Killtoberfest 1 – #39: The Silence of the Lambs

In All, Movies by Kyu

“I noticed an interesting directorial choice throughout [The Silence of the Lambs] in that this movie LOVES the tight, claustrophobic close-up on the actor’s face. It’s all over the place in the film. Not quite sure why.” – internet comment

Those close-ups are actually the key to our final Killtoberfest movie, The Silence of the Lambs.

Note that they’re almost always used as the back and forth during a two person conversation. Conventionally, in other movies, these conversations are shot OTS/reverse OTS (“over the shoulder”), like so:


and reverse:


As the use of Bogart implies (that’s Casablanca), the shot/reverse shot style is very, very traditional. You can think of it as the “default” way to shoot a conversation. You do it that way for at least three reasons:

1) Having both characters in the same shot is how you depict their relationship (not qualitatively, but the fact that they have one during this conversation)–this is as opposed to a pair of, say, medium close-up singles of each person, which can make them feel more distinct, more distant, or more opposed.

2) Having both characters in the same shot establishes spatial relationships. This is something people complain about when it’s missing in action scenes, but it’s equally important in dialogue scenes. Moreover, it began as a convention in case the dialogue scene turned into an action scene–which is to say that the OTS formulation shows you that the actors are close enough to throw a punch (or share a kiss).

3) The formation also facilitates editing, as compared to, say, a two-shot:

A shot like this gives you significantly fewer options in the editing room. Let’s say you want to use most of a particular take, but Bogie stammers on the third of five lines during the shot. If you cut from one take to the next with the same angle and composition, you get a highly noticeable jump cut (Bogie will appear to “jump,” or change position instantly, within the frame). Editing convention says you shouldn’t notice the edits, so that’s out. You could cut to a close-up for the right line (Take 3 in the two-shot, cut to close-up Take 1 for the line, back to Take 3 or maybe Take 4 for the two-shot), which is an “invisible” cut, but it’s possible that may ruin the emotional flow of the scene. Close-ups should be reserved for important moments of emotional intensity, and often you only want to cut to them at the very height of the scene, the way an author will use a number of long sentences in a paragraph but conclude with a strong, simple sentence. So that’s out.

There are a couple of other alternatives (you can cut in a little closer to Bogie, if you have that footage, or you can cut to the other guy or out of the scene entirely so you’re only hearing Bogart, not seeing him, for the better take of the originally flubbed line) but they’re not very good.

In contrast, the OTS/ROTS formulation allows you to seamlessly cut back and forth between one face and the other (while still giving you benefits 1 and 2 above), and you can do all sorts of neat tricks. For example, this is how they shoot interviews on the Daily Show for their canned pieces, so that they can match the subject’s reactions with interviewer questions/jokes that may have been said much earlier or later or even after the subject left. (One of the side-benefits of OTS is that you can often have somebody else’s shoulder stand-in for the actor if you need to pick up a couple of lines from the other guy. The shoulder’s out of focus anyway, you probably have the wardrobe they were using, and the audience is looking at the face, not the shoulder.) Or you can add in dialogue you didn’t shoot on set by laying person A’s newly recorded line over a shot of A’s shoulder/B’s face; now it looks like B is properly reacting to the line.

Anyway! One of the striking things about Silence of the Lambs is that Demme says “fuck all that” and shoots most of his conversation scenes with alternating full-on close ups, like so:

Shot A


Shot B

Looking at the list of traditional OTS editing benefits, we see that this keeps #3 (just as easy to edit between takes of those two shots, if not easier), forgoes #2 (spatial relationships), and (here’s the point) alters how we perceive #1, the relationship between the two characters.

In fact, arguably Demme is sacrificing our spatial awareness during these shots in order to achieve his effect.

So what is that effect? If in an OTS shot the character relationship is in the space between them–pretend it is an arbitrary point where the two characters’ eye contact meets in the air–then that is visible on camera, it is essentially the subject of the shot. The shoulder is not the subject of the shot (it’s often out of focus), and the visible face is not the focus of the shot, because whose face is visible changes rapidly as you cut back and forth. The only constant between the OTS and the Reverse OTS is that invisible dot, that space, and even the visual information of the visual space is interpreted in light of that dot. Face A is not just smiling, it’s smiling AT person B; or reacting to, or talking to, or listening to, etc.

