Clarice Starling, Meet Dr. Hannibal Lecter – a Scene Analysis

One of the most enthralling sequences in The Silence of the Lambs is the first meeting between Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and it is a masterclass in visual storytelling.  This piece will analyze this entire sequence shot-by-shot,  explaining the cinematic techniques that director Jonathan Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto use to tell this crucial portion of their story.  We’ll be looking at different aspects of each shot including:  composition, point of view, camera movement, pacing, and more.  We’ll see how in a mere six minutes and three seconds, these 60 shots convey characterization, plot, and even crucial thematic ideas that would develop through the course of the film.

I have chosen to address this task through screen shots instead of video.  While videos make noticing cuts and camera movements easier, they can distract from the writing and can have pacing issues.  By using screen shots instead of video, I get to pace everything deliberately and spend precise amount of time on each shot.  It also allows the reader to move at their own pace, look back over things, and then move on without missing anything.  Still, I recognize that some may want to have the scene at their disposal, so I’ll start with a link to the video of this sequence.

(If you’re interested in more The Silence of the Lambs pieces, click here for a long form review, and here for a scene-by-scene script analysis of the film).


This video starts at Shot 1, is of reasonable quality, and contains everything we’ll discuss besides Shot 0.


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Shot 0:  Clarice walks up to Lecter’s cell, one of the few shots that is not a POV of either character.

Shot 0 is the preamble to the scene.  Clarice Starling walks down the hallway towards Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s cell.  Practically the entirety of the movie up until this point has been hearsay characterization of Lecter, first by Jack Crawford, then by Dr. Chilton, then by Barney.  This is the final moment of anticipation before Clarice (and, by proxy, the audience) experiences “Hannibal the Cannibal” first-hand.

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Shot 1:  Clarice’s POV.  The majority of the shots will be from either Clarice’s or Lecter’s perspective, either from direct POV shots, Over-the-Shoulder (OtS) compositions, or medium shots.
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Shot 1, Continued:  One of the few shots in the sequence with motion, Clarice’s path reveals the contents of the cell, and the the angle of her POV thrusts Lecter into the center of the screen, allowing him to surprise us, despite standing stolid.
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Shot 1, continued:  Still Clarice’s POV, we frame Lecter in the cell, creating an upright, prostrate aspect ratio.  Thus, despite Lecter’s distance from camera and relatively flat angle, he appears tall, straight, strong,  and foreboding.

Shot 1 opens the scene with a POV shot from Clarice as she walks to the front of Lecter’s cell.  There is a great deal of movement in this shot.  It sneaks Lecter into the center of the screen by taking advantage of the angle of Clarice’s view, and establishes Lecter’s strength by framing him with the bars.  The decision to stand this way was suggested by Anthony Hopkins, who knew it would be unsettling because Lecter had be talked up enough already.

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Shot 2:  The first OtS shot we get, this one over Lecter’s shoulder.
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Shot 3:  The first OtS we get from behind Clarice.  Very similar compositions.

From here, we enter a pattern of shot/countershot as the two characters establish a decorum, reveal their intelligence, and size each other up in general.  The focus draws your eye to the subject, and the large presence in the foreground suggests keeps the other participant always in our minds.  But, since both characters occupy the frame in a similar fashion, Demme is conveying visually that they are equals – for now.

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Shot 4:  Back to behind Lecter for an OtS.
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Shot 5:  And then behind Clarice again
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Shot 6:  Back yet again to an OtS behind Lecter.  Here, he asks for her credentials.

Shots 2 – 6 are all OtS, all shot-countershot, and all obey the 180 degree rule, as will the remainder of the the scene.  This is an introduction and sizing up of each character.  These are short shots packed with dialogue, and their rapid-fire nature lends the opening of the scene a kind of electricity and excitement.  So far, Clarice is holding her own.

The compositions of these shots are more like mirror images than direct parallels.  Lecter is shown on the left, and Clarice is shown on the right.  At this point, it is sufficient to remark that Demme is keeping the characters separate and distinct, but that will soon change and the characters will overlap through match-cuts, camera movements, and other suggestions of parallelism.

