The Silence of the Lambs Beat Sheet
Screenplay by: Ted Tally, based on the novel by Thomas Harris
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Genre: Buddy Love (Professional Love subgenre) with a hefty dose of Whydunit
Opening Image: A misty lake surrounded by woods. A young female FBI trainee, pushing herself hard through a physical training course. And on she runs…
Set-Up: This petite but determined woman is Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). She’s called away from her training to meet with Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences department. As she waits in his office, we get our first glimpse of the story’s antagonist through a collage of news clippings and crime scene photos attributed to serial killer Buffalo Bill.
Crawford assigns Clarice to an “interesting errand”: to interview notorious psychopath Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), aka Hannibal the Cannibal. When Clarice asks if this is related to the Buffalo Bill case, Crawford denies it – sort of.
Theme Stated: In a story that explores gender “rules,” roles, and politics, Crawford’s warning: “Do not deviate from [procedures], for any reason. You tell him nothing personal, Starling. Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head,” speaks to the plot but also to the theme. Over the course of the movie we’ll examine gender expectations, and fears around our true natures.
At the psychiatric prison, Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) leads Clarice into the bowels of the building, where the most dangerous inmates are kept. Chilton also clumsily flirts with Clarice, which she rebuffs. But later, she uses a flirtatious comment to defuse his annoyance at her.
Catalyst: Clarice meets Lecter. Our incomplete hero finally faces the counterpart who will make that completion come about. The relationship between the two is so strong and so central to this movie, that it’s my deciding factor in categorizing the film as a Buddy Love (Professional Love) story. The majority of the major plot beats follow the development of this relationship. However, there are strong elements of Whydunit present, as well. I might even call this a near-equal hybrid of the two.
When Clarice challenges Lecter, he issues his own (now famous) warning: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” This reminds us of the stakes – Clarice is risking her own life in order to save the lives of others.
Before the end of the scene, Lecter offers a clue: a riddle containing information about a former patient of his.
Debate: Leaving the meeting with Lecter, Clarice has a flashback to herself as a child with her sheriff father. In the present, Clarice breaks down and weeps. This, along with the analysis of her that Lecter offered in the previous scene, lets us know that there’s much more to Clarice’s past that she still needs to deal with. It’s both the root of her ambition, and her Achilles heel.
Is Clarice up to Lecter’s challenge? She solves the riddle, which leads to a storage garage containing the severed head of Benjamin Raspail, Lecter’s former patient. Clarice returns to Lecter, who links Raspail to Buffalo Bill.
Break into Two: Lecter makes an offer. He’ll provide a psychological profile of Buffalo Bill based on the case file, in exchange for transfer to a facility with a view (and away from Dr. Chilton). Lecter tells her, “I’ll help you catch him, Clarice.”
B Story: We see Buffalo Bill take his next victim, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), a senator’s daughter. This starts the ticking clock of the movie, as Buffalo Bill will kill Catherine in three days unless he’s stopped. This B Story also continues to explore the themes of gender roles. We see Buffalo Bill’s plan to transform himself into a woman. And, later, Catherine upends the damsel-in-distress trope as she turns the tables on her captor.
But Clarice and the FBI aren’t aware of her abduction yet. They’re preoccupied with the body that’s just been discovered, an earlier Buffalo Bill victim.
Fun and Games: Clarice accompanies Crawford to the funeral home to examine the body. There, she has another childhood flashback to her father’s funeral. Then, surrounded by a swarm of male law enforcement officers and colleagues, Clarice tries to assert herself as an equal deserving of their respect.
During the exam, they find a strange pod in the throat of the victim. Clarice brings the clue to a couple of entomologists, who reveal that it’s the cocoon of a Death’s Head Moth – an insect that can’t be obtained in the U.S.
