Promising FBI Academy student Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is attending the FBI Training Facility at Quantico, Virginia when she is summoned by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, who tasks her with presenting a ViCAP questionnaire to the notorious Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), brilliant forensic psychiatrist and incarcerated cannibalistic serial murderer. After learning the assignment relates to the pursuit of vicious serial killer Buffalo Bill, Starling travels to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and is led by Dr. Frederick Chilton to Hannibal Lecter, the sophisticated, cultured man restrained behind thick glass panels and windowless stone walls.
Although initially pleasant and courteous, Lecter grows impatient with Starling's attempts at "dissecting" him and viciously rebuffs her. As Starling departs, another patient flings fresh semen onto her face, enraging Lecter. He calls Starling back and offers a riddle containing information about a former patient of his. The solved riddle leads to a storage lot where Starling discovers the severed head of a man. She returns to Lecter, who tells her that the man is Benjamin Raspail, and that he is linked to Buffalo Bill. Lecter denies killing Raspail. He then offers to help profile Buffalo Bill if he is transferred to a facility far from the venomous, careerist Dr. Chilton.
Hours and miles away, Buffalo Bill abducts Catherine Martin, the daughter of United States Senator Ruth Martin. Starling is pulled from Quantico and accompanies Crawford to West Virginia, where the body of another of Bill's victims has been found. Starling helps perform the autopsy and extracts the chrysalis of a Death's-head Hawkmoth from the victim's throat. At Quantico, as news of Catherine Martin's abduction sweeps the country, Crawford authorizes Starling to offer Hannibal Lecter a fake deal promising a prison transfer if he provides information that helps profile Buffalo Bill and rescue Catherine Martin. Instead, Lecter begins a game of quid pro quo with Starling, offering comprehensive clues and insights about Buffalo Bill in exchange for events from Starling's traumatic childhood, something she was advised not to do.
Unaware to both Starling and Lecter, Dr. Chilton tapes the conversation and after revealing Starling's deal as a sham, offers to transfer Lecter in exchange for a deal of his own making. Lecter agrees and is flown to Tennessee where he reveals what he says is Buffalo Bill's real name, physical description and past address to Senator Martin and her entourage of FBI agents and Justice Department officials. He even claims to have met Bill on a one-off occasion and that he was the lover of Benjamin Raspail, the man whose head was found earlier by Starling. Starling quickly deduces that it is all a sham as well and that Lecter is playing games with riddles.
As the manhunt begins, Starling travels to Lecter's special cell in a local Tennessee courthouse, where she confronts him about the false information he gave the Senator. Lecter refuses Starling's pleas for the truth and demands she finish her story surrounding her worst childhood memory. Starling tells of how she was orphaned, went to stay at a relative's farm, discovered the horror of their lamb slaughterhouse and made a fruitless attempt to rescue one of the lambs. Lecter gives her the case files on Buffalo Bill, saying that they are all she needs to find the killer and rescue Catherine Martin. They are then interrupted by Dr. Chilton and the police who escort her out of the building.
Later that evening, Lecter escapes from his cell. The local police storm the floor when they hear gunshots, discovering one guard barely alive and the other disemboweled and strung up on the walls. Paramedics transport the survivor to an ambulance and speed off while a SWAT team searches the building for Lecter. As the team discover a body in the elevator shaft, the survivor in the ambulance peels off his face, revealing Lecter in disguise. He kills the paramedics, murders another man for his papers and money and escapes to the airport.
After being notified of Lecter's escape, Starling pores over her case files, analyzing Lecter's annotations before realizing that the first victim, Frederica Bimmel, knew Bill in real life before he killed her. Starling travels to Bimmel's hometown and discovers that Bimmel was a tailor and has dresses with templates identical to the patches of skin removed from Buffalo Bill's victims. Realizing that Buffalo Bill is a tailor fashioning a "woman suit" of real skin, she telephones Crawford, who is already on the way to make an arrest, having cross-referenced Lecter's notes with Johns Hopkins Hospital and finding a man named James Gumb who once applied for a sex-change operation. Crawford instructs Starling to continue interviewing Bimmel's friends while he leads a SWAT team to Gumb's address in Calumet City, Illinois. Starling's interviews lead to the house of "Jack Gordon," who Starling soon realizes is actually James Gumb, and draws her weapon as Gumb disappears into his multi-room basement. Starling pursues him, discovering a screaming Catherine Martin in the dry well just before the lights in the basement go out, leaving her in complete darkness. Gumb stalks Starling in the dark with night vision goggles and prepares to shoot her when Starling, hearing the cocking of his revolver, spins around and fires several times into the darkness, killing Gumb.
