“Look deep within yourself, Clarice…”
After revisiting The Silence of the Lambs this week, I wanted to write about this small scene:
It’s only two minutes long and could have easily been reduced to transitional shoe leather. Why not just show Clarice Starling being led down a corridor by an anonymous (and non-speaking) employee so that she can be allowed access to storage unit 31?
That would have been simple enough.
Or it could have easily been excised entirely from Ted Tally’s script. Why not just show an establishing shot of the Yourself Storage sign and then cut immediately to Starling walking around the unit’s darkened interior?
That would have been even simpler.
Either option would have saved the production time, money, and effort. In the final film, we see ten different camera setups, give or take, which means those two minutes of screentime required hours of lighting, rehearsing, and shooting in the cold. (Jodie Foster’s breath is visible throughout the scene, and this was before the now-too-common practice of using CG breath.)
The Silence of the Lambs is a very well-constructed movie. It would certainly not topple over if this scene was missing. But I still think it’s an important sequence, one that’s elevated above mere procedure by the way Tally and director Jonathan Demme add a more human dimension, as well as being a concise distillation of everything the movie happens to be about.
Of course, the reason this scene exists in the first place is because it came directly from Thomas Harris’ novel. In adapting the book for the screen, Tally and Demme naturally made some changes to it — some cosmetic and some structural — but all in the name of streamlining the narrative. That’s not to say they’ve dumbed down anything. They’ve actually tightened the flow of information while also emboldening Starling’s character. In Harris’ novel, for instance, the facility is called Split City Mini-Storage and Starling finds herself there after her FBI superior, Jack Crawford, condescendingly corrects some of her detective work. In the film, she finds herself at this particular location, now called Yourself Storage, after decoding a curious phrase offered to her as a clue by Hannibal Lecter (“Look deep within yourself, Clarice…”). In their retooling of the story, Demme and Tally have wisely chosen to reward Starling’s intelligence and intuition — there’s a reason she’s one of the FBI’s top students.
But they also allow the scene and setting to remain a proving ground for Starling. Her wit and insight might have carried her this far, but there are limits to her physical strength. The storage unit’s roll-up garage-style door is immovable, rusted over and stuck in place after ten years of neglect and disuse. This is not the type of obstacle we would expect to see in other thrillers of the day, nor would it be a problem for Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis or any other muscular star of 1991. They would likely kick the door down or blow a hole through the offending mechanism with a shotgun. Starling is not superhuman, however, and The Silence of the Lambs is very much set in the real world, where pesky things like due process exist. Her victories will always be hard won. Even with the help of Mr. Lang, the facility’s elderly owner, she is unable to raise the unit’s door enough to gain entrance. When Lang suggests returning the following day so that his (presumably stronger) son could help with the door, Starling balks. In the film, men, even well-intentioned ones like Mr. Lang, are obstacles that Starling must overcome. She certainly hasn’t advanced in her career by waiting on any man and she’s not about to start on this night. It’s a relatively small detail in this scene, but it’s another example of her doggedness and determination.
A quick note about Mr. Lang. He’s played by Leib Lensky, a Polish actor who died less than three months after the film was released, at the age of 87. (Lensky also appeared in Demme’s Something Wild.) In Harris’ book, this character is a 60-year-old Chinese lawyer named Everett Yow. He’s described as fat, intelligent, and suffering from a hernia. Yow remained in early drafts of Tally’s screenplay. At some point, however, the role was rewritten to accommodate Lensky’s presence. Lensky lends an odd, but memorable, energy to this scene. The character of Mr. Lang essentially performs the same function as Yow, but Lensky’s age, physique, and accent make for a more peculiar character. He has thick gray eyebrows and a pronounced goatee. He’s dressed in a bowler hat and cloak. He also requires a driver, a detail not found in the book, who is introduced a little later in the scene. (The driver sits in the car — silent, frowning, ominous, and unhelpful — as Starling attempts to enter the storage unit.) Mr. Lang seems nice enough, but there’s also a strangely vampiric quality to this character now. We’re not quite sure what to make of him and our less-than-sure footing automatically brings a new dimension to the scene. Again, what could have easily been a very procedural scene has been elevated by Demme’s smart and specific casting, even in the smallest of parts.
Starling rummages through her trunk and retrieves a bumper jack, which she’ll use to crank up the door just enough so she can crawl into the unit. The scene is now about Starling’s resourcefulness. If she’s lacking in brawn, it’s her brain that more than equals the playing field. Everything is a little more involved and elaborate in Harris’ book, but Demme and Tally once again tighten up the action. There’s a terrific jump cut after Starling opens her trunk, as the bumper jack scrapes into place under the door and into its very own insert shot. Demme and his editor, Craig McKay, have simplified the process in a way that makes it eminently more cinematic. (They know there’s a decapitated head in a jar waiting to be found, after all.)
Incidentally, Foster’s morbid chuckle — present in Harris’ novel as well as Tally’s screenplay — in the middle of her line (“If this door should fall down or, heh heh, anything else…”) is a pitch perfect line reading. It immediately distinguishes any self-seriousness the moment could have had.
While Starling maneuvers her way inside, she cuts her thigh on splinter of wood protruding from the bottom of the door. It’s enough to draw blood. This is another completely new detail created for the film. Demme mentions on the Criterion Collection’s DVD commentary track that he intended this to be “a harbinger of frightening things that will happen inside,” but it serves a triple purpose. It also reminds us that Starling is not impervious to pain or injury — she’s a living, breathing, vulnerable human being — and her wound provides Lecter with a chilling conversation starter at their subsequent meeting later that night (“Your bleeding has stopped…”).
This is probably not a scene that lingered in your memory the day after you first saw The Silence of the Lambs, nor should it be. There are far more iconic and indelible moments from which to choose. But it’s a great example of a writer and director leaving their mark on the material by making efficient choices that simultaneously serve the story, deepen our understanding of the characters, and elevate even the simplest of scenes. When we say a film like The Silence of the Lambs “holds up,” we’re talking about scenes just like this, where every detail is meaningful and no moment is wasted.