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Shot 7:  Medium shot, Clarice’s POV.  This is the first time we see Lecter this close, though we’ll be getting much closer.
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Shot 8: Lecter’s POV, match-cut.  This is the first time we have seen through the eye of Dr. Hannibal Lecter.  His focus is not on the credentials, but Clarice’s face.  One crucial detail here:  Clarice looks straight to camera.  It is very rare for Clarice to look directly to camera in The Silence of the Lambs.  Usually, she looks slightly off-center.
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Shot 9:  Medium shot, Clarice’s POV, match cut.  Flashing back to Lecter, this time he is closer.  He is also looking straight to camera, but this is more normal for him (and other characters).
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Shot 9,  continued: One of the few pieces of camera motion in the entire sequence, here Demme zooms in on Lecter until we reach a close-up.  He stares straight to camera, forcing us to become Clarice Starling.  Here, his eyes glimmer and seek, peering into our souls.
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Shot 10:  Counter-shot, Close-up of Clarice from Lecter’s POV, match cut.  We don’t zoom in on Clarice, we just get an abrupt close-up.  Still straight-to-camera.
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Shot 11: Close-up, Clarice’s POV, match cut.  Here Lecter’s eyes are startlingly closed.  He’s calm, considering, contemplating.  He then reveals that he understands that Clarice isn’t “real FBI”.

In shots 7 – 11, Demme continues alternating between Hannibal and Clarice, but all of these are direct POV shots, first at medium distance, then at close-up.  Both characters look directly into the camera, and this is a clear stylistic choice from Demme.  Generally, characters in Silence of the Lambs look straight to camera when speaking to Clarice, as though these characters are addressing the audience directly.  It is a technique for placing the spectator in the shoes of the protagonist, and serves to generate empathy with Clarice.  When we enter POV shots of other characters, Clarice looks slightly to the side, keeping us out of the minds of the other characters.

Except for Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Clarice looks straight to camera when speaking with Lecter.  This allow the audience to empathize with him as well.  It is no wonder that we feel an appreciation and sympathy for the plight of Lecter in the same way that we do for Clarice.  Demme uses this technique for both characters.  Mostly when people are talking to Clarice, but sometimes when she is talking to Lecter.  The myriad match cuts cement the thematic similarity we are meant to ascribe to these two characters

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Shot 12: OtS from Lecter’s perspective.  This is an abrupt transition from the close-up POV shots, and these OtS are much closer and combative when compared to the earlier OtS shots.
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Shot 13: OtS from Clarice’s perspective.  Hannibal is taken aback that Jack Crawford has sent a trainee to him.
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Shot 14:  OtS, back to Lecter’s perspective.  Again we notice the shot-countershot technique employed by Demme.  Clarice answers Lecter’s verbal volley.
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Shot 15:  OtS from Clarice’s perspective.  Lecter is impressed by Clarice’s ability and decorum.
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Shot 16:  OtS from Lecter’s perspective, continuing the repartee and introduction of the two characters.
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Shot 17:  OtS from Clarice’s perspective.  All of these composition are practically identical.

Shots 12 – 17 are all OtS, all of similar composition with Lecter on the left of the screen and Clarice on the right, and only the target is in focus.  This is a visualization of the verbal maneuvering that Lecter and Starling are participating in, and Clarice is shown to be Lecter’s equal, both in the dialogue and the composition of these shots.

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Shot 18: OtS from Lecter’s perspective, but Clarice is not looking at him.  He asks her to sit.  She has been disarmed by his charm and is excited that she is making progress with her task.
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Shot 18, continued:  The camera tracks slightly as Clarice sits, some of the only character movement we will see in this sequence.  Later, the longest shot in the scene will also track on Clarice’s movement.
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Shot 18, continued:  Clarice has sat down.  She looks slightly smaller now.  Lecter will exploit this later.
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Shot 19:  Clarice’s POV, close-up.  Lecter is very large.  He is offering an opening volley, asking Clarice what Multiple Miggs hissed at her.
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Shot 20: Medium shot as Clarice answers an embarrassing question. Notice her size on the screen, relative to Lecter.
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Shot 21:  Clarice’s POV, close-up.  Back to Lecter being large, but this time his presence will be realized through one of the few . . .
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tracking shots (21 continued).  The camera reveals the airholes, and suddenly Clarice (and by extension, the spectator) doesn’t feel so safe anymore.
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Shot 21, continued.  The shot tracks back down as Lecter probes Clarice’s smells with an unnerving precision.
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Shot 22: Lecter’s POV, medium shot.  We see his invasion of Clarice’s space play across her face . . .
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Shot 22, continued.  To the point that Clarice has to look away.
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Shot 23: Clarice’s POV, close-up.  Lecter triumphant and pleased with himself.  He has successfully disarmed Clarice, and has scored his first point.
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Shot 24:  Lecter’s POV, medium shot.  Slightly weirded out and wounded, Clarice tries to change the subject by remarking on Lecter’s drawings.