Days later at the FBI Academy graduation party, Starling receives a phone call from Hannibal Lecter who is at an airport in the Bahamas. Lecter assures Starling he has no plans to pursue her and asks her to show him the same courtesy. He then excuses himself, remarking that he's "having an old friend for dinner". He hangs up the phone and casually follows Dr. Chilton through the village.
Sean Connery was initially offered the role of Hannibal Lecter, but turned it down.
Actor Gene Hackman was originally slated to direct the film, but changed his mind after reading the first screenplay draft done by Ted Tally, supposedly due to the level of violence the script contained.
The majority of the film was shot in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania because it has highly variable landscapes and architecture. This variety made it easier to depict many different parts of the country.
Both the scene of Lecter in his cage at the "Memphis Court House" and the Baltimore jail scene were filmed at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh.
None of the action of the film is set by the storyline as being in Pennsylvania, even though the registration stickers on the windshields of all of the vehicles indicate a Pennsylvania residency.
The film received widespread critical acclaim; Rotten Tomatoes records that Silence of the Lambs received a 96% positive response from critics. Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster also received praise for their performances. Roger Ebert specifically mentioned the "terrifying qualities" of Hannibal Lecter.
Worldwide gross: $272,742,922
|Academy Awards record|
|1. Best Actor, Anthony Hopkins|
|2. Best Actress, Jodie Foster|
|3. Best Director, Jonathan Demme|
|4. Best Picture, Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, Ronald M. Bozman|
|5. Best Adapted Screenplay, Ted Tally|
|Golden Globe Awards record|
|1. Best Actress, Jodie Foster|
|BAFTA Awards record|
|1. Best Actor, Anthony Hopkins|
|2. Best Actress, Jodie Foster|
Jonathan Demme won an Academy Award for Best Director. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins both won Oscars for their roles as Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter, respectively. The film won additional Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. The Silence of the Lambs is only the third (and most recent) film to win the five most prestigious Academy Awards (after It Happened One Night, 1934 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1975).
The film is second in the department of most Oscar nominations for a horror film (7) tying the record previously set by Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte in 1964; The Exorcist is in first place with 10 nominations.
Other awards include "best picture" from CHI Awards, the "best film" from PEO Awards, and won Best Film from National Board of Review, all in 1991. In 1991, Jonathan Demme was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for best director. In 1992, Ted Tally received an Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. In 1991 it was nominated for "best film" at the BAFTA Awards (British Academy of Film and Television Arts). In 1998, it was listed as one of the 100 greatest movies in the past 100 years by the American Film Institute.
In 2006 at the Key Art Awards, the original poster for The Silence of the Lambs was named best film poster "of the past 35 years".
The Silence of the Lambs placed 7th on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments. The American Film Institute named Hannibal Lecter as portrayed by Hopkins the number one film villain of all time and Clarice Starling as portrayed by Foster the sixth greatest film hero of all time.
Upon its release, The Silence of the Lambs was criticized by members of the gay community for being what they perceived as another in a long line of negative on-screen portrayals of LGBT characters in the absence of any positive portrayals. Following the announcement of the film's many nominations, rumors began circulating almost immediately that gay rights groups like Queer Nation were planning to disrupt the live Oscar telecast should the film win any awards. While ultimately no such protests materialized, the rumors did lead to media discussion of Hollywood's attitudes toward sexual minorities and an overview linking the rumored protests to other Academy Awards controversies, in media outlets ranging from the CBS Evening News to The National Enquirer. In the years following The Silence of the Lambs an increased number of gay-themed films and gay characters were created by Hollywood. Indeed, Lambs director Jonathan Demme's next project was the AIDS-related drama Philadelphia.
In the images, the death's head on the moths' backs is not their natural pattern, but a superimposed miniature image of Salvador Dalí and Philippe Halsman's In Voluptas Mors, which forms the image of a skull from naked bodies
The Silence of the Lambs has been parodied multiple times in the media: