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Home » Culture and Criticism

The Poppy-Fields Movie Couch Of Fame: The Silence Of The Lambs

Submitted by on July 20, 2015 – 11:09 AM22 Comments
Photo: MGM

Photo: MGM

Butterflies aren't always free.

Kristin's back with a '90s cable staple. Hit it, KR.

I think Silence of the Lambs belongs on this list, and I realize it's a strange entry, in a way. Not exactly an uplifting movie in the traditional sense, and yet it is — it's about a young woman finding out who she is in a world of men who make assumptions that she has to overcome; I think Clarice Starling is a very modern and totally admirable movie heroine.

There's some controversy about the portrayal of Buffalo Bill as a transsexual, and the film does only a passable job of making it clear this guy was headed for murder long before he decided to make himself a girl suit. The book has more detail, but I honestly think in retrospect it's clear his application for a sex change wasn't really this guy's defining characteristic, and I'm not entirely sure movies need to pander to the lowest common denominator on these issues. In other words, people who are prejudiced against transsexuals or drag queens or gays or whomever were likely already pretty entrenched in those opinions and it's not this movie's job to change that. But I get why some might find it a bit offensive, particularly because it's a little bit dated in its vocabulary on the topic.

Otherwise, though, I think it's fairly timeless despite its age. Pay phones aside, anyway…

Below are the criteria as discussed, but I never fail to stop and watch this when it's on, and I've owned it forever and seen it a gabillion times. And yet. Thanks for the consideration!

  • lengthy? 118 minutes, but with time added for commercials, it gets up there.
  • familiar/frequent? I feel like A&E lived off that film for a long time, but I've seen it just about every place but Nickelodeon, lately on the more auteur channels too, like AMC and TMC, I think?
  • classic/award-winner? Hell, yeah — it won all the biggies in its time (almost 25 years ago, I AM SO OLD!) and was mega-popular to boot.
  • "Greetings, Professor Falken" (big payoff/long-shot victory a la WarGames)? I actually think there are three — both Catherine Martin and Clarice Starling outsmart the killer against seemingly insurmountable odds, and despite our better angels, let's face it — we root for Dr. Lecter over Dr. Chilton…having an old friend for dinner, indeedy do.
  • "Wanna have a catch?" (Pavlovian tear-jerk; anything with dads opens the ducts for this guy)? Depends — Clarice's flashbacks at the funeral home are pretty intense, and the way she turns on the accent to calm down and get rid of the local officers is touching, to me, as is the scene with Catherine cuddling the (not-at-all-broken) dog as she's being rescued. YMMV, though. I'm a weirdo, thus why this is a comfort movie for me.
  • quote-fest? God, has anyone wanted liver, fava beans, OR Chianti for the last 20+ years? Plus the aforementioned friend for dinner, and many, many more.
  • caper-ish or -adjacent camaraderie? Sort of, actually. Clarice and Dr. Lecter have an odd camaraderie during their conversations that casts them somewhat as colleagues, if not friends. Clarice's friend Ardelia is a good sounding board and friend, and I love the relationship between the two entomologists to boot.
  • "forget you, melon farmer" (you own it, but will still watch bowdlerized TV verzh) [see above]

Thanks, KR! Welcome back; well and efficiently argued.

This is a no-brainer yes vote for me. I get sucked into it every time. That may make us both weirdos — I also can't not watch Zodiac wherever it may appear — or it just means that sometimes a serial-killer-based film is also a well-built, magnetic film.

Still quoted nearly a quarter-century later; featuring a character who's still at the center of pop culture (okay, NBC booted Hannibal to Saturdays, but…NBC, enough said); won a ton of awards; fantastic sound design; still creates tension even though I've seen it dozens of times. I am on record as not thinking Jodie Foster is as gifted as conventional wisdom suggests, and the big scene with the screaming-lambs story is, I'm afraid, laughable in how overacted it is — but Hopkins is so discomfiting that it balances it out. And of course we root for Lecter over Chilton, because Anthony Heald is turning in a quintessentially Healdian/William Athertonian tin-slimepot performance.