Clarice sees news of Catherine’s kidnapping. She returns to meet with Lecter and is now authorized to make him a deal for his help catching Buffalo Bill. Though she’s offering everything he previously asked for, Lecter wants more: he wants to get inside Clarice’s head. The one thing she was warned not to allow. But here her ambition wins out over following the rules. They begin their relationship of “quid pro quo.”
Midpoint: Chilton sabotages the arrangement (and their relationship) by revealing to Lecter that the deal is a fake. “They scammed you,” taunts Chilton. He offers Lecter a deal of his own. Lecter accepts – but refuses to identify Buffalo Bill by name unless he’s flown to Tennessee so he can tell the Senator himself.
Bad Guys Close In: Crawford admits he put Clarice up to the fake offer and is reprimanded for his actions, and told that someone else is taking over in Memphis. When Lecter arrives in Memphis, he meets with the Senator and her people, and gives them the name they’re seeking – a lead to rescue Catherine.
Clarice arrives, seeing Chilton basking in the media spotlight. Unable to give up the investigation, she talks her way into seeing Lecter once again.
All Is Lost: Despite bringing him a peace offering (his previously confiscated drawings), Lecter isn’t so easily won over. He reprimands her for the fake deal. Is their relationship damaged beyond repair?
Dark Night of the Soul: Lecter demands more quid pro quo. Finally Clarice reveals her most closely-guarded story: the childhood terror of the screaming lambs and being unable to save even one. She was too small, too weak. Will she ever be strong enough to save innocents from the slaughter?
Later, Lecter manages to escape his cell. A manhunt within the building reveals his gruesome handiwork and brilliant plan, perfectly executed as he wears a guard’s face as a mask to make his exit via ambulance.
Break into Three: Clarice learns of Lecter’s escape. Her mentor gone, she’s on her own now to finally succeed or fail.
Clarice pores over the case files (with her Academy roommate as a sounding board). Using what she’s learned from Lecter, Clarice reasons out another lead. “He knew her.”
Clarice goes to Ohio to talk to the family of the very first victim. Sewing supplies in the victim’s bedroom spark another realization: “He’s making a woman suit.” Clarice is closing in on solving the mystery. But when she calls Crawford, he tells her they already have the identity – Jame Gumb (Ted Levine). Crawford and the other agents are on their way to apprehend the suspect now. Clarice, who’s done so much for the case, is too far away to catch up to them. She’s sidelined.
Meanwhile, Catherine – the B Story we’ve checked in with throughout the movie – upends the idea of a helpless woman as she plots and traps Buffalo Bill’s beloved pet dog in order to gain some leverage over her tormentor.
Finale: Crawford leads his team to the location they believe is Buffalo Bill’s lair, ready to storm the castle, only to find it empty.
Clarice, following leads from interviews with the first victim’s family and friends, find herself at the house of Jame Gumb — who she soon realizes is Buffalo Bill, a frightening high tower surprise.
So begins the execution of the new plan, as Clarice engages in a tense game of cat-and-mouse throughout the house, and into the dungeon-like basement. Things go from bad to worse when Jame knocks out the lights, using his night vision goggles to get the upper hand. But Clarice, following her instincts, shoots Jame – breaking a window in the process, flooding the scene with light.
Final Image: On the day of Clarice’s graduation from the FBI Academy, she receives a call from… Hannibal Lecter. He tells her not to come after him, and he won’t come after her. We realize that Lecter is the only man who’s treated Clarice as an equal throughout the movie. And with that, he’s given her what she needed to embrace the truest, strongest version of herself. Though their “love story” couldn’t continue, there’s a note of respect even in the goodbye.
Thanks, Steve! It’s a movie worth revisiting — a real masterclass. You’re right – it’s so much more than a detective story.
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An intriguing and well written analysis. I shall have to revisit this film. What gets the story well over the line, for me at least, is the way the relationship between Hannibal and Clarice changes and evolves. It added an extra element to her dramatic objective: to win his fealty and approval. This was so much more than a mere detective story.