In shots 18 – 24, the parallelism of the compositions has started to break down and shift towards Lecter, who is larger, occupies a more closed frame, and continues to stare directly into the camera.  His piercing gaze and the slight camera pan that conveys his active sense of smell is a direct invasion of Clarice’s personal space, and thus the viewer’s.

This stretch of the sequence is still organized in a shot-countershot motif, though not all of them are direct match cuts anymore.  This distances Clarice and Lecter for the first time.  Still, we’ve experienced 24 consecutive shots where Demme alternates between Lecter and Clarice, with very little interruption for zooms, pans, or other movement.  Clarice may be stumbling onto her back foot here, but she’s still a competent and capable combatant in this battle of wills.

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Shot 25:  A medium two shot showing both Lecter and Clarice.  This is the only shot in the entire sequence where both characters are in focus.

Shot 25 is a pause, a catching of the breath and resetting of the scene.  Demme means to allow the audience time to re-consider the setting and move on from the rapid repartee that they’ve just witnessed.  It is also a very clear separator between the introductory conversation and the second act of the sequence, where Lecter and Clarice will test each other more pointedly.  The composition of the shot further suggests that Lecter will begin this tilt with the upper hand, a dominance which will be continuously communicated by the eye-lines of the respective characters.

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Shot 26: Clarice’s POV, first focusing on Lecter’s detailed drawings, and then tracking left towards . . .
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. . . Lecter’s same close-up (Shot 26, continued).  This shot is again notable for its movement.  In this case, it may suggest Clarice’s curiosity over Lecter’s artistic gifts, or even the nature of his intelligence overall.
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Shot 27:  Medium shot of Clarice.  This shot is a little weird, and there will be more.  It’s clearly from Lecter’s perspective, but it isn’t a strict POV shot.  It also doesn’t include him in a OtS-type composition like we’ve seen before.  And Clarice does not look directly to camera, removing the earlier empathy we felt towards Lecter.
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Shot 28:  Clarice’s POV, in close-up.  Lecter still looms large in the center of the shot.  This shot ends with a J-cut (a cut where the sound from the next shot interjects before the cut actually happens).  Here, the J-cut audio is Clarice suggesting that Lecter take her questionnaire.  Also, we are back to the shot-countershot rhythm.
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Shot 29:  The same nondescript medium shot of Clarice.  She enjoys her pun a little too much, and this shot also transitions with a J-cut, in this case it is Lecter chiding Clarice for her misstep.
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Shot 30:  Clarice’s POV, close-up.  True glee on Lecter’s face.  He’s quite happy about catching Clarice for her mistake and insulting her for it.  The transition to shot 31 is a L-cut, which is the opposite of the J-cut:  Lecter’s chastisement bleeds past the cut, finishing on . . .
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. . . Shot 31: the Medium shot of Clarice, agitated and annoyed by Lecter’s arrogant insults.
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Shot 32:  Clarice’s POV, close-up.  Lecter’s triumph is obvious, and he probably recognizes Clarice’s agitation.  He still stares directly to camera, placing the spectator squarely in his psychotic crosshairs.
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Shot 33:  Back to the Medium shot.  But, Clarice stands up for herself and fires back.  Lecter can make fun of her all he wants, she’s still going to face him.

Shots 26-33 start on a camera movement representing Clarice’s traveling POV, ending on the face of Lecter in close-up.  These shots have the same compositions:  Clarice in medium and off-center, and Lecter in a close-up representing Clarice’s POV.  Again, Lecter’s size dominates this stretch.