I don't think we'll see much dissension here, but maybe the readers would…consider that rude. (Hee.) Let's find out!

[Update, 8/28/15: Looks like we're taking this thing back to Baltimore!]

The Poppy-Fields Movie Couch Of Fame is here. To nominate your own PFM, email bunting at tomatonation dot com with a rundown of the criteria and your argument for why it deserves a cushion. If I use your entry, free loot shall be thine.

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22 Comments »

  • scout1222 says:

    I could watch this movie forever and ever, so YES.

  • Sarah says:

    Yes, all day long.

    Heck, this is even one of my favorite movies for random ASMR chills triggers (mainly when Clarice is rifling through Frederika's belongings at her parents' house and when they are photographing the body, oh also when she's doing ever so dated research on microfilm…ah, ASMR is so weird and wonderful).

  • Cora says:

    Lord, how many times have we all been in a situation where the perfect thing to say was: "It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again" ?

    To Kristin's point about Clarice discovering herself, HELL YES, and it's because of Thomas Harris' writing. Clarice, Catherine, and Catherine's mother Senator Martin are all strong women, and portrayed deceptively simply as intelligent, strong, practical women with good creative ideas. I think that's why the movie has lasted this long. All women are scared out of their wits, and will freely admit it, but they don't stand there weeping for some dude to come save them. And the dudes? The important ones respect them. It's the doofuses (doofi?)that are disrespectful. I've always loved that particular subtle point. It's presented as a given that any man with a brain and good sense would respect them.

    I also agree with your point that while some people had a problem with a fake transsexual shown to be a violent killer, I think most people got it. You're right, it's explained in much greater detail in the book, in the conversation between the detective (name? The Scott Glenn character) and a clinic doctor. Again, respect for transsexuals and the problems they face is just kind of a given; the point is to find the violent fake one.

    Surely Jodie Foster's Oscar acceptance speech for this is online — go see it. She's gracious, but still drives it home.

  • cayenne says:

    OMG YES. Any time this is on, I park it and there goes my day. I still get freaked by the escape from the courthouse everysingledamntime.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I probably tell my husband to "take this THING back to Baltimore" at least once a day. The thing in question is a naughty feline and he's never been to Baltimore buuuut it still works!

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Scott Glenn is Jack Crawford. Lawrence Fishburne is playing him on Hannibal.

    I always loved Catherine and how she wasn't going down without a fight. Her cuddling Precious just GETS me–poor little puff dog, wasn't her fault she was owned by a nutter.

    I always felt for Ted Levine. He did a real bang up job as Jaime Gumm but has had to make up for it by playing NOTHING but cops for the twenty five years since.

    And weirdly enough, it's Hannibal who points out that Jaime isn't transsexual but is merely bumbling towards that in an effort to figure out what's "wrong" with him. I think that's why people like Hannibal–he doesn't go for the cheap shots and easy diagnoses like Chilton.

  • pomme de terre says:

    This movie is one of my all-time favorites, in part because it meets one of my personal Poppy Fields criteria: a great supporting cast. Anthony Heald! Frankie Faison! Brooke Smith! Dan Bulter! Chris Isaak turning up on the SWAT team!!

    And so quotable! I halfway wanted to go to UVA just to bust out Clarice's charm school line. And Lecter's crack about her cheap shoes is one of the all-time great cinematic burns.

  • Cat_slave says:

    Brr. That lotion-quote. Have you all heard that creepy song Lotion by Greenskeepers? It gets stuck in my head every time (I'm sacrificing myself for you by looking it up – or transmitting a mental virus. Your pick.)

    Scifi author John Scalzi recently re-blogged his review at the time, can be read on his blog here.

  • bristlesage says:

    Of course. Yes.

    "And how do we begin to covet?" is one we use, when someone looks up the same thing on Amazon for the seventeeth time.

