Wednesday, October 12, 2011

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: Blu-ray (Orion 1991) MGM/Fox Home Video

It is impossible to set aside one’s own appetite for liver and Fava beans without remembering the good Dr. Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and his affinity for whatever else might be on the menu. Jonathan Demme’s sadistic The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – a loose ‘sequel’ to Michael Mann’s Man Hunter (1986, based on the novel by Thomas Harris) remains a delectably hair-prickling excursion into the mind of a madman. In bringing the unrepentant flesh-eating physician to life Anthony Hopkins resurrected his own sagging movie career. Hopkins performance is a tour de force; breathing in maliciousness for mankind while quietly expelling a queer admiration for his intended next victim, fledgling FBI agent, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) whom he ultimately spars the indignation of his Ginsu. The mutual fascination that develops between these sworn enemies is bizarre to say the least. Yet, it fuels the movie’s otherwise conventional crime-solving narrative with an almost involuntary and enthralling underlay of sexual friction that increasingly becomes the central focus.
For Clarice Starling is very like the ‘little lost lamb’ so depicted in her own anxious childhood recollections throughout the story and more astutely accredited in the movie’s title; an innocent thrust into the midst of wolves – her male counterparts in the FBI, including boss and mentor, Jack Crawford, played with subtle salacious inferences by Scott Glenn and more odious obviousness by Anthony Heald, leering and leaning in as the despicable curator of a maximum security asylum, Dr. Frederick Chilton. Ted Tally’s screenplay draws an unflattering, though remarkably clairvoyant parallel between all three men in Clarice’s life; the influences they exert – or try to – on her life and career, and, the commonalities they possess; namely, to claim her for their own. One of the movie’s more perverse ironies remains that the only man capable of seeing Clarice living up to her potential is Hannibal Lecter – his appreciation for her cleverness, but moreover, her honesty not yet jaded by its tenure at the FBI – allows him to forgo his usual modus operandi and let Clarice live.  
The story is seen almost entirely from Clarice’s point of view; in her pursuit of copycat killer James 'Buffalo Bill' Gumb (Ted Levine), and, from her unrelenting drive to become the best possible criminologist within the FBI’s patriarchal infrastructure. We revisit her fearless angst-ridden quest to be rid of her early childhood trauma and her hopelessly flawed relationships with Lecter – whose fascination with her is only marginally more grotesque than that shared by Jack Crawford, who abnormally relishes keeping Clarice slightly off balance in his presence. As portrayed by Jodie Foster, Clarice Starling is clever enough to play their game but smart enough to know when she can bend the rules to get exactly what she wants. Once again, Clarice’s one true intellectual equal is Lecter – aberrant but clear-headed.
The tale begins with Crawford sending Clarice – still a trainee - to the maximum security asylum to interview Hannibal. Crawford needs insight into the mind of another serial killer whose recent string of copycat murders has resulted in the disappearance of a Senator’s daughter, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). The asylum supervisor, Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald) is himself a sadist who delights in the sublime torture of the inmates from this motley freak show. He flirts with Clarice before allowing her into the bowels of the institution where she does indeed come face to face with evil incarnate. Hannibal Lecter is not about to publicly share his secrets – that is, not without a little glimpse into Clarice’s own psyche – a bit of quid pro quo psychoanalysis that threatens to reveal far too much about Clarice’s past. Instructed by Crawford not to partake in any of Hannibal’s head games, Clarice instead decides to gamble her own memories for the sake Catherine’s safe return. Eventually, the FBI learns enough to make an arrest – only they’ve miscalculated the clues and showed up at the wrong house. Hannibal leverages his ‘intelligence’ and is granted a provisional move to a lower security venue where he inevitably escapes.
For the next two hours, we are riveted to our seats; eyes opened wide by the twisted machinations of two sadists; one who oddly enough, we come to like…sort of. In the end, goodness prevails – at least on the surface. Clarice finds and kills Buffalo Bill before he can skin Catharine alive. She achieves the level of cadet and graduates with top honors. But at the post-commencement party Clarice receives a phone call from one admirer she perhaps did not expect; Hannibal Lecter – still at large and in hot pursuit of Dr. Chilton; a friend who he plans to have…“for dinner”.
In these last few moments The Silence of the Lambs is elevated from its basic unrelentingly bleak crime/thriller genre to a genuinely corrupt and paralyzing artistic iniquity; penetrating even in all its haunted resonance for skin-crawling dread that undoubtedly had most looking over their shoulders as they exited the theater into the parking lot. Afterward, fava beans and Chianti just never seemed to go together. Evidently Academy voters disagreed. The Silence of the Lambs went on to win Oscars in all of the major categories including Best Actor (Hopkins), Actress (Foster), Director (Demme) and Best Picture - a coup not seen in Hollywood since Frank Capra's decidedly more buoyant It Happened One Night (1934).
The Silence of the Lambs on Blu-ray is a revelation. The various DVD incarnations all suffered from less than stellar transfers marred by excessive grain and middling color fidelity that infrequently looked more washed out than anything else. These oversights have all been corrected on the Blu-ray, as have issues of edge enhancement and pixelization. This image is smooth yet robust, revealing a startling amount of fine details.The audio is a 5.1 DTS re-mastering revealing more subtle effects in the original sound mix. Extras are all imported from MGM's Collector's series DVD and include a documentary, several featurettes, stills - plus an extensive array of featurettes delving more comprehensively into the cast, crew, editing style and the psychology of a serial killer. In a genuinely morbid twist – you also get 5 cooking recipes that Hannibal Lecter would definitely approve. I shudder to think of their protein content.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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