Based on Thomas Harris' wildly popular novel of the same name---which celebrates its 20th birthday next year, incidentally---Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs (1991) remains one of the most talked about crime dramas in film history. Meticulous in detail and rich in layers, The Silence of the Lambs leads us on an irresistibly dark journey with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a young woman who's yet to earn her wings at the FBI. She stands out from the crowd with her West Virginian accent, fiery red hair and small stature---but it's her work that's attracted the attention of Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the head of Quantico's Behavioral Science Unit.
Crawford and his team have their sights set on "Buffalo Bill" (Ted Levine), a serial killer who kidnaps overweight women and skins them for reasons yet unknown. To help get inside the mind of Buffalo Bill, Crawford sends Starling to interview convicted serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who's believed to have ties with the murderer-at-large. When the daughter of a U.S. Senator is kidnapped (presumably by Buffalo Bill), the stakes are raised even higher. In order for Lecter to help Starling, however, she is forced to let the former psychiatrist get inside her own head.
Simply put, The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most influential films of the last 20 years. Often imitated but never duplicated, the film---and book that inspired it, of course---helped to set the bar high for popular TV shows like Chris Carter's The X-Files and equally dark films like David Fincher's Se7en. Some have come awfully close to matching the pitch-perfect tension and atmosphere created by The Little Film That Could, but this five-time Oscar winner really broke the mold in 1991. Not surprisingly, it's managed to hold up better than most would've thought possible, even after two underrated but disappointing sequels.
It's been called to attention many times before, but Hopkins most likely holds the record for the shortest "Best Actor" screen time, hands down. He's barely seen for more than 15 minutes, yet his spirit looms over the entire film; like Akira Kurosawa's title character in Red Beard, he's talked about almost mythically before he even appears. It's a true testament not only to Hopkins' performance, but to the strength and depth of the author's original character. This holds true for Starling and most of the supporting players as well: their interaction with one another is the glue that holds The Silence of the Lambs together, while a number of other strengths offer plenty of additional support.
Carefully chosen and crafted, the film's soundtrack and score also help maintain the strong atmosphere. It's difficult to imagine most of the key scenes with any other music attached: whether it's Howard Shore's haunting music, Q. Lazzarus' "Goodbye Horses" (used earlier in Demme's own Married to the Mob) or Tom Petty's "American Girl", everything flows exceedingly well. The set design also deserves mention, from the hellish catacombs of the Baltimore State Hospital...to the hellish catacombs of Buffalo Bill's humble abode (apparently based on the author's own blueprints).
Unnerving, unsettling but ultimately uplifting, The Silence of the Lambs remains a richly detailed and original film that we should all be familiar with. 2007 marks the film's fourth appearance on DVD, following Image Entertainment, Criterion and MGM's earlier efforts from 1997, 1998 and 2001, respectively. MGM's second attempt is a 2-Disc Collector's Edition; it doesn't mark the first anamorphic transfer (or even the first dual-layered disc, for that matter), but it manages to easily overtake the company's earlier Special Edition in several departments. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen displays, this fourth DVD release of The Silence of the Lambs features yet another new transfer. Three out of four are compared below (Criterion's 1998 release, MGM's 2001 Special Edition and this new 2007 Collector's Edition), revealing a few obvious differences and a few not-so-obvious ones. Only the two MGM discs are anamorphic, giving them a clear advantage in the race. Criterion's framing looks to be a bit more consistent, as the two most recent releases are often cropped slightly at the top edge. Overall, the newer Collector's Edition boasts the smoothest appearance and most natural color palette, though owners of MGM's Special Edition won't notice a night-and-day improvement. Still, there's nothing like a good visual aid, is there?
1. Do not feed the animals | 2. "Miggs is dead..." | 3. Looking down the well
The audio presentation is easier to dissect, as the Dolby 5.1 Surround mix appears identical to MGM's Special Edition (Criterion's release settles for a 2.0 Surround track). This is a full-bodied mix, boasting clear dialogue and occasional use of the surround channels for dramatic effect. The flawless score and soundtrack are also represented faithfully. Also included (during the main feature only) are 2.0 Surround mixes in French and Spanish, as well as English and Spanish subtitles.
New to this release are a trio of interviews and other goodies produced between 2002 and 2005, some of which have been broken down further into smaller segments. "Silence of the Lambs: Page to Screen" (41:17), produced for the Bravo network, naturally discusses the film's transition from best-seller to blockbuster. This section includes "A Wealth of Talent", which chronicles the early stages of the adaptation; and "Preparation and Authenticity", which reveals the level of detail and care taken in the translation (including extensive FBI training methods and using the author's own blueprints for set design). Along the way, we hear from members of the cast and crew, as well as a few "outsiders" like Gene Hackman (who expressed interest in producing and directing the film early on, but backed out for personal reasons).
Another new supplement is a collection of Interviews with Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster (52:35, seen below at left), serving as an additional overview of the film's production from the cast and crew's perspective. Both Demme and Foster speak fondly of the project from its early developmental stages through its phenomenal Oscar performance, often pausing to mention several "unsung heroes" and the like. There's a bit of overlap between these interviews and the prior featurettes (including "Into the Labyrinth"), but their retrospective comments are still nice to hear.
Closing out the new extras is "Scoring the Silence" (15:21), a brief but valuable conversation with composer Howard Shore. It's much more straightforward than the other two (and a bit clip-heavy, though it's necessary for the score excerpts to remain in context), but Shore seems passionate about his collaborative contributions to the film. As music-only tracks with composer commentary are few and far between on DVD, this seems to be the next best thing.
All bonus features are presented in 1.33:1 and non-amamorphic aspect ratios, while none include optional Closed Captions or subtitles. They're certainly organized well, but they don't feel truly polished without including these "small details".
Proud owners of the long out-of-print Criterion disc will want to keep it for the excellent audio commentary, as well as a few deleted scenes that aren't featured on either of the MGM releases (the "Brother Jim" segment comes immediately to mind). In fact, it's the lack of an audio commentary that keeps this 2-Disc Collector's Edition from being a truly definitive release, despite the wealth of supplements; if nothing else, Disc 1 simply feels bare in comparison. Still, this is a strong package that fans will enjoy, as the newly-recorded material further cements the film's durability.
As one of the most powerful, popular and influential crime dramas ever made, it's nearly impossible to find a movie lover who isn't familiar with The Silence of the Lambs. As such, it's difficult to imagine any fan of the film having not purchased it on DVD already: Image Entertainment got the ball rolling 10 years ago, but Criterion and MGM followed up with excellent releases in their own right. MGM's new 2-Disc Collector's Edition is the most rounded of the bunch, offering a modest improvement in image quality and a strong assortment of new extras. Owners of the Criterion release should consider this a perfect partner, while owners of MGM's Special Edition should consider upgrading completely. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.