The Silence of the Lambs: Interrogating Reality
by Kristin Grady
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) involves a significant amount of realism in regards to actual interrogation practices, which have been scrutinized by film critics and law enforcement officers alike. The Federal Beurau of Investigation is responsible for investigating threats to national security such as terrorism, human trafficking, political corruption, and violent crimes, among other criminal activity. Since the FBI’s formation in 1908, their methods of interrogation have evolved alongside our increasing knowledge of criminal psychology. The Reid Technique, in which the interrogator assumes guilt and harasses the subject into confessing, has been phased out due to numerous false confessions arising from this method.
A 93-page document released by the FBI in 2016 details their current interrogation techniques. The summary lists common psychological practices that facilitate a confession. Clarice demonstrates several of these methods when extracting information from the willfully tight-lipped Dr. Lecter. By assessing these scenes, we can identify real-life practices employed by the FBI, how that reflects current and past practices, and fictional characters displaying admirable traits to which we hope all law enforcement agents aspire.
We will be identifying the following practices in the scenes between Starling and Lecter:
- Manage first impressions.
- Develop and maintain rapport.
- Elicit narratives using open-ended questioning techniques.
- Counter any resistance the subject might show.
- Create a context conducive to a productive interaction.
- Elicit information by telling stories.
Splitting the difference between the Reid Technique and the 2016 report, we can assess the FBI methods of the 1980’s/early-1990’s in which the film is set. Movies are always over-dramatized in comparison to real life, but considering the thorough preparation applied by the filmmakers, there is a significant amount of realism in an otherwise fantastical movie.
An Interesting Errand
Dr. Lecter seems normal compared to the rest of the psychotic criminals, standing politely behind bulletproof glass as if he’s inviting her to tea. This is somehow more disturbing, yet Clarice maintains her composure.
Manage first impressions
Clarice responds politely, asking “May I speak with you?” This gives the subject agency in the conversation. Her first impression implies she’s not there to harass or manipulate Lecter, she’s just there for a conversation. Lecter asks to see her credentials with a brief eye-roll as if he can see through her transparent reason for this conversation. Clarice holds up her badge timidly, because this is probably the first time she’s been asked to present her badge. He insists she bring it closer and looks her dead in the eyes before checking her badge. Lecter winks at her when he says “You’re not real FBI, are you?” He offers her a seat as if she’s in his office.
Develop and maintain rapport.
Lecter asks what Miggs hissed at her and Clarice responds: “He said I can smell your cunt”. Lecter sniffs the holes in the bulletproof glass and tells her what skin creme/perfume she wears. He wants to unsettle her confidence because he has no respect for the authorities holding him captive and at this point he sees her as one of them. Clarice was honest about what Miggs said and made no attempt to censor the profanity. Honesty and the boldness of confronting an uncomfortable question with the distasteful truth establishes rapport.
Elicit narratives using open-ended questioning techniques.
Clarice redirects Hannibal’s attention to his drawings. She’s looking for clues as to the identity of the killer, but she doesn’t ask him outright. Lecter tells her memory is what he has instead of a view. Clarice makes a bad pun “Maybe you can lend us your view?” (on the questionnaire). Lecter redirects by asking why the killer is known as “Buffalo Bill”. Clarice tells him about the bad joke “he likes to skin his humps” because she knows she’s losing him, so she’s giving him inside information.
Sensing her uncomfortable resistance, Lecter asks why Clarice thinks Bill skins his victims. “It excites him…” is her first response because she can tell Lecter is getting excited by this conversation. She says most serial killers keep trophies, Lecter says he didn’t, and Clarice hilariously responds “No, you ate yours.” This hysterical joke is acknowledged by neither of them, instead Hannibal seems annoyed and commands her to send the questionnaire through the drawer. He licks his finger and winks at her before scanning the pages, again confronting her with sexual intimations that clearly make her uncomfortable.
Suspecting treachery orchestrated by Jack Crawford, Lecter dresses Clarice down, making fun of her shoes, her West Virginia accent, and her ambition to rise above her circumstances. This is the only moment when Clarice seems rattled, as Lecter’s assessment can’t be that far from the truth. The mention of her father, and the denigration of Lecter’s assumption about him, was a particularly strong trigger. Struggling to maintain composure, Clarice responds like a primary school hall monitor, challenging him to turn his perception around on himself. Lecter shuts down as he’s become bored with her.
Walking away defeated, Clarice is assaulted by Miggs throwing ejaculate at her face. Hannibal calls her back, tells her discourtesy is extremely ugly to him and he will give her what she truly wants, advancement. Clarice wants the name of the serial killer, but Lecter isn’t giving up that bargaining chip so easily. He gives her a coded message “Look deep inside your self…”
Crawford later tells Clarice that Lecter talked Miggs into killing himself. This may seem unrealistic, but Lecter’s similarity to real-life serial killers is quite accurate. Serial killer Ed Kemper was an extremely intelligent subject who would assist investigators in criminal psychology assessments. One would think if a highly intelligent criminal can make a complex psycological assessment, they could also talk someone into suicide.
