Thomas Harris Daze continue at the CdM household, since I watched Manhunter and was totally into it, then watched its remake Red Dragon, then got juiced to see this one again, and have the Ill-received sequel Hannibal coming next. I had watched this a few years ago, and at that time decided that all the credit was due to the screenplay and the cast, but this time was more impressed with the direction and Harris' intricate story. But first, the DVD I got from Netflix was fucking pan-and-scan! WTF? What are we, corn pone white trash?
The movie begins with what will be a running visual motif, leaden cloudy skies and bare winter branches. Death and decay. We meet Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling running through the woods on an exercise course. You might have a moment of "OMG, she's so YOUNG!" which is something exploited by the movie. We have our credits, which appear in a blocky black "case file" type face. Starling is called off the course and sent to meet with FBI director Jack Crawford. In here we have the first of another recurring motif, which is petite Foster set against a group of much taller, larger men, emphasizing that she is a woman in a traditionally male world. Also, on this viewing it was much more apparent that she is just an agent-in-training, like a bright college student sent out on an assignment that is way above her. This adds a whole character element of us wanting her to be able to work hard and succeed.
So she is sent to visit our buddy Lecter, told that she's only there to interview him and administer a questionnaire. She meets the oily Dr. Chilton, a much greater character element than I appreciated the first few times. One little directorial touch I appreciated this time is that as they descend down into the bowels of the mental institution, the prison bars go from black to red, and the lights become increasingly red. She meets Lecter--I won't go much into his performance since it has been so minutely covered elsewhere--and he ends up totally ripping apart her character, sending her away on the verge of tears. Then the prisoner in the room next to her flings ejaculate into her eye--something I COMPLETELY missed on earlier viewings--and Lecter calls her back and gives her a clue. She is sent in tears out of the hospital, and then we have a brief flashback to her childhood with her father. Later we learn that Lecter made the prisoner next door swallow his tongue and die, simply by talking to him, which is supposed to underscore the danger Clarice is in simply in talking to Lecter, or giving him personal information, as she has been explicitly warned against.
Clarice is able to decipher a clue Lecter gave her, and find a piece of evidence, which gets him to make her a deal. He will help her catch Buffalo Bill, the current killer, if she gives up personal information about herself. We then see the killer abduct a new victim, using a trick we saw in The Vanishing (I wonder which came first), which is appearing to be lame with a cast on his hand. Then Clarice is called to help examine the corpse of the latest victim (not the one we just saw abducted), where we have another shot of her in a room surrounded by men, and another flashback, to her father's funeral. She examines the body and finds a chrysalis in its throat, which is soon revealed to be a Death's Head moth, native to Asia. "Someone grew this guy," says the awestruck entomologist examining him. "Somebody loved him."
SPOILERS > > >
Clarice makes a false proposal to Lecter that he can be transferred to a prison with a view, if he names the killer. He starts to probe her for information about her childhood trauma after her father died. Chilton, who hopes to get a book out of Lecter and shoot to fame based on his case, calls the falsity of the offer and makes his own offer to Lecter. He foolishly leaves a pen in Lecter's cell. Turns out the new victim is the daughter of a senator. Lecter is brought to see the senator, wearing his famous, and ever so creepy, mask, and gives her a false name and address. One of the tiny touches that makes him creepily effective comes when he urgently calls the senator back and merely says "LOVE the suit!"
He is taken to a big cell in the middle of a large room as part of his transfer. Clarice visits him for the last time and he forces her to give up her traumatic memory, of waking to the screaming of lambs being slaughtered, trying and failing to save one, which ends up killed. I appreciate that her trauma is quite mundane and believable. Lecter, satisfied, gives her the case file back, and we have another excellent creepy touch, his stroking her finger for an instant as they transfer the file. We now have a long sequence in which Lecter escapes, which works by seeing all the violence and ingenuity we have heard about him put into action. It's also structurally effective, as most films would be straightforward stories about the one case, and here we have another case just getting started as the main one is closing, and also serves to send the energy of the movie into the red, leading into the climax. That handsome lead SWAT team dude is Chris Isaak, by the way.
So Clarice goes off to Ohio to investigate another lead. On the way, she learns from Crawford that he has found the killer and a SWAT team is on their way to apprehend. We now have a long series of misdirections as the team approaches one house and rings the bell, and we hear the bell ringing in the killer's basement. Only the house where the SWAT team is empty, and Clarice is at the killer's door. She ends up led into the basement, and we have a good example of what Carol Clover was talking about as a staple of horror films, the descent into the pit of hell. Clarice wanders around, and suddenly the lights go out, although we see her through the killer's night-vision goggles. Risky, and I'm still not convinced it totally works in movie form, as we can clearly see Clarice, and just have to intellectually KNOW that she can't see anything. But the rest of the movie has worked so well we actually don't need this climax to be that effective.
So the killer is shot, and Clarice becomes a full FBI agent. She gets a call from Lecter, saying that he won't come after her, then hanging up. We see Clarice on the phone repeating "Dr. Lecter? Dr. Lecter?" which is quite effective. The last shot is of Doctor Chilton arriving in whatever small country Lecter is in, and our good doctor slowly stalking him and vanishing into the crowd. Although he's alive in Hannibal, so I guess Lecter decided to have the pork chop instead.
< < < SPOILERS END
Yep, it stands up, and, knowing what a sensation this movie became--winning numerous Oscars in a way virtually unheard of for a "horror" film of this nature--one is tempted to dissect the reasons why. For one, it's not a horror film in the manner of Halloween or something, the bulk of it is FBI procedural, which makes it much more palatable to the Driving Miss Daisy crowd. Secondly, it features an unusual amount of character interaction for any film, which evens out the yucky feeling respectable viewers get from real horror films. Thus it appeals as a serious examination of pathology, and reassures viewers that they're not just there to see blood and gore, like the pure horror films they scorn.
So, as with Red Dragon, I have to admire Harris' ingenuity in constructing this story, with all it's numerous intricacies that tie together beautifully, and his brilliant stroke to have one story exploding as one comes to a close. That's sequel-setting in the best, most honorable way, which makes it sad that Hannibal bummed so many people out. The script by Ted Tally is also tight as a drum, blah blah the performances, and the direction is quite good, quite effective, though perhaps lacking in the crazy inspiration Michael Mann brought to Manhunter. Then again, Manhunter never would have won Best Picture, whereas this movie skirts the line between effective storytelling and playing it safe in a way that appeals to respectable viewers who don't want to engage with anything that Oprah wouldn't like.
So there you go, a classic that holds up. Yay. Now I can't wait to re-examine Hannibal.
You know you already have, but if you watched it again you'd probably still admire it.