In this formulation, as I said, that invisible dot, the space indicating a character relationship, is visible on-screen, it is the main subject of the OTS shot. In Silence, Demme removes this element. By cutting between directly opposing tight close-ups, he essentially puts his camera in the place of that invisible dot. That “dot,” our concept of the relationship between the two characters, is no longer on-camera, it’s contained mentally within the edit. Ie., we understand that when we cut from Clarice looking at the camera to Lector looking at the camera that they are both looking at each other. But with the focus of the series of shots now out of frame entirely, the new focus of the shot is on the two halves that create that character relationship. In other words, Demme forgoes the traditional framing and points his camera at the gaze itself. The gaze is the subject of his shots because it is the subject of his film.

Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?
– Hannibal Lector

The word “look” (and variations) appears 122 times in the shooting script; the word “see” and variations, about the same. (In contrast–“Feel”: 13. “Hear”: 32. “Touch”: 11.) The State Troopers “look” to Crawford to see how to act. Clarice begs Lector to “look” at the profiling tool and then at the case file. Lector tells her she “looks” like a rube. Her examinations of the bodies are visual (“looks like town to me”), and Buffalo Bill is specifically seeking the appearance of femininity. Ostensibly the movie is about a young FBI agent using one killer to catch another; but the movie is actually about how a woman deals with the male gaze.

This is explicitly about sex. The film can be boiled down to three pairings.

A) Clarice and Crawford.

This relationship is broadly characterized as professional with hints of sexual tension. The shooting script makes this explicit in their first meeting (a scene the film moves to Crawford’s office):


Crawford is watching a group of trainees on the firing range, as Clarice joins him. He looks tired, haunted. Between master and student, we sense a subtle, muted tug of sexuality.

In this scene Demme introduces the shot/reverse shot close-ups, cutting between Crawford and Clarice across Crawford’s desk. They’re less tight than they will be later (head and shoulders), but the pattern is established.

It’s slightly uncomfortable — I would say deliberately so. This man has used the power of his position to pull her out of class, selecting her for his attentions. He emphasizes the teacher/student relationship and potential boss/subordinate relationship in their conversation, and then gives her a potentially dangerous assignment (“Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lector inside your head”) under false pretenses (using her pretty face to get a rise out of Hannibal and trick him into helping with Buffalo Bill). Crawford’s too old and too professional to have a real sexual relationship with Clarice, something that’s emphasized by his glasses, which soften his gaze, but it’s still a slightly uncomfortable situation — a new way of watching movies for the audience, a challenge for Clarice to try and meet, and the beginning of what we assume will be a thrilling, scary story. Our discomfort at the technique bleeds into apprehension heading into the next sequence, which begins with the slimy, flirtatious Chilton and leads us on a descent into the subterranean hall where we meet Hannibal Lector.

Throughout the film, Crawford’s relationship with Clarice is one of growing respect as she demonstrates her skills and confronts him on the way he treats her, particularly when she points out the consequences of him using sexist remarks for the sake of expediency when dealing with the State troopers. The change here happens over three consecutive scenes, and you can see it in the way Demme shoots their conversations.

-In the first scene, Crawford and Clarice are in a car on their way to the body in West Virginia. Crawford asks Clarice to try profiling the killer. Note that he’s in the front seat, she’s in the back–he’s the boss, they’re not equals. He faces forward when he’s asking for her professional opinion, like a test-taker trying to be neutral.

While she faces forward, sometimes looking at him, sometimes looking away as she thinks:

Pleased with her analysis, he turns around to praise her.

The shot/reverse shot still separates them in loose singles, but it’s a little more personal while Crawford explains his reasons for lying to Clarice about her initial interview with Lector.

-Next, there’s the scene where they view the body, which includes Clarice having to stare down some creepy State Troopers:

Crawford is impressed with her fortitude and skill in examining the body (making unique observations, including finding the moth in the throat), but we don’t see this until the third scene.

