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"Hitchcockian Silence: Psycho and Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs" - by Lesley Brill





Although by 1991 Alfred Hitchcock’s last film was fifteen years past, his name was still synonymous with suspense, with movie (and TV) narratives of offbeat crime and terror. When an expensively produced crime-horror picture with marquee stars, a serial murderer, a generous dash of incongruous flippancy, and a strong psychoanalytic bent came out that year, one would have expected Hitchcock’s name to be widely invoked. In reviews and numerous commentaries on The Silence of the Lambs, however, such was not the case. A number of critics noticed that Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), the serial killer of Demme’s movie, “is the clear brother of Norman Bates.”; but beyond that observation and a provocative essay by Julie Tharp that compared sexual pathologies in The Silence of the Lambs with those in Psycho, little has been said of the connections between Demme’s film and those of Hitchcock. Nonetheless, Hitchcock’s influence on The Silence of the Lambs is pervasive.

Why have Hitchcockian resonances in Demme’s most successful film gone largely unnoticed? And why — if such resonances are indeed present — does it matter whether we notice them or not? As regards the first question, speculations about absences invariably suffer from a poverty of evidence, but I’ll offer several guesses. First, the lack of references to Hitchcock may reflect a widely shared assumption that any movie thriller must have a Hitchcockian pedigree. Why belabor what’s obvious? (Film critics and academics being who they are, however, one would not necessarily expect restraint about proclaiming the self-evident.) A more plausible hypothesis might be that critics encounter difficulty in distinguishing among the influences that come directly from Hitchcock’s own films and those that come indirectly through the multitude of movies that Hitchcock influenced and that in their turn affected later films. In making the thriller his own, moreover, Hitchcock was a particularly effective conduit between his literary and cinematic legacies and the same material that appears in movies coming later. Hitchcock was not so much an inventor as a capacious crucible for recombining preexisting narrative elements. As Rohmer and Chabrol observed when Hitchcock’s career as a filmmaker still had two decades to run, “The number of Hitchcockian stories in the world is certainly very great: a good third, if not a half, of all those that have been written until now.”