I’m not quite sure if there’s a thematic link between today’s two films. One’s about a charismatic, amoral man who uses his not inconsiderable charms to win over a young woman, just starting out in her chosen profession. The other is Silence of the Lambs. Hmm. Not quite sure that joke really works as well as I’d like.
First up, it’s The Silence of the Lambs, one of the very few films to win all five top Oscars – Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. It’s even more remarkable in that it’s just about the only horror film to win Best Film. Don’t @ me, this is definitely a horror film, despite all the Police Procedural trappings.
And it’s a truly great film, a fine example of how to adapt a book for film.
It starts with young Clarice Starling running through the woods at the FBI training centre at Quantico. Clarice (Jodie Foster) is called to Jack Crawford’s office. Crawford runs the behavioural science office, and is a returning character from Thomas Harris’s previous Lecter novel, played here by Scott Glenn.. He’s working on a current serial killer case – the Buffalo Bill case. Five women have been killed, and skin removed from their bodies.
This is the first time that we notice a particular pattern in the style of filmmaking. Director Jonathan Demme films these scenes in a way that’s quite unusual. Usually, such scenes are shot over-the-shoulder, with the camera shooting as if it’s standing to the sides of the actors. But here, they are shot with the actors facing directly into the camera, something that almost never happens. It’s a deliberately odd choice, and it serves to root us firmly in Clarice’s point of view.
There’s a few shots like this in the film, placing Starling in large groups of much taller men.
The FBI have no leads. So Crawford asks Starling to take a profiling questionnaire to captured serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Before she meets Lecter, she has to get past his slimy doctor, Dr Chilton, a great performance from Anthony Heald.
After a very long build-up, while Chilton explains exactly how dangerous Lecter is, we finally meet him, kept in a strangely gothic underground passage. It’s a very different choice from the previous Hannibal Lecter movie, Manhunter, starring Brian Cox as Lecter, which had him in a completely white, spotless facility, but that film definitely had a modernist design ethic, and here, Demme is embracing the basic gothic roots of this (let’s not forget) horror film.
After some unpleasantness with another of the inmates, Lecter offers Clarice a clue to something he knows, which she follows up, finding an old lock-up garage full of some of Lecter’s old stuff, including the head of one of Lecter’s patients. Lecter claims this patient was killed by Buffalo Bill, and offers Clarice his insight, a psychological profile of Buffalo Bill.
Another body is found, suspected to be from Bill, and Clarice accompanies Crawford to the small town funeral home where the victim’s body is taken for examination, to help with the examination of the body. There’s another of those shots surrounding Clarice with lots of taller men. There’s a common thread in this film about how women are viewed in this area of work.
In the examination, one of the doctors is played by one of the producers of the film, Kenneth Utt.
The local funeral director is played by veteran character actor Tracey Walter.
An insect chrysalis is found lodged in the girl’s throat, so Clarice takes it to the Natural History Museum to get some insight into where it might have come from. The two insect nerds are lovely, even when one of them asks Clarice out on a date.
The case gets a lot more urgent when another woman is taken by Bill, especially because she’s the daughter of a politician. Clarice comes to Lecter with a deal from the senator, that he’ll be moved to a different facility, and allowed one week a year on an uninhabited island. But Dr Chilton, keen not to have his star patient taken away, contacts the Senator and discovers that the FBI had no such deal with her, and makes his own deal. So Lecter gets taken to Memphis to meet with the Senator.
Clarice is now in Lecter’s bad books, but she hears the information he gives to the Senator, and is sceptical. “Your anagrams are showing” she says, about the name Louis Friend. She says it’s an anagram of Iron Sulfide, which it is, and says that’s another name for fool’s gold. Which it sort of is, but the more common name is Iron Pyrite, which is an iron sufilde. I’m fairly sure the anagrams in the book were a bit cleverer.
Again, the scenes between Clarice and Lecter are shot facing camera, and they start outside the bars, but as the scene continues, the camera gets closer to the bars until they disappear from the view altogether, removing the separation between the two characters. And at the end of the scene, when Lecter passes her the case file and their fingers touch, it’s a very dramatic moment.
Also, a quick shout out to a blink and you’ll miss him cameo from zombie supremo George A Romero as an FBI agent.
And to another great horror director, Jonathan Demme’s former mentor Roger Corman as the head of the FBI.
Lecter takes full advantage of the break in routine, and his removal from Chilton’s hospital to a makeshift cell in an office building to pull off a violent and gruesome escape. This was straight out of the book, and I was impressed they used the escape pretty much as written. Because I’d read the book, I couldn’t tell how obvious the escape was, since I was looking for it. If anyone remembers watching it and being taken by surprise by Lecter’s reveal at the end of the sequence, I’d be interested to know.
Special mention for the great Charles Napier as one of the unlucky cops, who was strung up. I can’t help feeling that the makers of the Hannibal TV series were more than a little fixated on this image, as they used a lot of very similar tableaux.
