The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Film #0573

Directed by Jonathan Demme 
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 2011 
I first watched it on June 24th, 2019

What It’s About:

When a serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill” abducts the adult daughter of a U.S. senator, a young FBI-agent in training is assigned to interview Hannibal Lecter, a cannibalistic serial killer in police custody, in the hopes that he might provide them with insights into Buffalo Bill’s deranged mind.

My experience with the film:

I have a friend who has repeatedly said that the biggest snub in Oscar history is the fact that Silence of the Lambs beat Beauty and the Beast (the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture) for the top prize at the 1992 Oscar ceremony. Having now seen The Silence of the Lambs twice (first in 2019 as a part of my still-ongoing, and partially sidelined, quest to watch every Best-Picture-winning film, first mentioned here, and again more recently for my monthly Oscar movie club, first explained here), I can now say that I respectfully disagree. 

I actually mentioned his position on the film to my movie club during our meeting a couple days ago, and we all unanimously agreed that Silence of the Lambs was the more deserving winner (also notable: this was one of the rare instances where we were all in agreement about liking the film, as there’s usually at least one or more dissenters). 

However, since I personally consider induction to the NFR to be a higher, though less flashier, honor (at least for American-made films, since foreign-made films are rarely, if ever, added to the Registry) my friend may have the last laugh: Beauty and the Beast was inducted to the NFR in 2002, just one year after it was eligible (films can’t be inducted until they’re at least 10 years old, and most films are usually inducted several years after they’re first eligible). It took nine additional years for The Silence of the Lambs to be inducted, a sign that the NFR potentially considers Beauty and the Beast to be more “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” to American cinema, when compared to Silence of the Lambs. Regardless, I think they’re both great films.

(For the record, my pick for the actual “biggest snub in Oscar history”, at least in recent memory, is the fact that The Lego Movie, which absolutely deserved to win “Best Animated Feature”, wasn’t even nominated for that category. I will most definitely be nominating it for the NFR in 2024.)

Returning to Silence of the Lambs, I can’t say much more about Lambs than has already been said: Anthony Hopkins’ acting is absolutely phenomenal and sticks with you long after the film is over (especially when you consider how little screen time he actually has in the film—supposedly only 16 minutes according to some of the sources linked below, though I never used a stopwatch to determine if that was accurate.) Jodie Foster’s acting shouldn’t be overlooked either—there’s a reason she won Best Actress for this film. (Apparently the two actors were so intimidated by each other, that they rarely spoke to each other off camera until their final day of filming together, when they finally struck up a conversation and got to know each other.) The fact that the film is shot mostly from Clarice’s POV, and includes several uncomfortable extreme close-ups is also noteworthy, as is the editing (especially in the scene where it seems that the FBI is about to raid Buffalo Bill’s house only for it be revealed that they are at the wrong location, and that it is Clarice, alone, who is on Bill’s doorstep). 

One last note: Anthony Hopkins ends the film with an extremely memorable quote, “I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.” Not satisfied with haunting us only at the end of the regular version of the film, in the audio commentary on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray, the final thing that Anthony Hopkins says, in his Hannibal Lecter voice, is “To those of you who are watching this movie: pleasant dreams. Bye.” 

Availability:

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/the-silence-of-the-lambs 

To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:

For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory

Follow the NFR Completist on Twitter and Instagram

Dracula (1931) – Film #0282

Directed by Tod Browning (with many arguing that the cinematographer, Karl Freund, also deserves a directing credit, for his substantial work on the film) 
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 2000

“Listen to them—children of the night! What music they make!”

At the current time of writing (fairly early in my NFR Completist project, but not so early in my ongoing attempts to watch “important” movies), I’ve seen several films from the early “talkie” era. Some of them surprised me by how modern they felt (such as “It Happened One Night”). Others surprised me by how relevant they still were, despite feeling very much like an “old movie” (such as “All Quiet on the Western Front”). Then there’s a movie like Dracula, which I didn’t fully appreciate while actually viewing the film. Many of the special effects are incredibly dated (fake bats and spiders galore!), the film has no actual score outside of the opening and closing credits, and both the editing and overall pacing seem to be much slower than a modern movie. Not to mention the fact that outside of a very animated and eccentric performance from a supporting character, much of the “horror” that the characters either cause or experience is conveyed through silent physical acting, rather than any audible dialogue. However, as I began to research the film, I learned several different pieces of background information that explained many of these aspects. 

