When Dr. Pilcher (Paul Lazar) at the Smithsonian starts to hit on FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), he asks her what does she do when she is not “detecting.” Her answer is, “I try to be a student, Dr. Pilcher.” In this multiple Oscar-winning 1991 film, (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director), Clarice has two primary teachers - Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins (if you add a couple of letters, you get “lecturer”) and FBI Behavioral Science chief, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). One could be simplistic and say that Lecter is Clarice’s Darth Vader and Crawford is the Obi Wan Kenobi character. But, this movie is anything but simple, and both men use Clarice, as well as help her.
The opening shots take place in the FBI obstacle course outside Quantico, Virginia. The forest, with no easy path, can represent the many obstacles Clarice will encounter to live up to her name, as she tries to get “clear” of the frightening danger in her world, and possibly fly above it. Her last name is Starling, after all, and her hair is dark, like the color of that bird’s feathers. The starling is considered by some to be a pest, and Clarice must pester the circumstances surrounding her case to find the killer in this story. (We will get back to the “flying” motif later). A major impediment on Clarice’s educational road is sexism. As she runs or passes by males, there are individual and group looks (on the training course, at the Baltimore asylum, and in the West Virginia funeral home), of men who show a combination of lust and dismissal for her being among the predominantly male lawn enforcement community. Foster said that she wanted this role because she did not want to play another victim. Clarice uses her feminine side on Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) at first to gain private access to Hannibal, but later ups her game by using legal threats to get him out of his way as he tries to punish her for not succumbing to his original sexual advances. Later she also takes charge at the funeral home full of male patrolmen, clearing the room so that the examination of the victim’s body can take place.
Crawford knows she is smart as she excelled in a course he taught at her college, and admired her courage to “grill” him on civil rights violations during the FBI’s Hoover years. But he deceives her, sending Clarice to try and get Hannibal to fill out a questionnaire as part of an information gathering survey of serial killers, when he hopes that Clarice will be able to seduce him into providing insights to help capture the at-loose murderer, Buffalo Bill. Crawford is actually using her youthful, inexperienced, status to activate Hannibal’s self-glorification by wanting to impress a new student. The fact that Clarice is physically attractive just adds to the draw. As Chilton says, Hannibal hasn’t seen a woman for several years, and Clarice is just the cannibalistic psychiatrist’s “taste,” which links the appetite for food with that of lust. Her strong response to Chilton is that she graduated from the University of Virginia, which is not a “charm school.”
When Clarice meets Hannibal for the first time, he is creepily standing in the middle of his cage, as if waiting for her, and ready to scrutinize her just as did the other males. But unlike the others, Hannibal is a sort of super anti-hero. He hardly ever blinks, as he takes in everything around him. His nostrils flare often and his powers of smell are equally elevated, knowing what lotion and perfume Clarice uses, even if not on that particular day. Later, he can even tell that she skinned her leg, and that the cut is no longer bleeding. He has theatrically exaggerated ways of speaking, slowing down sentences so as to carry weight, and of moving his hands, such as when he pulls documents out of the tray to his jail. All of this affectation sets him apart from others, probably showing that he sees himself as superior and separate from the mere mortals around him. He probably believes that he can carry out his crimes because gods don’t have to obey the rules of inferior creatures. Perhaps he devours his victims to show his dominance, and obliterates pretenders to greatness. Maybe in Hannibal’s mind, he raises his victims’ mediocrity by transforming them into epicurean delights.