-Now they’re back in the car again heading back to the airport. Crawford’s still in the front seat turning around to look at her, but now the camera shoots them only in the lateral two-shot.

Instead of emphasizing Crawford’s gaze, the shot demonstrates that he sees her as an equal instead of an attractive subordinate whom he has to mentor. Clarice uses the change in their relationship to criticize him for the sexist remark, and he accepts her criticism now the way he didn’t before (when he justified lying to her about Lector).

And that’s actually the last time we see Crawford for a good 45 minutes (when she calls him to tell him about the dress pattern). His function in the story is essentially finished after she demonstrates her professionalism and achieves a measure of equality with him. After the climax, he shows up to put a comforting/protecting arm around her; then he watches with pride as she graduates.

At the graduation party, we get standard over the shoulders, no gaze:

There’s a moment of awkward tension — are they about to say something else? Instead we get a tight close-up of a handshake:

It’s very deliberate, professional gesture on Clarice’s part, one which Crawford accepts. This is her victory: equality, acceptance, non-sexual relationships with the men around her.

B) Clarice and Lector.

People will often say that this movie has a Beauty and the Beast feel to it. But why compare it to a romance? On the surface, the central relationship is between an FBI agent and a serial killer. Aside from a few jokes (“People will say we’re in love,” Lector smirks) there is no actual romance. What there is instead is Lector’s gaze and Clarice’s slow submission to it. To be perfectly crude, Lector spends the movie eyefucking her and Clarice needs to lay back and allow herself to be visually ravished in order to get what she wants from him. In the porn parody she’d be stripping, but this is a classy drama so she has to metaphorically show herself to him, describing her childhood and darkest memory, making herself emotionally open to his metaphorical gaze, his perception.

Like Crawford, Lector sets himself up as Clarice’s mentor. Both men offer her advancement in her career. (Lector explicitly–“I’ll give you a chance for what you love most.” “And what is that, Doctor?” “Advancement, of course.”) Both men question her about her opinions on the case, testing her or teaching her Socratically. (Lector: “Make an attempt to answer, please.”) Both men exhibit the male gaze and both are shot in conversation with Clarice using the tight close up formulation.

But scroll back up and look at the difference. The Crawford/Clarice shots are much looser, and the glasses soften his gaze; the Lector set is extremely tight, and in Lector’s shots his eyes are emphasized as he leans forward, trying to peer into her as deep as he can. (In the novel, his eyes even have little red lights in them, as if he were the fucking Devil.) So the contrast is clear and that gives you the sexual metaphor — Crawford may be interested in Clarice, but he doesn’t make her feel like Lector does. It’s just so much more intense with him…

(NB: Demme doesn’t jump right into these close-ups, he establishes the space first — in particular this technique is used between Lector and Clarice while Lector is imprisoned and therefore unlikely to change those spatial relationships by moving — and indeed, once they’re in the close ups they rarely move at all, with the exception of Jody Foster pacing in front of his cage in Baltimore while she tells him the story of her lambs. She glances at Hannibal throughout while relating the story, but is mostly looking “ahead” (left or right of frame rather than along the Z-axis, ie., towards camera), because she’s not looking at him, she’s looking inside herself, at the memory.)

And of course Lector plays with her throughout. With Crawford she’s able to choose professionalism (the handshake at the end), but each time she tries to resist Lector’s gaze (“You see a lot, Doctor. But are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception at yourself?”) he either shuts her down (“No, you will answer NOW”) or denies her access (“You fly back to school now, little Starling”). Her drive to save Catherine puts her in the position of having to endure his gaze, but Lector at least gives her fair trade. In exchange for letting him see her emotional nakedness, he tells her what she needs in order to catch the killer, which then leads to the career advancement she desires.

Her relationship with Lector is therefore the dark side of the Crawford relationship, where she essentially trades sex (willingness to be gazed upon) for favor rather than earning it as she does with Crawford. It’s not a positive thing, but it was the least bad option available to her. This is what women have to do sometimes in order to get ahead in a man’s world. That’s why it’s a horror movie.

Or maybe this is why:

C) Clarice and Buffalo Bill.