    Also, I must admit to another crying moment, when Catherine is in the well and yelling at Bill and starts screaming about wanting her mommy.

    This exchange, though, is my favorite thing in the whole movie:

    Jack Crawford: Starling, when I told that sheriff we shouldn't talk in front of a woman, that really burned you, didn't it? It was just smoke, Starling. I had to get rid of him.
    Clarice Starling: It matters, Mr Crawford. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.
    Jack Crawford: Point taken.

    Hell yeah it matters, Clarice!

  • attica says:

    Ohhhh, Chris Isaak on the SWAT team. Ohhhh.

    I love the direction of this movie. The constant one-shot close-ups, which should be cheesy and ridick (Hi, Les Miz) are tense and awful/awesome. The pacing is crazy good.

    To the poppy fields! With the lotion! In the basket! With Chianti!

  • Liz says:

    LOVE this movie! And yeah, Ted Levine was incredible as Jaime. When I started watching the Bridge, I kind of kept expecting him to turn out to be the killer… Shivers!

  • I remember seeing this on opening night during a visit to NYC (back before I lived here), and what initially drew me towards being interested in the movie (and reading the novel first) wasn't the actors (though I had liked Foster in The Accused, I hadn't yet seen Taxi Driver, and had been notably unimpressed with The Hotel New Hampshire, I was only dimly aware of who Hopkins was, and while I had loved Glenn in Silverado, I hadn't seen anything of his since) or the director (I had liked, but didn't love, Something Wild and Married to the Mob), but that poster with the moth, and the title, both of which intrigued me. Anyway, even though I'm not a fan of serial killer movies, and can get a little squeamish in regards to horror movies, I loved the novel and I loved the movie, and it comes back to what people have said of how much of a feminist statement it turned out to be without being heavy-handed about it. In addition to the female characters mentioned already, Ardelia Mapp (Clarice's roommate) also deserves mention. She's the one who is Clarice's closest confidante (next to Lecter, of course), and she's the one who helps her puzzle out the clues.

    Another thing I like about the movie is how it avoids cheap sensationalism when it comes to violence, so that it seems more violent than it actually is. Yes, when Lecter kills the two guards, that's pretty violent, but imagine how much more gratuitous it could have been in lesser hands than Demme's (actually, IMHO, you don't have to imagine; just watch Ridley Scott's movie version of Hannibal, which makes every mistake Demme's movie avoided and then some). And when Lecter rises from the gurney in the ambulance, the movie cuts right to Ardelia running from the pay phone to tell Clarice what happened, making it all the more chilling.

    Finally, the performances. Sarah, we must agree to disagree on Foster as Clarice; I thought she was excellent throughout, and yes, even during the "screaming lambs" scene (apparently, that scene was going to have another flashback of Clarice actually stealing a lamb and trying to run away, but according to Ted Tally, who adapted the novel, when Demme saw the rushes, he said he would be drummed out of the Director's Guild if he cut away from what Foster and Hopkins were doing there). And as for Hopkins, even after he let camp settle into his performances of Lecter in Hannibal and Red Dragon, his work in Silence is still chilling because of just how calm and exacting he is.

  • Kristin 2 the Kristin Boogaloo says:

    I'm so happy everybody loves this movie too (I am the nominator). Heh. Fear The Nominator…

    Sorry, got sidetracked. Anyway, glad not to be the only weirdo who can't turn away from this one. Thanks!

  • KateeBar says:

    100% yes from me. I loved the book and found the movie to be a very good adaptation. A guy I worked with could make that same exact sound Lecter makes, that slithery mouth sound, and it never failed to give me goosebumps. Barf.

    My go-to lines also include the creepy "you about a size 14?" when talking clothes with friends.

    And I'm sure I wasn't the only late teen girl who decided to be an FBI agent because of Clarice. I mean, I never did it, but it was a dream until about age 34. The women were all impressive.

    Aside – because I'm dumb, can someone tell me how to submit a movie? I can't seem to find the specs.

