The Silence of the Lambs – Act I story breakdown and analysis

By (Alexandra Sokoloff)

by Alexandra Sokoloff

My Silence of the Lambs breakdown is turning into a dissertation, so I figured I’d better start mailing it out act by act or I’ll never get through it!

As I talked about here, I will not be posting full story breakdowns on the blog anymore – I’m asking that you join my free Story Structure Extras list to get the story breakdowns.

If you haven’t joined the list, you can do it here, and get a full breakdown of The Wizard of Oz and the full Act I breakdown of Silence. Then I’ll mail the rest of the Silence breakdown in segments as I work through it.

I did an intro to the movie here, if you didn’t catch it – and anyone who is not familiar with story breakdowns will probably want to review the Elements of Act I.

And I’m posting the first sequence breakdown here, so that we have a place to discuss!

The GENRE is a cross of psychological thriller, police procedural, and horror—in fact, it’s the only horror film ever to win a Best Picture Oscar —and one of only three films in cinematic history to win what’s known in Hollywood as the Big Five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (adapted), Best Actor, Best Actress.

The KIND of story it is: a mentor story, a therapeutic journey, a deal with the devil story, and a fairy tale: a twist on the “peasant boy rescues princess from evil troll” story. In this story, it’s a peasant girl who rescues the princess from an evil troll.

The Silence of the Lambs

Screenplay by Ted Tally

Adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris

Directed by Jonathan Demme


SEQUENCE ONE: The case and Lecter

All of the following is under the CREDITS. In the olden days, before ADHD, filmmakers used the opening credits sequence to establish all kinds of thematic information, and to get the audience right where they wanted them emotionally before the first line of dialogue was spoken. Now credits sequences go at the end of the movie, apparently because audiences won’t sit still for them. It’s a tragedy.

The OPENING IMAGE is a misty lake, seen through trees, just at dawn. (Water, clouds and mist are all images of the subconscious. Dawn is of course a symbol of enlightenment. All very thematic.) The music underneath is dark and haunting (a fantastic score by Howard Shore, reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s scores for many of Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers). We hold on these images long enough to slow our heart rate, and then a tiny female figure emerges from a misty chasm, pulling herself up a steep hill via a thick rope.


Her breathing is labored, which effectively puts us inside her, breathing with her – it’s a very subjective point of view. As she reaches the top we hold for a moment on Jodie Foster’s exquisitely sculpted face… she is sweating and panting, which activates our own senses… then she runs on in the mist, the moving camera following her slowly. All in all a very dreamlike opening. This is a classic horror movie technique, to put the viewer inside a dream from the very beginning. The very worst things we can imagine can happen in dreams – it’s a very vulnerable state for the audience to be in. And we’ve all had that dream of running, running, running…

The running is also a thematic clue: Clarice is running away from her past – a past that her unlikely mentor and this case will force her to confront and resolve.

Clarice is negotiating a wooded obstacle course on the grounds of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. But throughout, the scene is more dreamlike than real. She approaches a rope barrier that she climbs, an image reminiscent of a spider web and the first of many insect and arachnid images. (VISUAL AND THEMATIC IMAGE SYSTEM). Director Jonathan Demme and his production team very, very successfully found visual images to create the same thematic resonance that Thomas Harris creates in the book.

The scene also serves to show Clarice’s daily TRAINING as an FBI agent, and visually demonstrates both her special skills (strength, stamina, endurance) and her fragility (she is so very small…)

A voice calls her name “Starling!” and then almost out of nowhere a man runs up behind her – another dreamlike and disorienting moment. He says “Crawford wants to see you.” This is a HERALD – summoning her to a task. (It adds import to the CALL TO ADVENTURE to have a Herald character come to the protagonist first, and lead her to another person who will actually deliver the CALL. See Raiders of the Lost Ark for another great example of this double call.)

Clarice turns and runs past a tree with signposts that read HURT PAIN AGONY – LOVE IT. Real signs from the Quantico training course that have a lot of thematic resonance here!

She runs toward and into the concrete FBI Academy building, where other trainees, all male, are working out (visually establishing Clarice as the unique outsider she is in this environment.)

I’ll stop for a moment to note that is a story about a protagonist with a big WOUND (or GHOST), and the casting of Jodie Foster was an extra stroke of genius. In real life, Foster suffered relentless and intrusive public attention after her stalker, John Hinckley, shot then-president Ronald Reagan to get Foster’s attention when Foster was just nineteen. Throughout her career Foster has maintained an almost reclusive privacy. Certainly this brilliant actor could have played the part regardless of her background, but for this excruciatingly psychological movie, in which the key internal character struggle is the painful reveal and resolution of a childhood wound, it added an extra layer to the character to have Foster’s wounded energy and deep reluctance to share anything personal about herself.

Now we see Clarice cross a glass bridge (directors love to use bridges as symbols of transition, of crossing into another world) and briefly meet ARDELIA, her roommate, on the stairs (MEET THE ALLY) then wend her way through the ballistics lab (setting up more FBI training).