He originally likes Clarice’s candor about sharing the vulgar comments of the inmate Miggs (Stuart Rudin), and is appreciative of her courteous nature. He makes references to Buffalo Bill, as if intuitively knowing that Crawford sent the impressionable Clarice (her temporary ID showing her novice status) to seduce him into volunteering his help concerning the hunted serial killer. It is interesting that in a small way Clarice turns the tables on Hannibal here because she appears to coldly consider why he didn’t take any trophies of his victims, but instead ate them. Hannibal doesn’t like being analyzed, and looks away, asking for the questionnaire. Of course the document does exactly that kind of “dissecting” as Hannibal calls it, and he becomes nasty, employing a Southern accent, calling Clarice a “rube” with “cheap shoes” who is “not more than one generation removed from poor white trash.” He says her ambition took her “all the way to the F - B - I.” His speech sounds sibilant many times, like a snake (Satan?) hissing. Hannibal's sucking sounds after talking about eating the census taker's liver makes him sound like a vampire, and a policeman later makes the blood sucker reference concerning him. Clarice challenges him by saying he sees a great deal, but seems unable to point his powers of observation at himself, because maybe he is “afraid” to do so. Possibly that is the only thing that can really frighten Hannibal, to really face his megalomania.
Hannibal is a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character. He extols manners, and decides to help Clarice after Miggs throws his semen at her, shouting that “discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me.” He says ‘thank you” to the asylum attendant Barney (Frankie Faison), someone who treats him humanely, as opposed to Chilton who degrades Hannibal as a beast when he says “how rare it is to capture” a psychopath alive. Hannibal loves classical music and is an accomplished artist who hangs his sketches of Florence in his cell. He has a witty, dark sense of humor, that is at its heart condescending, and which fits with his superior attitude. He says that the death of his patient, Raspail, was the best thing that could have happened to him since his therapy was going nowhere. He sarcastically refers to the Buffalo Bill’s overweight victim as “Miss West Virginia.” He calls the dissociative inmate, “Multiple Miggs.” But, he can, as shown above, be nasty verbally, and he asks crude sexual questions of Clarice concerning Crawford and later the sheep rancher. Of course he is also brutally violent, savaging a nurse while at the asylum and clubbing and eviscerating policemen in Tennessee.
Hannibal points Clarice to a storage facility. She figures out that the name on the unit he gives is an anagram a little too quickly to be believable, but it illustrates her intelligence and her need to uncover what is hidden to reach the solution to the crimes. She must jack up the door to the unit, crawl under it, and she injures her leg in the process, which shows her desire to surmount obstacles in her way, like on the training course. This scene is in keeping with the theme of having to penetrate barriers or dig beneath the surface to be successful. She must break into the storage facility, and get into the car there. Raspail’s head is in a jar, but it is covered, and she must unveil it. There is a mannequin in the car, missing its head, dressed like a woman, which implies male transvestism. She must go through many locked doors at the asylum, and eventually explore behind doors at Bill’s place to become victorious.
In West Virginia, Crawford, like a teacher, quizzes Clarice on what deductions she can draw from the case files. He again uses Clarice by trying to get the local sheriff out of the way by saying he doesn’t want to discuss this type of “sex” crime in front of Clarice. She later calls him on it, saying that what he models “matters” because it devalues her, and sets a precedent for the other policemen. She discovers that the victim has diamond-shaped sections of skin removed from her body, and that there is a bug cocoon in the girl’s throat. Again, we have something buried or obscured from sight that Clarice must discover. She finds out that the cocoon contains a Death’s Head moth. One is also found in Raspail’s decapitated head. When she discusses these findings with Hannibal, he again takes on the role of lecturer, talking about how the morphing of a chrysalis into a winged creature symbolizes Bill’s wish to change into something beautiful. Clarice realizes that Hannibal knows who Bill is because the psychiatrist understands Bill’s motivations. Bill has kidnapped a senator’s daughter, Catherine (Brooke Smith). Hannibal makes a bargain to be transferred to another facility away from Chilton where he can have some time outside his prison in exchange for helping Clarice in the process by capturing Bill. Clarice says they worked out the deal with the senator.
It is interesting to watch the scene between Clarice and Hannibal as they negotiate his possible transferal and help with the case. He wants it to be a “quid pro quo” bargain. He will deliver information if she will talk about herself. As she relates the early loss of her mother and the killing of her law enforcement father, whom she adored, Hannibal takes on his professional role as psychiatrist, listening to a patient’s story of how her childhood shaped her. But what is a psychiatrist but someone who hears a person’s confessions? Hannibal turns his head away from Clarice when she discloses her personal history, and he looks like a priest behind a confessional’s door (but in this case it is a prison wall). However, his is a voyeur’s perspective, as if he can’t feel human emotions due to his own insanity, and can only experience feelings vicariously.