Deep Inside YOUR Self
Clarice figures out Lecter’s reference and breaks into a unit at “Your Self Storage”, where she discovers a head in a jar. Cut to Clarice soaking wet from a sudden rain storm, sitting on the floor in front of Hannibal’s cage, excitedly relating her experience. Hannibal’s cell is dark, we don’t see him at first. Clarice flinches when the metal drawer opens, appears surprised and unexpectedly grateful for the dry towel Hannibal sent through. She looks around the cell and can’t seem to figure out where he is and how he sent the towel through. Hannibal moves silently like a predatory animal. Clarice is unphased after a brief moment of shock. Her sole motivation is to find out about the head and how it ties into the Buffalo Bill case.
Bored by the information, Lecter explains Benjamin (the head) was a former patient of his, and implies Benjamin was murdered by Buffalo Bill, “a fledgling killer’s first attempt at transformation”. Changing the subject, he asks “How did you feel when you found him, Clarice?” Snake like, he draws out the last syllable, savoring the sound of her name. He wants to live through her and watch her relive it. She responds “Scared at first, then exhilarated.” She’s bold, matter-of-fact, and a little proud of herself. On some level, she wants Hannibal to be proud of her too. The loss of her father has her subconsciously seeking out the approval of father figures.
Counter any resistance the subject might show.
Hannibal senses her need for paternal approval, which is why he changes the subject to Jack Crawford, who Clarice obviously sees as a father figure too. He presents the possibility that Crawford is sexually attracted to Clarice: “Does he imagine scenarios, exchanges… fucking you?” The last two words are in the same tone as his suggestive pronunciation of her name. Clarice remembers her training and deflects the comment by implying that’s something Miggs would say. Hannibal responds “Not anymore…” as if he relishes the fact and he wants her to know he isn’t bothered by the comparison.
Hannibal buried the lead about Benjamin on purpose. Getting to the point, he says he would like to see the case file, “You could get that for me”, as a command and an assertion of her power as an agent, which Clarice may not be fully self-assured about yet. Clarice counters his resistance again by redirecting back to Lecter’s comment about transformation. He knows that’s the information she wants and he won’t give it to her without getting what he wants.
Hannibal approaches Clarice, looms over her and says: “I’ve been in this room for eight years now”, turns away, “…they will never let me out while I’m alive.” He wants to get away from Chilton (who turns off the lights in his cell and blares televangelist programs as petty punishments for Lecter’s behavior).
Turning toward the Barney-restored light, Hannibal offers a psychological profile of Buffalo Bill in exchange for a transfer. He turns back to her with a smile “I’ll help you catch him, Clarice…” in the same tone as “fucking you…” Clarice stands up to face him. Now they’re negotiating. She demands to know what he knows, banking on her authority as an FBI agent (almost). He says “All good things to those who wait…”
Quid Pro Quo
Create a context conducive to a productive interaction.
In hopeful pink lipstick and blush, Clarice presents Hannibal’s transfer like it’s his game show winnings. “Catherine Martin dies, you get nothing” She closes the drawer and stares at him, expressionless. Although Hannibal’s eyes light up at the possibility of vacationing on Plum Island, he doesn’t totally believe this ruse. Cops can promise all kinds of things, so he’s skeptical that the offer will be fulfilled. Hannibal wants something she can’t take back, the source of her trauma. He offers her a Quid Pro Quo, case information in exchange for information about her personal life. After a brief pause, Clarice says “Go, Doctor” like she’s ready to take a punch. Poker faced.
Elicit information by telling stories.
This law enforcement tactic usually involves interrogators describing scenarios where suspects seem sympathetic, so they’ll confess. Clarice is offering a dangerous amount of personal information because Lecter desires no sympathy for himself, he wants this passionate young woman to live up to her potential, but she can’t do that unless she understands the cause of her own motivation. Hannibal looks away from her when he asks “What is the worst memory of your childhood?” Looking away may have a double intent, to give Clarice a modicum of privacy for her confession and compel her to regain his attention.
Clarice glances away upon mentioning her father’s death, even though Hannibal isn’t looking at her, she’s embarrassed the memory still bothers her. She sells the story in a way she thinks he wants to hear, leaving out the more traumatic event involving the ranch. Dr. Lecter can tell she’s hiding something. Clarice senses his suspicion and demands her side of the Quid Pro Quo.