  • KateeBar says:

    Um, ignore dumb aside above because I literally just saw the instructions. I'll show myself out.

  • Cora says:

    @Sean Gallagher re: Ridley Scott's Hannibal, WORD. I was disgusted with the whole move, and then the end happened, in which he rewrites the story so Clarice doesn't get "taken in" or some shit by Lecter. Hey, gross dude with the bracelet! Yeah, real subtle, babe; you're only lifting your wrist twelve feet in the air and rubbing it while making nervous eye contact with EVERYONE. Julianne Moore is made to get all screamy and taking it personally, which is totally at odds with the Clarice character as developed by Harris; and THEN she's turned into a complete wet noodle at Krendler's Last Supper. In what universe would Starling feel sorry for Krendler?

    Goddammit, Ridley, get OVER yourself. You are not a better writer that Thomas Harris.

  • Erin W says:

    Since SOTL has been streaming on Netflix, I've watched it several times in a total Poppy Fields context: long day at work, sack out on the couch, watch something familiar. The fact that it is twisted takes nothing away from the comfort factor (and by the way, I am also a huge Zodiac fan).

    My boyfriend and I–both generously sized–like to say "Was she a great big fat person?" in Buffalo Bill voice all the time. Also, we're in Pittsburgh and he likes to point out all the locations where they filmed whenever we drive by one of them.

    One of my all-time favorite "this is great acting" moments is when Bill is watching Clarice through the night vision goggles and you can see her going through the motions of trying to locate him while literally quaking with terror.

  • Lis says:

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. When I moved from Maryland to Texas in 1994 all of my belongings were shipped, save a suitcase of clothes and this movie on VHS, because somehow I rationalized that even if everything else got lost at least I'd still have this and some clothes? I do realize that it's insane. I love this movie so much and practically have it memorized. I remember seeing it in the theater and I will turn it on every time we flip past it if I have the remote. To the point that the movie is almost ruined for my husband and I because all we do is quote it back and forth while it plays in the background. Still. Yes to this. All day long.

    Also Sarah you're not alone in the Zodiac thing either. It's streaming on Netflix but I still bought it on Amazon because, what if it STOPS streaming? What then??

  • Profreader says:

    Late to this conversation but: YES to the poppy-field-ness. I have caught it three times in the past couple of weeks — once on AMC or TMC (I think), and twice on Netflix. I like seeing it on Netflix to catch all the little bits that they often edit out of a cable showing for time: Clarice breaking down by her car after her first visit to Lecter/the encounter with Miggs.

    The movie does such a good job of kinetically moving you through the narrative — all the gates and doors that Clarice has to pass through on her first visit to Lecter — moving down, down, down, down … until there is unnerving silence / whispers / groans when she reaches the cells.

    Family trivia fact: one of my second cousins owned the house that they used for the exterior of Gumb's house. He did not have a murder-maze basement with a pit, though. As far as we know.

    Lastly, I saw this on its opening weekend in NYC at the Loews on 84th Street — the audience was just yelping and shrieking when we got to the night-vision scene, because the tension was unbearable. When he reached out for Clarice, people were losing their minds.

  • Jaybird says:

    I will pretty much always watch this, in the same way that I will always stop and watch video of a tornado, because it's fascinating. I've never understood why it's usually referred to as a horror/thriller movie, b/c to me it has always, every single time, read as sad. Immeasurably, deeply sad. I'm not sure if it's because of what we find out about the Bimmel character or what, but my prevailing theory is that it's sad because every character in it is isolated, lonely, trapped, desperate, and haunted somehow, with the possible exception of Mapp.

  • Kat says:

    An easy vote for YES.

  • Lucy says:

    Shamefully late in commenting on this but a definite yes for me.

    Everyone else has claimed the lotion and Baltimore lines but for me they never fit as seamlessly into conversation as my most often used: "Ready when you are, Sergeant Pembry." Which is usually followed by a slightly confused, "What did you just call me?"

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