We don’t get much background on Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), but Hannibal sheds some light on him, and again, he has shades of gray in his character, too. The fact that Bill wants to change into something beautiful from something representing death shows that Bill sees himself as ugly and deadly, and he, too, like Clarice, wants to “fly” above his circumstances, like the moth. In fact, when he does his naked dance with a piece of elaborately designed material draped around him, he then raises his arms above him, looking like a bird with wings, as he plays a song with the lyrics, “I’m flying over you.” But, as Hannibal says, Bill’s desire to escape his male brutality by becoming feminine is a delusion because he is not a true transvestite. As Clarice smartly points out (and Hannibal gives her a good grade for doing so) transvestites are not aggressive. Hannibal says Bill was probably rejected from gender reassignment institutions for personality reasons. He tells Clarice, “Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse.” Billy wants to transform because he “hates his own identity.” He thinks he can do so by being a woman, but, Hannibal says, “his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” When we see Bill in his subterranean lair (basements and underground passages are in gothic tales because they indicate hidden, subconscious drives and dangers), he has the word “love” tattooed on his hand, (the scientists said that somebody “loved” the moth, showing Bill’s ability to love which has been displaced toward an insect) and cares for his cute little poodle, which he calls “Precious.” Not quite what you would expect from someone who is pure evil. The senator kept using Catherine’s name to make her more of a person than an object in a televised plea to the kidnapper. We see Bill trying to make the girl into a thing when he says to Catherine, “It rubs the lotion on its skin,” but Bill appears upset about what he is doing to the girl. At one point Bill yells down into the well, where Catherine threatens to hurt his captive dog if not released, “You don’t know what pain is!” This outburst can obviously be seen as a threat, but maybe Bill is also talking about the “systematic abuse” that Hannibal says Bill may have endured.
The deal that Crawford and Clarice made with Hannibal was a fraud (is Clarice learning deception from her supposedly benign teacher, Crawford?) Chilton, who bugged the conversation between Hannibal and Clarice, reveals this fact to Hannibal and made his own deal with Senator Ruth Martin (Diane Baker). As he talks with Hannibal the camera zooms in on a pen that Chilton leaves on the bed in Hannibal’s cell. It is interesting that Chilton warned Clarice not to give Hannibal anything, including a pen, and here Chilton is negligent enough to break his own rule. Hannibal wants to deliver his information about Bill to the senator in person. He is flown to her home state of Tennessee. He is restrained, and a grotesque mask is placed over his face. Unlike the children on Halloween who pretend to be monsters on the outside, Hannibal’s mask reveals the monster underneath. He is placed in a cage in a courthouse.
Because Senator Martin is furious with the FBI for using her name in a deal without her knowledge, Clarice must lie about being part of Chilton’s security team to gain access to Hannibal. She again must uncover truth behind a smokescreen as she sees that Hannibal’s name for Bill is a fraud, an anagram referencing Fool’s Gold. She wants him to tell her Bill’s real name, but he wants to know why she ran away from the relatives where she was placed after her father died. Clarice tells him that she woke to screaming and she saw that the slaughter of the lambs was taking place. She wanted to free them, but they wouldn’t run away. She took one, but it was too heavy and she couldn’t get very far, and that lamb, too, was killed. Hannibal explains the title of the film when he says to Clarice, “You still wake up sometimes, don’t you? You wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs … And you think if you save poor Catherine, you could make them stop, don’t you? You think if Catherine lives, you won’t wake up in the dark ever again to that awful screaming of the lambs.” The lambs symbolize the flocks of innocent people that Clarice wants to protect. Perhaps she followed her father into law enforcement to try to fight the forces that led to her dad’s violent death. After she is finished with her story, Hannibal looks like he has had a sexual climax from the sharing of the traumatic childhood experience. He closes his eyes and quietly thanks her, most likely for the emotional pleasure she has given him.
