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22 secrets gleaned from `Silence'

BOULDER, Colorado -- Do not read one more word unless you're one of those weirdos who can find a hidden meaning in anything. What follows is a close viewing of "The Silence of the Lambs" in which we will discover more in the film than even its director, Jonathan Demme, knows he included. We may even find more in the film than is there. I spent last week at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado. Every afternoon in the campus auditorium, I joined 2,000 students and film buffs in a shot-by-shot analysis of "Silence of the Lambs." We were using a laserdisc player that could freeze any frame of the film, and believe me, we froze a lot of them. A cry would ring out from the darkness--"Stop!"--and a gimlet-eyed viewer would discover an arcane detail. Some details were invisible to the other 1,999, but we looked anyway. It was democracy in the dark.

The Conference on World Affairs is unlike anything else. Every year some 125 assorted panelists journey to Boulder and argue with one another three times a day for a week. This year there were 131 panels, not counting a speech by Ted Turner in which he complained that Jesus was taking "a long time between appearances." It's the sort of conference where they schedule a panel on multiculturalism, and when it is picketed by topless feminists, an American Indian walks out in protest.

Huddled in the dark in front of our movie screen, we were far from such distractions. Our ostensible purpose was to look at "Silence of the Lambs" in great detail, to better appreciate the craft and art that went into its making. If Jonathan Demme had been a fly on the wall, he might have been surprised at exactly how much art and craft his film entailed.

Here are some of the things we discovered (I am merely a scribe, reporting the findings of the group, and do not personally claim that all of these things are actually in the film):

1. A motif of red, white and blue, subtly used throughout the film, especially in shots where you don't especially notice it, and a lot of American flags, including one covering the car in the storage garage, and at least two in Buffalo Bill's basement. Other patriotic symbols include aerial shots of the Capitol and the Washington Memorial. This motif leads up to a cake decorated as the seal of the Department of Justice, which is sliced by the heroine.

2. Repeated visual contrasts showing Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a small woman, surrounded ominously by large groups of uniformed men. She finally deals with this problem by ordering the voyeuristic cops out of the room during an autopsy.

3. A neat visual display by Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in which he mounts the body of one of his victims spread-winged on the side of a cage, backlit and surrounded by red, white and blue bunting, in a representation of the American Eagle. (This is an echo of the spread-winged eagles seen earlier in the storage garage, and on the graduation cake.)

4. Doors. Seven barred doors, six of steel, that must be passed through to reach the underground lair of Dr. Lecter, beneath the asylum. A similar number of doors in the basement where Buffalo Bill commits his unspeakable crimes.

5. Creaks. Every iron door in the prison needs oiling.

6. Switches in gender-identified occupations. Clarice Starling is an FBI agent. Buffalo Bill is a seamstress.

7. Hearts. A heart-shaped ring on Clarice's finger. A heart-shaped well in Bill's basement (I can't see this). The movie is a "Strong Heart Production."

8. "V" shapes. The shape of the perspiration marks on the back of Clarice's sweat shirt in the opening scene is matched by the scarf worn by the woman senator, and both are the same shape as the skinned area on the back of one of Bill's victims, seen in a photograph.

9. A subliminal ghostly figure. As the asylum director escorts Clarice into Lecter's lair, at the bottom of a flight of stairs, they walk out of picture and for one frame we see an ominous figure looming menacingly behind them. Some said this was only an extra, a strait-jacketed patient. The effect, however, was undeniably of a subliminal lunge from behind.

10. Subliminal suggestions of cannibalism. When Clarice enters the storage garage and looks around with a flashlight, the camera pans, too quickly for us to register, past a table on which there are the disjointed limbs of dolls, and a stuffed alligator with its teeth bared.

11. Sighs and exhalations. Heard throughout the movie, sometimes with a logical source, sometimes not. When the crysallis is taken from the mouth of the corpse, a sigh is heard. When Starling and Lecter are having their final meeting in the courtroom, Clarice's exhalation is inhaled audibly by Lecter.

12. Breathing. The heavy breathing of Clarice as she runs through the obstacle course at the beginning of the film is echoed by her heavy breathing much later, as she is trapped in the basement by Bill. This despite the fact that in the basement she has not exerted herself and should not be winded.

13. Low-level sub-woofer-type ominous sounds as Clarice approaches Lecter for the first time. Similar sounds are later intercut with the movie's ominous but sad theme music.

14. When Clarice is told that Lecter's heartbeat "never went above 85" after he killed one of his victims, we hear the faint sound of a heart monitor on the sound track.

15. Other sound effects also send subtle signals. When Polaroid photos are being taken of the corpse that has been found in a river, the camera makes the sound of a stone dropping into water, followed by a high-pitched whine as it recharges. Buffalo Bill's night-vision glasses make a similar plopping and whining sound.

16. Subtle clues. Lecter has a drawing of "the Belvedere as seen from the Duomo" on the wall of his cell. Buffalo Bill lives in Belvedere, Ohio.

17. Even more subtle clues. While the FBI surrounds a house in Calumet City, Ill., that does not contain the killer, Clarice Starling goes by herself to Belvedere, where one house has a wooden yard ornament in the shape of an Indian paddling a canoe. This resembles the Indian seen on boxes of Calumet Baking Soda.

18. Point-of-view shots that create the sensation that the movie is watching Clarice. For example: The camera which awaits and precedes her as she walks down corridors toward Lecter. The camera inside the storage garage as she slides under the door. The camera inside the car as she tries to peer into it. The camera inside Bill's house as he opens the door. All of these shots contribute to the impression that Clarice is not in command of her own space, but is threatened by others.

19. Charles Napier. He plays the police guard who carefully rolls up Lecter's drawings just before the good doctor kills him. Napier has appeared in every single one of Jonathan Demme's movies.

20. Roger Corman. The king of the B movies, who gave Demme his start, is seen as a high-level government official dealing on the telephone with the matter of the fake offer to Lecter.

21. Echoes of earlier monster movies. All of the Frankenstein movies feature the crackling of lots of electrical equipment, and flashes of bolts of high energy. Similar sounds are heard as Clarice passes the last check-point before Lecter's lair, and when Lecter confronts the Senator, there are crackling noises and flashes of blue light. (In this scene, he is strapped down and immobile in a pose similar to shots in the Frankenstein movies and "King Kong.")

22. The raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. This is the one that is going to drive you crazy. After Clarice and Bill have their shoot-out in the basement, look at the very brief shot as a window is blown out, allowing light into the basement. On the window sill are a small American flag and a combat helmet. As the glass breaks, there is a flash of movement that suggests the Marines raising the flag in the famous World War II photograph. This composition was spotted by a woman who was hooted down by most of the crowd. When we froze the frame and stepped back and forth one frame at a time, it was hard to see, but at ordinary playing speed the effect seemed to be visible to about half the group. The rest thought they were crazy.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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