Clarice wants to know about the head in the jar. They have a mutual suspicion of withholding information. Dr. Lecter delivers a clinical assessment of the transformation metaphor, but starts to get a little vague when talking about Bill’s desire to change. Starling dismisses the assumption that Bill is transexual, “Transexuals are very passive.” Considering this film was released over a decade after the Stonewall Riots, it’s clear LGBT rights take a while to make it into medical nomenclature, but at least Clarice appears to be standing up for them.
“So close to the way you’re going to catch him…” Lecter taunts. Clarice has a hungry look when she demands to know why. Teeth bared, eyes wide, she doesn’t just want to know, she needs to know.
He knows that and looks away when he asks about how she was orphaned. How did he know she looked down at her “second rate shoes” without looking at her? Does he see her in the mirror or is he just that intuitive? Neither would be surprising, but he probably likes people thinking the latter.
Clarice gets visibly uncomfortable when talking about the ranch, like she’s getting beat up by the words as she’s saying them. Hannibal senses he’s getting closer to the real trauma. She says “I just ran away” like a defensive move. Lecter asks if she was molested and she’s adamant that wasn’t it and knows Lecter feels like he’s getting somewhere, so she pulls back. This double-sided interrogation has become a tango, a poker game, a negotiation, and a therapy session, as well as a murder investigation. Clarice says Quid Pro Quo and Hannibal leans forward so we see her determined face merging with his reflection.
Lecter says Bill wasn’t born a monster, he was made one through systematic abuse. Bill hates who he is so he thinks that makes him a transexual, but his pathology is much more savage.
Like a Child’s Voice…
Clarice knows Hannibal is holding back the key to Bill’s identity. She brings his drawings to the cage where he’s been transferred. She’s paces in front of the bars like a tiger, even though he’s the one in the cage. Clarice figured out the false name he gave in exchange for the transfer and she demands to know Bill’s real name. Lecter implies he knows more, but nudges her toward the most integral clue:
“What does he do? He covets. Do we seek out things to covet?” Clarice doesn’t understand this connection or is unwilling to focus on anything but saving Catherine’s life. Lecter senses her desperation and demands to know the reason she was sent to an orphanage. Clarice is running out of negotiating chips.
Lecter’s close-up is lit behind his head so his ears are red like devil horns, but he’s wearing a white shirt. He’s both god and the devil to her at that moment. This is Clarice’s judgement scene, her schism from her job to a personal quest. She tries to dismiss it: “One morning I just ran away…”
Hannibal is too smart for that. “Not just, Clarice…” He brings her back to the moment where she ran away, like he’s hypnotizing her. Hypnosis is a practice that often uncovers hidden motivations and doesn’t necessarily involve a swaying pocket watch. Hannibal’s unrelenting eye contact is effectively hypnotic. Clarice starts whispering when she describes the noise, her voice breaking on “like a child’s voice…” She’s going back into the memory and she doesn’t want to go there because that’s the source of all her fear.
Clarice loses herself in the memory, unaware she’s no longer the interrogator in the scene. Like most trauma victims, she gets that thousand-yard stare and becomes consumed by the memory, relives it as she tells the story. Her face twitches when she says “Lambs… they were screaming”. It’s a chilling line.
Everything about Clarice clicks into place. She says “they were screaming” again, like she’s pleading her case. She wants Hannibal to understand, she wants someone to understand. She’s probably never told anyone this story. She knows she’s telling him to get more information, but she needs to tell it too.
“It was cold… very cold…” her voice gets low… “So heavy… so heavy…” She’s feeling it again…
Dr. Lecter says: “You still wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs…” and Clarice whispers “Yes” like she’s admitting it, but also kind of relieved he knows what she went though. Hannibal suggests if Clarice saves Catherine, the lambs will stop screaming. Clarice says “I don’t know” twice, because she does know. The mention of Catherine brings her back to the present. A tear wells in Hannibal’s eye when Chilton shows up. Hannibal knows it’s the last time he’ll see Clarice. Maybe that’s what the tear is for and maybe it’s from finally knowing what drives her. She breaks free from the cops to grab the case file. He touches her finger in a beautiful last moment between them.
Have the Lambs Stopped Screaming?
Good cops exist. Corruption and abuses run rampant in any capitalist-driven criminal justice system (case in point, Dr. Chilton), but every once in a while, a lucky agent will turn that drive to catch the bad guys into a need to save the lambs. Jodie Foster became famous as a child victim of sex trafficking in Taxi Driver and had recently won an Oscar for portraying the victim of a gang rape. She wanted to take her power back in the public eye by showing valiance is gender-blind. The 1980’s were rife with law enforcement corruption on every level. Behind the blue line or not, we can all investigate our motivations for the source of our trauma… Perhaps one day silencing those lambs.
Kristin Grady is a freelance writer, video editor, and graphic designer in Hollywood. Check out more content on imaginationforsale.blog!
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