Hannibal with the help of the pen of the negligent Chilton, picks the locks on his handcuffs, and proceeds to murder the policemen. He hangs one of them, who he disemboweled, up on the side of the cage, with the officer’s arms spread out. Again, we have the appearance of a bird, or also an image of crucifixion. In any case, the scene suggest denial of rescue for the innocent or a chance an escape from violence. We have a recurrence of the covering up or hidden truth motif in that Hannibal pretends to be one of the policemen. He wears a different mask this time, the bloody face of one of the policemen that he has cut off and places over his own as a disguise. He removes this mask in the ambulance later and reveals his monstrous inner nature by killing the crew and a citizen for his clothes and money as he makes his escape.
Hannibal wrote on the case file that the scattered sites of where Bill’s victims were found seemed “desperately random.” Clarice tries to again uncover what the reality is behind the appearances. She discusses events with her friend, Ardelia (Kasi Lemmons), as they repeat Hannibal’s words to Clarice about coveting. The first victim was weighed down, and was the third body to be found. Clarice reasons that the purpose was to make her drift further away from her home, which means he saw her “every day,” as Hannibal put it. That means Bill lives where she did, in Belvedere, Ohio. (Interesting historical fact: the first victim’s name is Fredrica, and the real Buffalo Bill was married to a Louisa Frederici, which sound a great deal like the victim’s name. Does Bill murdering her in this story show how a serial killer would get a divorce?)
Clarice goes to Belvedere and unearths more information leading her to Bill. Keeping with the uncovering theme, she finds at Fredrica’s house a music box which has a hidden compartment with photos of a partially dressed Fredrica, revealing her sexual side. She sees that Fredrica was a seamstress. Clarice finds hidden (of course) behind a door, clothes material with diamond-shaped cutouts, similar to the pattern on the body in West Virginia. She now knows that Bill, in his weird way, is making a woman’s suit out of female skin to symbolize his changing gender. She calls Crawford about what she discovered, but he knows from checking at the Johns Hopkins gender reassignment department that Bill’s real name is Jame Gumb, and he had exotic insects delivered to a house in Chicago. The FBI goes to this house, but it too turns into an obstacle, a deceptive appearance, since nobody is there. Clarice goes to the home where Fredrica worked and that is where Bill actually lives. When she sees a moth flying, (appropriately by a Starling) Clarice knows she is in the killer’s presence. He escapes into the cellar and shuts off the lights. He wears night vision goggles which look scary, and reminds us of Hannibal’s frightening mask, mirroring the monster beneath. He is a denizen of the dark, scrutinizing Clarice, as did the other males in the story, but Clarice is up to the challenge. She swivels and shoots him when she hears him cocking the trigger on his gun. The bullet goes through a boarded up window, letting light in, and symbolically destroying the darkness of its demon inhabitant.
Earlier in the film, Chilton tells Hannibal how Clarice and Crawford scammed the killer, and that he was not going to see the birds and walk on a beach. But, at the end, Hannibal has escaped, like those birds, and is on a tropical island ready to get his revenge on the arriving Chilton for his “torments” by having him “for dinner.” Unlike Bill, Hannibal, a super villain - not a hero, has flown away from imprisonment. But what of our heroine? She gets the recognition for her ending Bill’s crime spree. She graduates from the training academy. But, at the reception, there is a cake in the shape of the FBI seal, and it is carved up. Is this an ominous image of the future (similar to the deconstruction of the spread made to look like an American flag in The Manchurian Candidate)?
Hannibal calls Clarice at her reception and asks, “Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?” Is Hannibal mocking her or really curious if she is no longer tormented by her dreams? We do not get an answer from her. This story does not depict elevating transformations. The iconic cowboy Buffalo Bill is turned into a serial killer. Where Clarice shot out the window in Bill’s dungeon, there is a small American flag knocked on its side. Maybe the gunfire is so loud in the United States that it is difficult for anyone to experience the peace found in silence.