Now Lecter is on the lam, Clarice concentrates on the case file. Lecter told her everything she needed to know was there, so she concentrates on the first victim, the one most likely to have been known personally by the killer. She’s following up leads in the victim’s home town when Crawford tells her that they’ve found the killer and are heading there now. They cross-checked customs files, and found an attempt to illegally import live caterpillars and traced them to a Jame Gumb, who fitted all the descriptions of the man Lecter described.
This sequence is one of my favourites, as we keep cutting from Gumb in his home to the SWAT teams moving in to surround the location, one of them carrying a long thin parcel to the door and ringing the bell. I particularly like his doorbell, a really old. huge one that like something out of Frankenstein’s lab, complete with sparks as it rings. You tell me this isn’t a horror film.
Then, just as the SWAT team are about to break the door down, we see Gumb coming to the door and answering it, and there, instead of an armed officer, is Clarice, looking for a former friend of the first victim.
The SWAT team are in completely the wrong place, an address that had been vacant for a while. Gumb had been living at the house that used to belong to the seamstress who taught Frederica, his first victim. And Clarice is there, in the house with the killer. Will she realise it’s him in time? It’s a really tense chase, some of it in the dark with Gumb in infra red goggles.
This is a film that totally stands up, and it’s a very worthy Oscar winner.
Following straight on, a total change of mood. It’s Pretty Woman. You know how one of the themes of this blog is watching stuff we loved when we were younger, and the world was different, and seeing the elements in them that are problematic now? Well here’s a case of a film which was always a bit problematic. Richard Gere plays an asset-stripping businessman who hires Julia Roberts, a young prostitute, to be at his beck and call for a week while he dismantles a family-run business. A recipe for romance and laughs, amirite?
First surprise, Jason Alexander is in this. This predated me watching Seinfeld so I didn’t remember him here, as Richard Gere’s lawyer.
Also Hank Azaria pops up in a tiny role as a detective dealing with a dead body on Hollywood Boulevard.
Gere and Roberts meet when he takes Alexander’s car back to the hotel he’s staying at, gets lost and can’t really drive a stick shift. He stops for directions, and Roberts offers to show him the way, even driving the car. I had remembered him as going to specifically pick up a woman, so it’s nice their meeting was a little more innocent.
But I’ll be honest with you, I don’t really give a stuff about Richard Gere here. Although I would posit that Richard Gere in Pretty Woman is absolutely how Donald Trump sees himself in his mind’s eye.
For me, this whole film is basically about Hector Elizondo as the hotel manager. He turns up, and you immediately know everything he’s going to do – he’s Tim Curry in Home Alone 2, the sneery manager who makes life difficult for Roberts.
Except he’s not. OK, so when she first appears, he ‘has a word’ with her. “The things that happen at other hotels don’t happen at the Regent Beverley Wilshire” he says. He has his “I know what you do, but I’m too polite to say it out loud, but we understand each other” speech, and that’s almost that.
Except this speech comes just after Roberts has been to Rodeo Drive trying to buy nice clothes for her dinner date in the evening, and was practically thrown out of the shop by the sneery shop assistants. So she explains, on the point of tears, that she has to buy a dress, and nobody will help her, so he gives her his handkerchief, then picks up the phone. “Oh man, if you’re calling the cops…” But he calls a local store and tells them he’s sending Roberts down to them and asks them to look after her. And for the rest of the movie, he’s looking out for her, making sure she’s OK. He even makes sure the film gets a happy ending. “It’s been a pleasure knowing you. Come and visit us again some time.”
Yes, for me this film is all about Elizondo.
There’s other things happening, of course. The company Gere wants to asset strip is owned by Ralph Bellamy and his son Alex Hyde White (off of Biggles, of course). They’re a decent pair, wanting to keep the company under family control, and definitely not wanting to see it broken up, at the expense of many of their workers. Again, in this story, I might have expected Hyde White to have designs on Roberts, but, apart from some cordial conversations at social events (Polo, anyone?) he’s entirely polite and gentlemanly.
The role of the slimeball who assumes Roberts is merely a commodity to be used indisciminately falls more naturally to Gere’s Lawyer, Jason Alexander, and he’s the one who, after Gere decides not to destroy Bellamy’s company, but to help him keep it in the family, thinks it’s OK to come and treat Roberts like garbage, so it’s very satisfying when Gere comes in and punches him out.
So, the general verdict from me is that this still does what it’s supposed to do. I’m still fairly conflicted over the fact that this heartwarming tale of female empowerment features has to be about a sex worker, but, sex workers are people too, so I guess it’s me who shouldn’t be so uptight.
But it’s still Elizondo’s film.
After this, recording continues for a short time with the start of a horror film called The Bite. “It’s time once again to descend into the depths of terror, as a nest of mutate into nothing less than a maelstrom of mewling monsters.” But at least it’s got special effects by Screaming Mad George
The film claims to be directed by ‘Fred Goodwin’ but that’s a pseudonym for Federico Prosperi. iMDb also says this film is also called Curse II: The Bite, but there’s no sign in the credits here that this might be a sequel to something.
The tape ends after fifteen minutes of this masterpiece.
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