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.
This video starts at Shot 1, is of reasonable quality, and contains everything we’ll discuss besides Shot 0.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 thinkthe same way, and manages to convey this in a visual way. Simply brilliant.
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.
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.
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.