Three consecutive shots employ a critical editing technique to further develop Lecter’s dominance.  The sequence is:  28 / J-cut / 29 / J-cut / 30 / L-cut / 31.  The first J-cut centers on Clarice’s suggestion to take the questionnaire, while Lecter’s sarcastic response comprises the second J-cut and the L-cut.  As his dialogue bleeds across three separate shots, Lecter dominates the conversation in both an auditory and visual way:  his words stretch out, and we see him talking both before and after seeing his face.

These shots also re-establish the shot-countershot rhythm that was broken by the two-er in shot 25.  This rhythm  will remain unbroken for another 20 shots (until shots 46 and 47, another important punctuation event).

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Shot 34:  Medium shot.  This is the companion composition to Clarice’s medium shot that was carried through the previous stretch, and is the first time we see Lecter framed alone in this fashion.  Again, this kind of shot removes the spectator from Lecter’s direct line-of-fire.
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Shot 35:  Medium shot, from Lecter’s perspective.  Both characters are framed in this way for the first time.  The reason?  The topic has shifted from them to a new character:  Buffalo Bill.
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Shot 36:  Medium shot of Lecter.  He challenges Clarice’s knowledge of Buffalo Bill, the latest in his long line of tests.
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Shot 37:  Lecter’s POV, close-up.  As the onus is placed on Clarice, she is framed in a more dominant fashion, returning to the direct-to-camera eye line.  This returns us to Lecter’s emotional perspective, as we observe Clarice displaying her intelligence.  Like Lecter, we’re impressed.
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Shot 38:  Medium Shot of Lecter.  He is not the focus of this sequence, nor are we meant to inhabit Clarice’s mindset.  Instead, we watch him pose more questions to Clarice.
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Shot 39:  Back to Lecter’s POV of Clarice, who is again handling his tests with an impressive deftness.
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Shot 40:  Clarice’s POV, close-up of Lecter.  Here, we snap back to Clarice’s POV as she makes a statement that Lecter challenges:  “Most serial killers keep some kind of trophy of their victims.”  Lecter’s rejoinder: “I didn’t” is met with another J-cut, this one spoken by Clarice:  “No . . .
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Shot 41: “. . .  no, you ate yours”.  Another POV close-up of Clarice.  She looks off-center, in this case to covey a sense of thinking on her feet.
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Shot 42:  Clarice’s POV, close-up, as Lecter contemplates her answer with a striking sense of visual parallelism, as they both look down and to their right.  Impressed again by Clarice, he acquiesces to her desire to give him the questionnaire.

Shots 34-42 dramatize another volley between Lecter and Clarice, one that Clarice clearly wins.  Though Demme begins with the first medium shots of Lecter, he eventually cuts to the POV close-up shots that are so common throughout this sequence.

The emotional and conceptual distance that we experience from the medium shots signals a change of focus for the scene as the characters begin discussing Buffalo Bill (instead of discussing each other).  Though their discussion continues to focus on Buffalo Bill, the intention of the sequence shifts slightly into another examination of Clarice’s abilities.  This time, she dominates the scene through an interrupting J-Cut and managing to force Lecter to stop and think for a moment before awarding her the victory and agreeing to read her questionnaire that was once such a source of derision.

Demme does a wonderful job directing these two talents.  There’s an obvious attempt to draw parallels between the two characters through framing and composition, but Demme also has them both think the same way, and manages to convey this in a visual way.  Simply brilliant.

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Shot 43: OtS shot from Lecter’s perspective.  A return to the OtS shot that almost exclusively made up the first third of this sequence (before Clarice sat down).  This is the longest shot in the scene, as it tracks all the way from Clarice grabbing the questionnaire, to placing it in the exchange drawer, to sitting back down in the chair.
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Shot 43, continued:  Clarice walks to deposit the questionnaire.  There’s a great moment where Clarice is completely obfuscated by Lecter’s form in the foreground.
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Shot 43, continued:  She places the questionnaire, but keeps her eyes on Lecter despite his confinement.  This is also a darker composition than we’re used to, a sly indication that Lecter always retains his savagery.
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Shot 43, continued:  Clarice keeps her eyes on Lecter as she sits down.
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Shot 43, continued:  Clarice sits and Lecter moves out of frame.  Technically, this is no longer an OtS, isolating Clarice.
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Shot 43, continued:  Clarice finally sits down, and considers Lecter in the cell.  She’s focused on his reaction to the questionnaire, as this is her entire goal.  As should be clear, Shot 43 is long; it takes up a full 18 seconds.
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Shot 44:  OtS from Clarice’s perspective.  Not since she sat down (the first time) have we seen an OtS from Clarice’s side, and this one has peculiar framing and composition on account of the metal border that bisects the screen.
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Shot 44, continued:  Lecter shows off some of his charm, which we will soon understand is a sardonic facade.
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Shot 45:  Medium shot of Clarice.  She has bought into Lecter’s ersatz engagement, and appears hopeful.
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Shot 46:  Clarice’s POV, extreme close up.  This is the questionnaire we’ve heard so much about.  Only one other shot does not contain either Lecter’s or Clarice’s face:  Shot 26, which opened on Lecter’s drawings and then panned over to his face.
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Shot 47:  Clarice’s POV, medium shot of Lecter.  Here is it:  Shots 46 and 47 are the only occasion in the entire scene where consecutive shots are from the same point-of-view, in this case Clarice’s.  The transition is an abrupt cut.

