Psycho and Silence of the Lambs
I have been looking forward to a double feature of Psycho (1960) with another great movie forever. I have to admit that I had kind of been thinking of something like The Shining to be watched with it as a pair the greatest horror movies ever from two of my favorite directors. Hitchcock and Kubrick kind of lived their lives perpendicular to each other, both emigrating to the country that the other was raised in in the middle of their careers, mostly out of phobias or fears, Hitch afraid of Nazi bombings, Kubrick afraid to fly. I happened to write about The Shining a few months ago, so this opened up a great opportunity to replace it with another great “horror” film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991). I think I picked these two together because even though they are both movies meant to scare the audience, with murders, serial killers, crossdressing (both based on Ed Gein) and women solving the mysteries, they are both much more than horror films, they are prestige thrillers on their own.
My law school was right near the downtown Phoenix building where the opening scene is set. I prided myself in recognizing it while walking to lunch during bar prep, despite the drastic changes in the Phoenix skyline in the time since this was filmed. With all of that familiarity, I still get a rush when this starts that extends through every shot. Yes, the movie kind of slows down after the car sinks into the swamp until the investigator gets to the house, but it’s still such a thrill to see how the form of the story breaks with not just traditional story pacing by killing off the main character mid-way through, but everything after this. Even the imitators are paced more conventionally.
Psycho is the story of a woman who steals $40,000 from her employer and goes on the run. She stops at a motel on a back road where she meets an odd caretaker. She goes to take a shower and what appears to be the Bates mother bursts in and slashes her to death with a knife. The young Norman Bates later walks in, finds the scene, cleans the bathroom, stuff the body and all of her things in the trunk and lets the car slip into the bog, unknowingly letting the money sink with it. The woman’s sister hires a private investigator to look for her, he finds the hotel and when he goes to see the mother in the house, he is attacked with a knife and falls down the stairs, but not after phoning the sister to say where he was. The sister later comes to the house and ventures into the house to find the mother’s decomposing body and Norman is arrested, having committed the murders while dressed as his mother, having taken over her identity.
Alfred Hitchcock famously bought up every copy of the book that he based Psycho before the movie came out so that the twists would remain a surprise. He also had to have the way movies were shown in theaters before that point changed to post start times and not allow people to enter the theater after the start of the film. It used to be that movies would show on a loop and people would come in at any old time, it could be five minutes in or just before the ending, and would stay as long as they pleased. This was to save the audience from the confusion of the main character of Janet Leigh not being around in the movie for the second half, if you showed up after the shower scene, I’m sure you would wonder if you went into the wrong movie.
During the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview, Truffaut told Hitch that he thought the book was bad, beyond bad, boring and not adequate literature. Hitch claimed he doesn’t tend to read all that closely, that he skimmed to suss out plot point and themes and that he didn’t pay that much attention. I think he was put on the spot by such a comment because in reality he was working with the writer to create another story about unrelated serial killers based on a pair out of England and he wrote several episodes of the Hitchcock TV show after making a Psycho.
The Silence of the Lambs book was much less of a mystery. While Anthony Hopkins made Hannibal Lecter a villainous figure equaled only in cinema to Darth Vader, he was not the first to depict the hungry character. Brian Cox was the first Lecter in Manhunter, the 1986 Michael Mann movie, which would later be remade as Red Dragon in 2002 and much of it would be used in the TV show Hannibal.
Jodie Foster read the book, loved it, and tried to buy the rights. She learned the production company Orion owned the rights and was going to have Gene Hackman direct it, when he finally read the script he was creeped out by the violence and passed on the project. Orion passed it onto Jonathan Demme who wanted Michelle Pfiffer, whom he had worked with on a previous film. Pfieffer took another project when she was also creeped out by the script and the role opened up for Foster. Sean Connery was the first choice for Hannibal but he rejected it immediately. This was problem Connery had with roles, he was offered the Gandolf role in the Peter Jackson Lord of The Rings trilogy but when he read the script he didn’t get the allure of the fantasy nature of the film. When he saw how well the movies did he resolved that he would not make the same mistake again, and the next script he saw that reminded him of that confusion was based on an Alan Moore series of comics. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie was so far removed from the source material, which is actually a pretty great comic, that Alan Moore refused to allow his name on any future adaptations of his comics and Sean Connery effectively retired from acting after the movie tanked.
Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs both have Lecter as a serial killer in captivity, helping law enforcement catch other serial killers while playing his own game of cat and mouse. In Silence of the Lambs, the Buffalo Bill serial killer has abducted another victim, this time the daughter of a Senator, and trainee Clarice Starling filters his clues about the killer to hunt down the Bill. Meanwhile, Lecter escapes on a cannibalistic spree while being transferred and Clarice catches the other bad guy.