My analysis here is not unorthodox, as far as the critical reaction to the film goes. The male gaze is a pretty common discussion topic in relation to the movie. But what I think people overlook is that the film also offers a kind of female gaze as well. Because Clarice and Buffalo Bill are defined uniquely in the film by mismatched gazes.

Partly this is necessitated by the fact that Clarice and Buffalo Bill simply aren’t face to face for 90% of the movie. But that doesn’t mean they don’t look at each other, in a way. They have separate character arcs dovetailing at the end, each expressed through this visual technique.

Clarice’s arc is about her journey from trainee to agent–what she sees of the violence Bill has done, and her empathy with Bill’s victims, motivates her to continue the investigation. (This is also what the lambs anecdote is about, of course.)

At the start of the movie, as the opening credits conclude, Clarice is in Crawford’s office, waiting for him to finish a meeting. She turns around and sees something that makes her react–her eyes widen and the camera dollies into a close-up:

She’s looking at Buffalo Bill’s handiwork on a bulletin board:

The camera takes things further as we cut back into an even tighter close-up on Clarice, her eyes looking back and forth across the board, then to her corresponding POV shot as it pans across the photographs.

What she’s looking at primarily are the bodies, skinned and laid out on the ground without dignity. The pan ends with a tabloid article that shows pictures of all of the victims when they were alive, a row of smiling female faces. Clarice isn’t investigating–she isn’t on the case yet. She’s empathizing. That’s her gaze.

Throughout the film she comes face to face with Bill’s handiwork several more times. We get a pair of shots when she finds Benjamin Raspail’s head, crudely made up to look like a woman’s:

Then Crawford shows Clarice photos of Bill’s victims. This is Bimmel, Bill’s first victim and the one Clarice identifies with the most. You can see she’s trying to learn but she also has to swallow back her empathic reaction to the dead girl (who seems to be looking at her).

Then Clarice visually examines the fresh body. She struggles to maintain professionalism, but can’t keep her emotions out of her voice.

It’s clear that Clarice not only feels for this girl, but feels a kinship with her. Lector pegged her accent earlier as “pure West Virginia,” and that’s where this girl has washed up. She plays up the accent when asking the Troopers to leave the room, and personalizes it: “There’s things we need to do for her. I know that y’all brought her this far, and her folks would thank you if they could for your kindness and your sensitivity, but now, please, go on now and let us take care of her.” Her head and shoulders close up is intercut with the wide shot of the men looking at her silently —

But it’s not adversarial, it’s empathic. She speaks for the dead girl, not for herself.

Later, we get the familiar dolly in as Clarice focuses her attention on a television news broadcast where Catherine’s mother pleads directly to the camera/Bill for her daughter’s life. We don’t cut to Clarice until after photographs of Catherine as a young girl tug at her heartstrings (as they are meant to do for Bill):

The next sequence is Clarice going to back to Lector to try to offer him something that isn’t herself (“You will walk on the beach, you will swim in the ocean”). It’s a desperate play, motivated by the television scene. A lot of cop/serial killer movies tell us the cop is motivated by the thought of the victims, but Silence actually shows us this bond forming and then Clarice’s resulting actions. It’s somewhat ironic that the television plea meant to inspire empathy in Bill (who couldn’t care less) actually inspires Clarice to act in ways that will ultimately lead to the rescue of the kidnapped girl.

Later, after Lector escapes, Clarice talks with her roommate and has a breakthrough in the case, but Bill’s first victim is there to make the back and forth into a three-person scene:

Clarice goes to Bimmel’s house, where she learns about the girl’s sad life — the life Clarice could have had if she hadn’t fled to the FBI. She interviews one of Bimmel’s only friends, a bank teller, and we get loose close-ups again. The teller isn’t looking intently at Clarice, she’s often looking away to answer questions or address a thought towards her dead friend, but Clarice is intent and focused.

Her gaze combines her empathy with the investigative drive that it motivates. She’s come into her own as an agent and it’s this conversation that gives her the final clue, leading her to the killer’s house.