Shots 43 – 47 represent a crucial turning point in the scene.  Clarice has scored an important win, and is starting to feel some confidence.  The OtS shots establish the spectator as a passive viewer for a long stretch.

Shot 43 in particular is extremely long.  It is a full 18 seconds long in a sequence of 60 shots that stretch a mere 6 minutes and three seconds.  Hence, in a sequence where the average shot is only 6 seconds long, this shot drags on for three times that length.  Surrounded by such frenetic editing, Shot 43 is a pause, acting as punctuation between the second section and the final “act”, and building up the tension for what is about to happen.

Shots 46 and 47 are also important, in this case for representing the sole time that a cut doesn’t jump between the characters.  It is preparatory: as the singular example of doubling the audience’s exposure to Lecter, his upcoming waylay is subtly foreshadowed.

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Shot 48:  Medium shot of Clarice, with an off-center eye-line that looks up.  Here Lecter has challenged her questionnaire, and she is immediately on her back foot and diminutive.  Again Demme uses a J cut to Lecter, ending this shot with, “You’re so ambitious aren’t you?”  . . .
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. . . and then beginning with “You know what you look like to me?” in Shot 49:  a Medium shot of Lecter with a downward, off-center eye-line.  Observe the distinctive match-cut that accompanies the J-cut.  Generally in these medium shot compositions, Demme keeps Lecter to one side and Clarice to the other.  Here, both characters occupy the same space on the screen, an indication that Lecter is beginning to crowd Clarice’s space and dominate her.
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Shot 50:  Medium shot of Clarice, center screen but with the same off-center and upwards eye-line.  Demme is getting closer to her in order to reveal her vulnerability as Lecter rips into her.  Continuing his dominance, the transition from 49 to 50 is an L-cut (Lecter is still talking).  Again we see the J-cut to L-cut motif, keeping Lecter talking through two transitions. This time, he will continue all the way through Shot 53, a total of five transitions!
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Shot 51:  Another medium shot of Lecter, this one starting slightly close and then zooming even closer.
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Shot 51, continued:  This is how close Demme’s zoom gets him.  We are intimate witnesses to the emotional brutality of Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
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Shot 52:  Medium shot of Clarice, reeling from the accuracy of Lecter’s barbs.
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Shot 52, continued: the camera wanders slightly, restricting Clarice to the left side of the screen.
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Shot 53:  Close up of Lecter.  He occupies the same space that Clarice has recently been forced into, but dwarfs her.  Lecter finishes his tirade, proud of his destruction.
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Shot 54:  Close up of Clarice.  Except Clarice fights back, almost the same size as Lecter.  Her resilience earns her a moral victory, but that’s all.

Shots 48 – 54 are dominated by Lecter in both a visual and auditory sense.  We see both characters occupying the same portion of the screen, but Lecter always appears larger and taller.  He is the beneficiary of a powerful zoom-in that really drives his dominance home.

Lecter’s speech mocks Clarice while profiling her and takes up most of this section.  It is also the climax for the entire sequence.  His speech stretches across several cuts, and can even be seen as responsible for stitching it all together.

Clarice is forced to the left of the screen, off-balance and weaker than before, but she manages to recover at least slightly.  Lecter is indeed a potent mind, but Clarice at least manages to survive.