There are a lot of parallels with these two movies, the Ed Gein connection brings them together in many ways. Both murderers are obsessed with decomposition, Bates maintaining his mother’s body and dressing like her, Bill applies lotion to his victims so that he can make a suit made of skin, and Lecter flays one of his victims to look like an angelic figure while escaping. Bill and Bates both dress as women, although the filmmakers try to assert that this is not an action on the LGBT spectrum of discovering themselves but of changing their identities to become other people, namely, acting like their mothers. This isn’t entirely accepted by scholars, and they are mostly seen as problematic in this regard. It’s good that neither film intended this to be a transphobic statement, but it does convey those sentiments of violence being assigned to otherness. Ed Gein did dig up his mother’s corpse in real life, he made lampshades and belts out of the skins of corpses in the grave yard, he killed some victims, cooked them then served their remains to unsuspecting neighbors. That last bit was not something these movies stretched to, although the Hannibal TV show sure lingered on this tidbit.
Additionally, the protagonists in Psycho, Marion Crane, and Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling, both share avian names. Hitchcock famously was fearful and obsessed with his fear of birds, Norman Bates adorned his motel office with stuffed birds, pecks at snacks and extended his neck in a scene where he is being questioned by the Private Investigator. Oddly, there are instances in the score of Psycho has barely audible bird sounds even in interior scenes. That’s much more of a mistake, an instance of birds getting into the large spaces where the orchestra would be recorded get captured on tape. The next Hitchcock film would be much less subtle in the bird motifs.
Marion Crane’s character has another parallel with another great ‘90’s film that isn’t Silence of the Lambs. The Bruce Willis character in Pulp Fiction has a storyline reminiscent of Crane’s even if it is much less linear. After he doesn’t throw the fight for Marcellus Wallace he drives back to his house to collect his father’s watch, you know, the one that was hidden up so many asses, the story takes a turn when he is stopped at a light and Wallace is crossing the street. This results in a violent tangent of a car accident, shots fired in the street, and a fucked up kidnapping to a dungeon under a pawn shop that is equaled only to the pit beneath Buffalo Bill’s basement. When Willis finally gets to his house he has an encounter with John Travolta’s character coming out of the bathroom. Instead of Marion Crane’s untimely death in the Bates Motel bathroom, Willis kills the post-dump Travolta and he flees the house and the movie.
The Bates Motel is iconic for the shower scene, but it’s the house that still stands at Universal Studios and is part of the studio tour, hosted by Jimmy Fallon, with an appearance by the Fast and the Furious Crew. The inside of that house is the final horror of the movie, the stairway where the the Private investigator is killed by a rather fast moving, knife wielding “Mother” and the room where the audience finally sees the horror of her mummified body. Buffalo Bill’s home is similar where the inside is much larger and labyrinthine than the modest exterior appears and instead of going up to “Mother’s” room, the film ends by going down to the pit below the basement.
It’s easy to forget where both movies leave us compared to where they begin or the lasting impressions we are given. Psycho begins as a thriller about a stolen $40,000, and that stack of cash is absentmindedly discarded into the trunk of Marion Crane’s car that is left at the bottom of a swamp. That McGuffin is forgotten about for the second half of the film, and when the car is pulled out at the end, it is not the damp recovered money that the audience is thinking of, it’s Marion Crane’s body that seals Norman’s fate. Silence of the Lambs is not about catching Hannibal Lecter, it’s about using his help to catch Buffalo Bill, yet in the end, Lecter gets away perhaps killing more victims than bill in his escape to live on an unnamed, perhaps Caribbean, Island, rather than the island in captivity that was fraudulently dangled in a deal for his cooperation.
These are both horror films that transcend the genre. Psycho is closer to an artistic European film that inspired the French new wave than a low budget slasher with a shelf life only as long as the twist remains a surprise to the public. Silence of the Lambs is a feminist thriller that spotlights the art and science of criminal profiling and the winner of Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay, only the third movie to win in all five top categories. A couple of decades later, Anthony Hopkins would go from playing Hannibal Lecter in a series of movies to playing Alfred Hitchcock in the making of Psycho movie, Hitchcock.
Next Month: More from Hitchcock’s fear of birds with the movie, The Birds. It’s the original disaster movie so it’s paired with the Jeff Nichols take on a disaster movie, Take Shelter, with a look at the over the top blockbuster disaster movies of the last few decades.