manhunter’s white-clad Hannibal Lecter—or Lecktor, as it’s spelled in that film—might just as well be a figment of Will Graham’s obsession. When Lecter, with his canine sense of smell, mocks Graham’s aftershave (an exchange taken verbatim from Harris’ novel Red Dragon), doesn’t it sound like he already exists in the back of Graham’s head? And how perfect is it that he’s kept in a cage? Hannibal’s version of the genius serial killer, in contrast, is a Lucifer figure fascinated by the humanity he tries to corrupt. But the Lambs Lecter is a Pandora’s box of absolute evil opened in the hope of thwarting a lesser evil, Buffalo Bill. It’s all very Fritz Lang. So much of what makes the movie so rich is coded in: its evocative but subdued expressionist flourishes, the fairy-tale figures of Howard Shore’s eerie score, the conflict between pathology and the irrational, and, of course, all that stuff about eyes.
This is the most discussed aspect of the late Jonathan Demme’s direction of the film: all those eerie, dead-center close-ups of faces, highly unusual by Hollywood standards, in which director of photography Tak Fujimoto uses a hot, prominent eye light to add a touch of wet, white glimmer to the actors’ pupils. Fujimoto, who shot most of Demme’s best films, is to my mind one of the great unsung American cinematographers, and the eye light is one of his signature tricks. (He also uses it in the films he shot for M. Night Shyamalan, most prominently in Signs.) It has the effect of drawing attention to the eyes while making the gaze itself appear somewhat unreal. And there’s that very important feature of the Lambs close-ups: While most characters (including Clarice Starling, the heroine played by Jodie Foster) fix their stare on a point just above or behind the camera, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter stares directly into it. This, in turn, forms a strange rhyme with the green-tinted night-vision shots, which take on the point of view of Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill.
The aforementioned Fritz Lang, whose own films were fascinated by the ingenuity and intractability of evil, have a thing for close-ups of hands. In the case of his own serial killer classic, M, a hand even plays an important role in the plot. M is a hand movie par excellence: pointing, snatching, trembling. You really have to appreciate how much Peter Lorre does with his fingers to indicate the turmoil of his character, Hans Beckert, the child-killer who can’t control himself. When the police first try to deduce Beckert’s identity, what do they use? Fingerprints and handwriting. In The Silence Of The Lambs, a movie that is often very literally reflecting some kind of gaze, catching Buffalo Bill involves learning where to look. And true evil—represented by Lecter, who is introduced in his subterranean lair, looking out through a plastic wall that may as well be a screen—is always waiting and staring. You may recall that besides his sense of smell, Lecter has another unusual talent: a photographic memory.