In the elevator we see how tiny Clarice is beside her male classmates (all dressed in red shirts, while she is in gray) which establishes her as an underdog, an outsider and terribly, terribly vulnerable – all in in just a few seconds’ visual.

END CREDITS SEQUENCE as Clarice walks into the Behavioral Sciences Services department and is told by two suited agents to wait in Crawford’s office.

While Clarice waits, we and she get our first glimpse of the ANTAGONIST as she looks over the white board with newspaper articles about a serial killer, Buffalo Bill (“Bill Skins Fifth”) along with bloody and heartbreaking crime scene photos of the young female victims, and a map showing the locations of body dump sites. A HORROR moment that registers in Clarice’s face. These are the STAKES: life and death. And it’s the first moment of layering in the FEAR we will have for Clarice – that she, too, will be killed. She is a young white Southern woman, like all of the victims.

(This is also a PLANT: In the final scenes, we will see an almost identical map and collection of news articles in the killer’s basement. The bookended images will give the action a feeling of coming full circle.)

Note how quickly we are introduced to the antagonist by name and with visuals of his terrible crimes – it’s very important to introduce the opponent as quickly as possible, at least by reference.

And no, Lecter is NOT the antagonist in SOTL. Lecter is the MENTOR.

We meet Jack Crawford, who will serve as Clarice’s law enforcement MENTOR. Crawford quickly sketches out Clarice’s backstory as he reads out her education and training from her file (“double major, psych and criminology” – these are some of the HEROINE’S SPECIAL SKILLS). We also learn Clarice’s OUTER DESIRE: After graduation she wants to come work for Crawford as a psychological profiler in Behavioral Science.

Crawford delivers the CALL TO ADVENTURE (also known as the INCITING INCIDENT. This is also her first TEST), telling her he has “an interesting errand” for her. She’s to go interview convicted serial killer Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, ostensibly for a FBI research study. Clarice immediately shows her insight (SPECIAL SKILLS) – she asks if there’s a connection to Buffalo Bill, the serial killer from the news articles, who has been kidnapping young women, killing them and skinning them. Campbell dismisses the idea, saying “I wish there were,” then diverts Clarice from the topic as he warns her that she must not tell Lecter anything personal about herself: she does not want Lecter inside her head. (SET UP – because what’s Lecter going to demand of her?) Crawford tells her she must never forget what Lecter is:

[8:20] The scene cuts to a visual of the foreboding brick prison (for the criminally insane), and Dr. Chilton finishes Crawford’s sentence:

“Oh, he’s a monster. A pure psychopath.” (As I always say, just SAY it!)

Dr. Chilton is the slimy little head of the prison asylum, a SECONDARY OPPONENT. He clumsily flirts with Clarice (such a refreshing scene, this is, to see this numbing sexual harassment portrayed so bluntly!). Then when she politely rebuffs him, he turns cold and vindictive.

Chilton now takes Clarice INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD. It’s a descent into the underworld: he leads her down an Escher-like set of stairs to the basement where the most dangerous inmates are kept. (The basement recalls dungeons, and also is a favorite location of psychological thrillers: in psychology, “basement issues” are our deepest fears.)

As Chilton leads her down to the cells he gives her a rundown on Lecter, including a brutal description and photo of what Lecter did to a nurse recently (establishing more FEAR in us for Clarice).

Having other characters talk about a character before we meet them builds anticipation and makes them more powerful. This introduction gives Lecter almost supernatural power. (“His pulse never went above eighty-five – even when he ate her tongue.”)

This scene is a prime example of how a really great SETPIECE SCENE is a lot more than just dazzling (and that a setpiece doesn’t have to take place on some epic, multimillion-dollar set. You don’t need a cast of thousands – two great actors and a great script will do the trick). A great setpiece is thematic, too. This is much more than your garden-variety prison. It’s a labyrinth of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell: Clarice goes through —count ‘em— seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner psychological journey, just exactly what Clarice is about to go through. And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too) so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional, subconscious levels. There are many visual HORROR elements at work in this scene as well: a medieval dungeon/insane asylum, gates of hell, stone walls, cages, hissing monsters. Chilton is a gnome.

Now, yes, that’s brilliant filmmaking by director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Ted Tally and production designer Kristi Zea and DP Tak Fujimoto… but it was all there on Harris’s page, first, all that and more; the filmmakers had the good sense to translate it to the screen. In fact, both Silence of the Lambsand Red Dragon are so crammed full of thematic visual imagery you can catch something new every time you reread those books.

Chilton leaves Clarice at the last gate, and there prison guard Barney is a calm, kind GUARDIAN AT THE GATE who lets her through the last gate with warnings but also a blessing: “I’ll be watching you. You’ll do fine.” It’s very important in a story about good and evil to show powerful, ordinary good at work as well as powerful evil.

Clarice must pass the cells of other human monsters who ogle and harass her before she comes to Lecter’s cell. (It’s interesting to compare and contrast this overt sexual harassment with the way male FBI classmates are constantly looking Clarice and Ardelia over, and the more aggressive ogling that Clarice encounters with the West Virginia deputies, later. I truly appreciate Demme’s understanding of that fact of feminine life.)