MEANWHILE, we have Bill, who isn’t looking at Clarice specifically; he spends the film gazing at femininity and female bodies. Not because he fetishes them, but because he desires their identity. His gaze is so strong that he’s become jealous of it, essentially. This is why he typically talks to himself; it’s masturbatory in the strongest sense, totally self-focused. (“Would you fuck me?” he asks himself. “I’d fuck me.”) He’s narcissistic, not in that he’s self-aggrandizing, but in that no one else exists for him. It’s why he calls Catherine “it” and won’t even look at her when she’s in the pit until she forces him to.

When he’s first introduced, abducting Catherine, we don’t get a close-up on his face, but we do get one of what he’s looking at. Unlike everyone else, it isn’t another face. Catherine isn’t a person to him.

POV is a classic horror technique to implicate the audience in a killer’s desires. Here, because it’s not so far off from the style used in most of the film’s conversations, I think it simply puts us in Bill’s head enough for us to draw the connection — this must be Bill, because he covets her skin.

Next we get a pan through Bill’s creepy dungeon, where he’s intent on his sewing, ignoring Catherine’s cries:

The very next scene, by the way, is Clarice looking at Catherine on television. His sociopathic disregard for Catherine is directly juxtaposed with Clarice’s empathy for her.

Later we get the infamous lotion scene. He hovers over the edge of the pit, which symbolizes the power he has over her, the lack of regard he has for her. Where Crawford’s gaze was uncomfortable and Lector’s powerful and penetrating, Gumb’s is hollow, predatory, and unbalanced. It’s literally objectifying, in that he sees Catherine as an “it” that he wants to turn into an object (her skin, to be sewn into a dress). The dog is a cruel joke, in that he cares much more about the animal than he does about the human girl.

Catherine looks up, completely powerless and destablized (she keeps floating back and forth within the frame), trying but unable to connect with him.

This is why Bill is the antagonist, not Lector — Lector’s gaze is harsh but (at least while he remains behind bars) it’s fair. Quid pro quo, right? Visually Lector and Clarice are on the same level, looking straight across at one another. But Gumb’s gaze puts him above Catherine, and her below. It’s unequal, and the power differential there is what’s so horrifying, in that it allows him to kill women without a second thought.

Later he sets up a camera and films himself dressed as a woman. Narcissism again — he intends to watch it later and look at himself. So his ultimate pathology is to objectify these women through his gaze, and then use their bodies to attract that gaze back onto himself.

So now we’re back to the climactic sequence in Gumb’s basement. This presents a microcosm for the film (mirroring the microcosm at the beginning, the obstacle course) — Catherine yelling for help (like the bleating of a scared lamb), Clarice investigating, viewing one horror after the next, searching for Bill. But he’s already found her.

and an increasing close-up on Clarice as he (his uncaring, murderous gaze) gets closer:

Culminating in this POV shot:

See what I mean about mismatched gazes? Again we have the power differential–he can see her, she can’t see him–and the dovetailing of their arcs, as Bill reaches out a hand, seeking to possess her as an object while she searches for him to stop him. The device of the night vision allows her to look right at him without seeing him:

Again contrasting with Lector–we thought she was vulnerable then, but she at least was knowingly trading with him, letting him gaze at her. What Gumb is doing is visual rape.

But action (Clarice hears Gumb cocking his gun and fires first) leads to clarity, as a stray shot hits the window and lets in the light, leaving Clarice and Gumb in a two-shot. Gumb is flat on his back. Thanks to the angle it looks like he’s looking straight up at her. The power differential established between Bill and Catherine over the pit has been reversed and the monstrous gaze defeated.

The movie doesn’t end there, though. After the graduation and the handshake with Crawford, Clarice gets a phone call from Lector. As with Crawford, the gaze is absent — Lector’s eyes are looking away (at Chilton, actually), and hidden behind a pair of sunglasses — while he promises not to come after her. But only because he finds her too interesting.

We’re left with the understanding that even though Clarice neutralized (Crawford) and defeated (Gumb) the male gaze, it still exists out in the world and could return to her. The dangling loose end shows that her victory is not final, and that the problems of gender interaction can never fully be solved. Clarice will have to continue doing the best she can.