Finally, this stretch continues along the motif of distancing the audience from these characters, as nothing is shot in a POV or features direct looks to camera.

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Shot 55:  Medium shot of Lecter.  He still looks down on Clarice, a little annoyed that his assault was not more devastating.  Perhaps there is a tinge of respect for Clarice.
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Shot 55, continued:  The camera tracks Lecter for the first time since he smelled through the airholes.  Demme seems to enjoy drawing attention to the passage of materials through the transfer bin.
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Shot 56:  Close up of Clarice.  She recognizes that by flinging Lecter’s insults back at him, she has failed to succeed in getting his cooperation with the questionnaire.  But, she is more centered here, less off-balance and weak, as though she has ended the tilt on her own terms.
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Shot 57:  Clarice’s POV, close up of Lecter.  Lecter delivers the most iconic line of the film in close-up, directly to camera:  “A census taker once tried to test me.  I ate his liver with some fava beans, and a nice chianti.”  By directing this to camera, Demme and Hopkins maximize the effectiveness of this chilling moment . . .
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. . . and then emphasize it with Shot 58:  Lecter’s POV, a close up of Clarice.  Again performed straight to camera, we are meant to read the horror on her face from the perspective of Lecter.  For the first time, Clarice looks truly rattled.
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Shot 59:  Medium shot of Lecter, triumphant.
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Shot 60:  Medium shot of Clarice.  An appropriate denouement for the scene, Clarice must walk away from the stationary camera . . .
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Shot 60, continued:  . . . growing smaller by the second as she retreats from the battle that has bested her.  She has held her own, but Dr. Hannibal Lecter was too keen a combatant.

Shots 55 – 60 are the perfect conclusion to this masterpiece of a scene.  Demme again manipulates the composition, camera, and actors to provide one final gut-punch, conveyed through POV shots of each character during the delivery of one of the most infamous lines in cinematic history.

Demme also continues to size his subjects appropriately, first by making Lecter a giant during his final attack, and then by ending the scene with a shrinking Clarice literally walking away from camera.


In these 60 shots, comprising six minutes and three seconds, Jonathan Demme, Anthony Hopkins, and Jodie Foster establish the bedrock from which the rest of The Silence of the Lambs will spring.

The power struggle between Clarice and Lecter is conveyed through shot composition, subtle camera movements, and auditory editing techniques like the L-cut and J-cut.  Clarice’s bravery is apparent, and we know that the film’s feminist themes will grow with each ordeal she faces.

The competitive quid-pro-quo relationship between the two is echoed in the repetitive alternation of the shot-countershot, a mainstay of all but two of the 60 shots.  This dynamic develops throughout the film, but it has its roots in this scene and the way Demme organizes it.

The emotional resonance that the audience feels for Clarice may have begun in the offices of Crawford, Chilton, and Barney, but it is here that Demme cements that empathy forever, and even encourages a similar response to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the presumed villain of the story.  It is no wonder that we root for Lecter as much as Clarice – they are the two characters that Demme forces us to empathize with.

Demme takes full advantage of his expertise and crafts the perfect introduction to these characters and the story they are going to tell.  This first meeting between Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a triumph of cinematic storytelling, employing a unified and purposeful vision towards what The Silence of the Lambs is going to be.

6 thoughts on “Clarice Starling, Meet Dr. Hannibal Lecter – a Scene Analysis

Add yours

  1. Classic movie, and a truly classic scene as well. I think I have lost count of the number of times that I have seen this movie. It is great, and will always be worth watching 😊

    Like

  2. I do enjoy your annotations on this movie. It is a favourite of mine for the brilliance of the dialogue and the conversations that are had with Hannibal and Clarice. It’s a great introduction between the two and the posture in your clip against the two metal frames seems to convey Hannibal standing his ground despite being confined in a prison room. It’s almost to mentally tell Clarice ‘I know who I am, do you’? Taunting her and questioning her every word with poise, crudeness mixed with intellect. A great analysis on a wonderful movie.

    “Memory..Agent Starling is what I have instead of a view”.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hm..the ones I can notably think of would be scenes from Scsrface as there many wonderful ones to choose from and Inglorious Basterds perhaps..Christoph Waltz has a striking attitude that plays strongly in his dialogues..the introduction when he enters the home with the people under the floorboards was such a great opening to the movie i felt.

        Like

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