[12:42] In the last cell, Hannibal Lecter is standing, very still and pale, waiting for her behind a thick glass wall (a cinematic choice which allows Clarice and Lecter to seem to be in the same room with each other.) INTRODUCTION TO MENTOR.

Lecter forces her to step closer with her credentials, establishing dominance… but interestingly, when the two are in close up, eyes to eyes, it is Lecter who looks away first from Clarice’s clear and steady gaze. Almost as if evil can’t bear to directly confront good… (THEME).

Lecter conceals the moment and immediately disparages her for being just a trainee, but she says, “I’m a student. I’m here to learn from you.” (which precisely sums up the story). And then she adds a challenge: “Maybe you can decide for yourself whether I’m qualified.”

Lecter obviously admires this rejoinder – a point to Clarice. He begins mentoring her almost immediately: when she segues too clumsily into the questionnaire, he admonishes her, telling her precisely what she’s done wrong, like a professor with a student. He asks her almost immediately about Buffalo Bill and challenges her to analyze why Bill removes his victims’ skins. We are also getting a sense of Lecter’s SPECIAL SKILLS: he has an extraordinary sense of smell and can and identify her skin cream and the perfume she usually wears. The cell walls are covered with his fine sketches of the Duomo in Italy (he says sketches because he has no view – an early statement of his DESIRE: a view of the outside).

Lecter toys with her and taunts her, but she impresses him, passing a TEST by winning their sparring match to get him to look at the questionnaire Crawford sent her in with. Lecter looks it over and throws it back to her, with a blistering assessment of her personality. “You’re so ambitious, aren’t you?” Lecter purrs.

And here we learn Clarice’s OUTER DESIRE is for advancement in the FBI. It’s a brilliant storytelling trick to have Dr. Lecter tell us so – brilliant because it makes Lecter all knowing, but it also clearly spells out Clarice’s desire, which the audience/reader really does need to know to commit to the character and relax into the story. I’m a big believer in just spelling it out.

In Lecter’s brief, scathing monologue, we learn of Clarice’s desperate teenage years and her struggle to escape rural West Virginia. Though it clearly pains her, she admits he’s right, but then challenges him to “point that high powered perception” at himself. “Or are you afraid?”

He shoves the questionnaire back to her with a warning (now one of the most-quoted lines of film history): “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” The message is clear – “Cross the line with me and I will kill you.” STAKES and FEAR.

And then Lecter dismisses her: “Fly back to school, little Starling. Fly fly fly.”

Also note this thematic bit of business: the questionnaire they’re playing hot potato with is a symbol for psychological analysis – this is a story about a therapeutic journey, and they’re both challenging each other to unmask.

And I’ll stop again for a note about Lecter. Here we have a devil character, my absolute favorite. Thomas Harris created a monster for the ages by turning a serial killer into a mythic archetype (although for my money he should have stopped with The Silence of the Lambs.) But what really does me about Lecter is the magician/mentor aspect of him. Here’s this evil, psychotic genius —who sees something in Clarice that makes at least part of him want to mentor her, even protect her. More than that, he understands her, better than any other living soul. That to me is the ultimate seductiveness of the devil: that he gets you — right down to the core of your being. In a way, there’s no greater intimacy. And that dynamic gives the relationship between Clarice and Lecter a very subtle erotic tension that is key to this movie (and that Harris completely destroyed by making it overt in Hannibal.) In Jungian psychology, Lecter could also be said to be Clarice’s animus, the inner male.

After Lecter’s dismissal, as Clarice starts to walk back down the corridor, we see the prisoner in the next cell, Miggs, is jerking off on his cot. He throws semen on Clarice, igniting crazy ranting from the other prisoners. Lecter shouts to Clarice, calling her back.

As the prisoners babble and shout, Lecter apologizes for Miggs’ behavior and Clarice seizes the moment to ask again that he do the questionnaire for her (her AMBITION comes through even under the circumstances). He refuses, but then gives her a clue toward “What you love most: advancement.” He tells her to “Look deep into yourself” and seek out an old patient of his, Miss Hester Moffat. Then he shouts at her to go and she runs from the dungeon. (Another TEST. In a mentor story, much of the early action will consist of testing of the hero/ine.)

Note how the sudden speed of dialogue and the cacophony of the inmates contribute to the feeling of CLIMAX (well, literally…) to this tense and claustrophobic scene.

As an emotional tag to the sequence, outside the asylum, Clarice has a flashback to herself as a child and her sheriff father returning home (showing another INNER DESIRE: for a father figure and explaining her desire for a law enforcement career). Then, in the present, she breaks down and weeps against her car. [20:40]



Join my free Story Structure Extras list to get full story breakdowns.
Books 1, 2 and 3 of the Huntress/FBI Thrillers, Huntress Moon, Blood Moon, and Cold Moon are available now from Thomas & Mercer.
I very strongly recommend that you read the series in order, starting with Huntress Moon.

Via: Alexandra Sokoloff


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