For example, the director, Tod Browning, made several silent horror films in his career before filming Dracula. In the extras on the Dracula Blu-ray, different film commentators noted that it is likely that Browning directed Dracula more like the silent films that he was accustomed to. (It should also be noted that “talkies” were only a few years old at this point, so the cinematic norms for talkies were still being formed.) Indeed, in those same extras, the niece of the film’s producer (Carl Laemmle Jr.) refers to this film as the “first talking supernatural thriller.” 

In fact, it may have been the first American “supernatural thriller” period. Up until this point, most American “horror films” (though they weren’t called that yet—more on that in a moment) were either somewhat grounded in reality, or the supernatural aspects were revealed to be grounded in reality by the end of the film (think Scooby Doo—it was just Farmer Johnson using smoke and mirrors and wearing a mask all along). Dracula was the first to play up and focus on the supernatural elements. Dracula also popularized the now common term for this genre, “horror movie,” as critics and audiences quickly began using this (then) unofficial term to refer to the film, and it’s stuck ever since. While the film seems simple and almost quaint by today’s horror standards, there are (possibly apocryphal) stories of audience members fainting at the initial screenings.

One terrifying moment occurs in the epilogue scene of the film, which was later edited out by censors after its initial theatrical run (unfortunately, only low-quality prints of the scene now exist). The fourth-wall breaking scene involves a narrator on a stage speaking directly to the audience. At first, he seems to assure us, but then, he does just the opposite: “Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen! A word before you go. We hope the memories of Dracula and Renfield won’t give you bad dreams, so just a word of reassurance. When you get home tonight and the lights have been turned out and you are afraid to look behind the curtains—and you dread to see a face appear at the window—why, just pull yourself together and remember that after all … there are such things as vampires!” 

Much of the film’s continuing success comes from Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the titular character. Lugosi was playing the role of Dracula in the same stage play on which the film would be based when he was cast in the role of the film (the play itself was, of course, based on the classic Bram Stoker novel). However, his role in both the play and the film seemed to occur by luck: he was cast in the play largely because the production had already gone over-budget before casting him, and they couldn’t afford to cast any well-known actors in the main role. Likewise, several other actors were considered for the film role (including Lon Chaney Sr., who was a well-known horror actor, but was battling terminal cancer at the time, and Boris Karloff, who would later go on to star as other monsters in Frankenstein and The Mummy,) before Lugosi was finally offered the job. Nonetheless, his performance was a hit, and has gone on to influence the modern image of Dracula as the “tall, dark, and handsome” type, more than the gruesome-looking figure that is depicted in the novel.

This portrayal was helped by Lugosi’s actual Hungarian accent (having only emigrated to the U.S. a few years earlier.) Legend has it that when he first played the role of Dracula in the stage production, he had to memorize many of his lines phonetically, since he was still learning English. However, some (including film critic Roger Ebert), doubt the authenticity of this story, and consider it to be more of a Hollywood myth. 

Despite his iconic performance (or perhaps because of it), Lugosi had a hard time finding roles for the rest of his career, as he was usually typecast as a monster or a villain in films that never reached the popularity of his breakout role. At times, he resented the way that the public continued to associate him with the role, but at other times, he seemed to embrace it. When he died, his wife and son chose to bury him wearing one of his capes that he wore in the film.

Dracula is a film that continues to impact popular culture today, though it may need some context for modern audiences to fully appreciate it. This background research provided me with yet another reminder of why I chose to undergo this NFR Completist project: as much as I enjoy watching these films, I sometimes enjoy learning about the history and context of them even more (and in so doing, usually gain a deeper appreciation for the film than I had while viewing it.)

Be sure to follow my NFR Completist project on Twitter and Instagram.

Availability:
Dracula (1931) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/dracula

Information sources and additional resources: