Alien (1979)

Ash (Ian Holm), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Kane (John Hurt) view a readout about the atmosphere of another planet. An “Alien” awaits.

Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon; story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Photographed by Derek Vanlint. Edited by Terry Rawlings, Peter Weatherley. Production designed by Michael Seymour. Starring Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm.

There are several factors that make Ridley Scott’s Alien so masterful, but its most crucial ingredient is intelligence. It’s cerebral. It asks questions. Instead of following an impatient need to get to shock surprises, it values deliberation, expressing genuine curiosity for a ship and crew, the nuts and bolts of long-term space travel, the genuine eeriness of an extraterrestrial landscape, and the creature that is eventually found there. It observes specific people doing their jobs, and notes how that reveals things about them. Even after a threat is established, the crew tries desperately to stay collected: when panic finally takes control, we witness the professionalism slip away. This strategy of Alien, to depict characters reacting smartly to a mounting terror, is key. It treats the cast as more than props, and it raises the stakes: instead of being about morons who are picked off one by one, it is about clever people trying to deal with a crisis with the tools they have, the best they can.

What also makes Alien work is its tone—cool and a little detached (note the opening sequence, where the camera walks through spaces and literally waits for things to happen in them). It’s unromantic, placing it worlds away from Star Wars (1977) and more towards the area of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the “hard” science fiction of Joseph E. Campbell, where the heroes are scientists and realists that solve problems with cold logic rather than melodrama. When attacks occur, the moments are never oversold, as if the movie doesn’t care too much if everybody dies. And when considering the infinity of the cosmos, it barely matters if they do, a point which is underlined by long shots that heighten the characters’ insignificance. After one major sequence, the expected sentimentality is avoided: instead of grief, no one has anything to say. It even gives a voice for this clinical perspective with the character of Ash (Ian Holm), who says about the alien: “I admire it’s purity, it’s sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” This is a point-of-view that the film sees as unfortunate, but not unsympathetic.

The result is a horror thriller with a curious pull. Some movies overtly try to draw you in, but Alien doesn’t really seem to care. That gives it a special flavor, since we end up being drawn in anyway. It borrows the aloof methodology enjoyed by Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and some plot points from Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951, based on a story by the aforementioned Campbell). But it raises these elements by adding an element of bafflement: not just towards the physiological make up of the alien creature, but also its origins. It appears to originate from a sophisticated culture, which makes its brutal behavior even more frightening; the dichotomy itself directly teases human comprehension, as if we do not deserve the answer to this paradox. As long as we’re piling on Alien’s obvious influences, let’s put at the top the work of horror-writer H.P. Lovecraft, who was not so much a great writer as he had great concepts he liked to write about, on the edge of human understanding. Certainly Alien’s central conceit, of an extraterrestrial creature who’s mere existence corrupts and destroys the humans it touches, would have made him smile. Yet the film is more than a compilation of references—it’s a skillful picture that frankly, deserved to start one of the most iconic horror franchises ever, regardless of the quality of that franchise itself.

Alien is frequently described as “truckers in space.” That’s not the plot, but it is the aesthetic: one of mercenary trade workers living in an adopted home. The opening scenes work hard, and yet appear effortless in how they ground the story in a realistic milieu: the Nostromo is a commercial vessel towing 20 million tons of mineral ore, and its seven crew members are awakened from hypersleep to groggily realize that they are not near Earth, but instead have been diverted to an unknown planet. The captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) consults with the shipboard computer, MOTHER, and learns they have been ordered by their employers (“The Company”) to investigate a mysterious signal that may indicate an alien intelligence. The crew cares not a whit about the signal, or aliens, or anything but their incomplete, lengthy journey home. But the option to ignore the signal is dismissed when Ash, the science officer, stipulates in no uncertain terms that not obeying the order would cause a forfeiture of their shares. The dialogue in a lot of the early scenes is, frankly, standard. What makes it sparkle is the actors, who regard each other with familiarity but not camaraderie, and pepper their lines with hints of buried histories and past greivances. They feel like an actual working group of professionals, especially in the way they half-sell the pretense to each other that they work well together.

Their landing on the planet is a complex and nerve-wracking team effort, even with their experience. The planet itself harbors a violent storm and a disquieting terrain, and when Dallas, Lambert (Veronica Cartright) and Kane (John Hurt) venture out into the cold, they are dwarfed first by their own landing strut and later by the landscape itself, which is gray and craggy, like a boneyard. The particulars of the Nostromo’s endeavor are sold by little moments: the damage done to the ship by the landing, and the way the search party is isolated by interference that neutralizes radio contact. The first sign of a crashed (?) alien ship, which is massive. Then, the vast interior corridors which are dark, confusing, and don’t conform to any human sensibility. Back on the ship, the arbitrary class divide is referenced when Parker and Brett (Yaphett Koto, Harry Dean Stanton), the engineers, resent the presence of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who comes down to supervise their repairs before being distracted by the mission. Of the early passages, perhaps the most quietly unnerving moment is when Ripley decodes the mystery beacon as potentially a warning, not an SOS, and Ash rightly rebukes her attempt to go after the landing party, with fatalism: “What’s the point?” By the time she catches up with them, after all, they’ll know if it was a warning or not.

A different film would answer that question about the warning, and also try to explain the sight that greets them inside the alien ship, the skeleton of a massive “space jockey,” his chest pierced from within. The chest bit is explained, eventually (natch), but much of the story of the ship remains oblique; the film’s central mystery is pushed aside when the story becomes about survival: Kane, in his unsettling trip to the alien cargo bay, comes across a hold full of eggs, one of which opens to reveal a creature that attaches itself to Kane’s face. When they return to the ship, Ripley refuses to open the hatch, fearing a biological contagion. Again, smart. You’d think something like that is narratively pointless (they get in anyway), but it tells us a lot about Ripley: her authority, her ability to be cold. She doesn’t take it personally when Lambert accosts her, and her later confrontation with Ash about why he let the organism in is a matter of safety, not pride. She’s a good officer, and with what they’re up against, she will need to be.

Ash’s fascination with the creature is shown long before its commented upon; he’s frequently talking about it, analyzing it, rebuffing Ripley’s attempts to quarantine or destroy it when it finally detaches from Kane’s face. It is later suggested that he may have a buried motivation for his interest in the creature, but that explains his manipulations, not the intellectual thrill he seems to receive from it. How can one not be fascinated by an acid-blooded monster that inseminates a host through its mouth and causes the seed to briefly incubate into a tiny new life form, which emerges from the stomach of the victim with gruesome finality? Alien’s power to shock and disturb definitely grows organically from the way it depicts an alien that co-opts human biology with sex, leaving Kane to give birth to an evil…thing with a phallic head and tiny, clenched teeth dripping with mucus—the Freudian inspirations here are…undeniable, without even taking into account one character’s final appearance on screen is when a tentacle slithers up their pant leg. H.R. Giger, the alien’s creator, describes his monster as “the embodiment of the fear of rape,” and indeed the alien’s behavior plays on this fear by making the act gender-neutral, escalating it into a primal metaphor.

This becomes more apparent in the last hour of the film, When the alien, now fully grown. Even then, however, it keeps to the shadows. We never get a full look, instead getting just hints at its overall shape, or close-ups that don’t mollify our concerns about its viciousness. The film keeps its distance from the alien, sometimes out of fear, yes, but other times the camera seems to emanate a bit of awe and wonder—as if this is an event documented not by a human but by another intelligence that didn’t quite know how to feel about what is happening.

Characterizations are lean but not thin—the movie never resorts to unwelcome backstory, but refuses to cynically turn them all into ciphers. The screenplay is effective in how it views the characters as individuals: Dallas is a good captain but too trusting, Brett is monosyllabic and grim, and Parker is fun-loving and avaricious, which underlines the increase in tension when his smile finally fades. Cartright, as Lambert, is stuck with the role of the woman who crumbles under pressure, but this has value, too, as it reinforces the notion that these are normal people reacting to incalculable pressure. The scene that follows Dallas’ disappearance is today a little lesson about how to successfully graph a horror film: notice how each character reacts differently: Lambert despairingly, Ash silently, Parker with insubordination, and Ripley with a fraying sense of control.

The film is astonishingly well-made, utilizing ‘70’s-era lighting that evokes environs that run hot and cold: from the womblike computer room (of MOTHER) to the steely blues of the command center to the near-monochrome alien surface. The photography, by Derek Vanlint, captures details that flesh out the spaceship as lived-in: gas valves and steam, dirt and grit, fingerprints, and when the alien comes aboard, it sheds its own trail of slime and skin in its wake.  Scene after scene features arresting compositions, from the floodlights filling the thick fog of the alien world to the long takes that make the ship’s layout understandable. It’s one of those movies that is so good looking, it feels like its own portfolio of concept art, and you’re tempted, at times, to forget the story and watch it like a painting.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score is an interesting case. It works wonderfully in the movie—but then, much of it that was recorded was not used in the film: many were re-scored and several cues were actually replaced (or “tracked”) with Goldsmith’s music from different films. I’ve heard the Goldsmith music on album, and it’s terrific. But Ridley Scott and editor Terry Rawlings removed a good deal of it, and I can’t say they were wrong, because Goldsmith’s cues are intrusive and pushy—they insist on the tension rather than suggest it. Take his main title, for example, which originally was majestic and grand, and in the film is creepy, filled with obscure chattering and timid woodwinds. The film approach is better: more appropriate, more reflective. It doesn’t try too hard. The only time I think the film’s music selection fails is during the scene where the crew tracks the acidic alien blood eating through multiple decks of the ship–the music is too spritely and jarring.

There are a lot of strengths here, but the biggest is Weaver, as Ripley. It would be no surprise to first-time viewers of Alien that the story eventually boils down to being entirely hers—by making her the only survivor, she became the star of the franchise. Everybody knows this. What’s intriguing about the character is that it was decided after the script was written that Ripley would be a woman—all seven characters were conceived to be either gender, but by making the lead female, it shifted the direction of the story and, in my estimation, made it work: there’s lovely irony in Kane, a man, being the one who gives birth and Ripley, a woman, being the most determined to destroy it. Ripley is prone to emotion, but not overly so, and Weaver’s performance possesses a commanding toughness that goes against the grain for horror films, where most of the time women are victims or sex objects. Even when Alien puts her in a t-shirt and panties, it’s done to make her vulnerable, not break the momentum with eye candy. Between her turn here and in the follow-up, Aliens (for which she got an Oscar nomination), Weaver cemented the ability of a woman to open an action picture, and has influenced the  pop-culture zeitgeist ever since, establishing a cottage industry of mainstream entertainments feature ass-kicking women. The Bride, Sarah Connor, Buffy Summers, Yu Shu Lien… All heirs to Ellen Ripley.

Ellen, of course is a name not mentioned in Alien—Ripley doesn’t get her first name until James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which is a sequel that is plenty fun but not quite in the same league as the original. The series continued with David Fincher’s mean-spirited, modestly intriguing follow-up Alien³ (1991) before dribbling into irrelevancy with Jean Pierre-Jenuet’s misguided Alien Resurrection (1997). (The two Alien vs. Predator films are best ignored.) Even at its worst, however, the series holds a unique interest, because each entry bears a maker’s mark quite different from the others—no one would confuse Cameron’s feminist war parable with Fincher’s ode to nihilism, or Jenuet’s efforts to make a self-parodying medical shoot-em-up. Nor would any of those approaches be mistaken for what Ridley Scott does here, creating a creepy aura that favors mysteries and quiet contemplation. This approach recalls film school exercises where several directors are asked to shoot the same script—it becomes rather exhilarating to watch talented directors take the same material and put their own, unique spin on it.

For Ridley Scott, life would never be the same. Scott was 41 when he made Alien—in other words he was certainly a late bloomer, since this film jump-started his career (after his debut, the barely-noticed The Deulists). He would go on to be a prolific and valuable director, one of our most adventurous and smart, going on to direct the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, as well as Thelma and Louise, Matchstick Men, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, and the intelligent Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. He has made weak films (Gladiator), and he has made bad films (Hannibal, Black Rain, 1492, Robin Hood), but even then he has never made a boring one, because he gives a subject his all. With Alien, his oft-criticized dispassionate directorial style is a perfect companion for this story, evoking not just the necessary fright, but also the awe, the nervousness, the loneliness of being adrift in a universe capable of springing surprises as nasty as the alien.

What is striking about Alien is that it hasn’t really dated. There’s a few effects shots that are no longer impressive, and its computer science these days looks no more an extension of our present than From the Earth to the Moon. But its scare strategies, its abilities to induce fear, are timeless. The approach and style are correct for the material, and the film savors craftsmanship: character development, plot, theme. History has shown that a bad horror film can still make a killing at the box office, but Scott wasn’t interested in that–he wanted to make a good one, and he did. Recent rumblings have stated that Scott is interested in going back to Alien, perhaps directing a prequel. I wish him the best. I just hope he has the good sense not to delve too deep in the buried mysteries of Alien, and even if he does I hope he has the good sense not to try to answer them. I don’t really wish to know where the space jockey came from, or the origin of the creatures, or any of that stuff. Some things man was not meant to know. Just fear.

NOTES: There are two versions of Alien, the 1979 theatrical cut and the 2003 in-name-only “director’s cut.” The director’s cut makes some unfortunate editing choices that sap the energy out of some of the suspense sequences and makes some unfortunate here-and-there cuts. It also adds a scene towards the end that gives more information on the alien biological process, adds more screen time for Tom Skerritt as Dallas, and answers Lambert’s earlier question of what happened to the alien ship’s crew. But it breaks up the momentum of the third act. I recommend the theatrical cut.

I give cursory attention here to the sexual undertones that permeate Alien. For more analysis, I recommend Tim Dirks’ detailed review of Alien at, and David McIntee’s book Beautiful Monsters: The Unofficial and Unauthorized Guide to the Alien and Predator Films (2005, Telos Publishing). Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review of Alien helped inform some of the research and discussion points for this review–I’d be remiss not to note it.


The Descent (2005)

Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) battles her own demons and some actual ones. "The Descent."

Written and directed by Neil Marshall. Produced by Christian Colson. Photographed by Sam McCurdy. Music by David Julyan. Edited by Jon Harris. Production designed by Simon Bowles. Starring Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone.

Neil Marshall’s The Descent is such a splendid thriller—lean, atmospheric, intense—that it becomes somewhat of a letdown when the flesh-eating monsters finally show up. Up until then, this British production is practically a textbook example of well-made, creepy survival horror. Afterwards, it still remains a tight and engaging scary pic, but its seventh-inning commitment to being just a straight-up creature feature does undermine the inherent fascination, just a touch. It’s common practice to set up your horror film with simple, sharply-drawn individuals and plunge them into a nightmare plot, but The Descent is so good at realizing its early stages that its concluding ones, featuring screaming women running through caverns to escape a screeching, slimy menace can’t help but seem a tiny bit uninspired. It remains an absorbing, effective experience the whole way through, but I can’t shake the feeling it could have been a little more.

But let’s start with the opening stuff, focusing on six female thrill-seekers. Already this is unusual, since it’s tantamount to a law in Hollywood that women can’t cluster together onscreen without being prepared to discuss men, shopping, fashion. You know, girl stuff. Not only that, The Descent is about women who are confident, tough, independent and loyal. The movie embraces feminism—not shallow empowerment clichés, but the real thing. So committed is The Descent to its vision of strong female characters that it only allows a single man into the cast, simply that he can die in the first scene. So, we’re done with him. If you need a Y chromosome on screen, get your coat.

The man is Paul, husband of Sarah (Shauna McDonald), who is merry-faced right up until the moment when Paul and her daughter Jessica are tragically skewered by debris in a car crash. A year later, Sarah, still grieving, reteams with her circle of friends in a cabin somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. She hopes to restore their bond, but she finds herself aloof and alone in the midst of their easy camaraderie, which bounces between Beth (Alex Reid, the good friend), and the sisters Rebecca and Sam (Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Burning). Then there is the Scottish, punkish Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), and the impetuous Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who is their de facto leader. These early passages hinge on two things: the script, which briefly introduces these six characters with color and distinction, and the acting, which avoids “women’s picture” clichés, finding a modest realism, even for characters in a horror plot. How nice to see a shock picture that can actually pass the Bechdel Test.

Juno, unlike Ellen Page’s Juno from…er, Juno, is headstrong, and just a little bit scary in her determination. She seems like she’s hiding something, and when she apologizes to Sarah for not being around after Paul’s death, it’s the kind of apology that still has the air of self-justification to it. What’s she hiding? No matter. It is Juno’s idea for the group to reforge their friendship by going caving in a nearby tunnel network. The women are challenge enthusiasts, they enjoy each other’s company, and this is what they do. So they bring moderate supplies and some basic equipment, prepared for a pleasant afternoon in the caves. I think I’m spoiling nothing if I write the following plot summary: You know that whole “pleasant afternoon” thing? It soooo does not happen.

The portions that follow will provide the centerpiece of the film—not just for the characters, who will go through hell, but for director Neil Marshall and his cinematographer, Sam McCurdy, who together create an underworld that is dangerous, dark and cruel…and also quite lovely. There’s plenty of queasy close-ups as the women peer into the darkness or panic in the middle of cramped tunnels. But then it opens up for lovely shots set in expansive galleries and bottomless caverns, formations older than man itself. The women wander the frame in compositions that are painterly and expressive. Sometimes the camera is close enough to catch all six in long shot, and sometimes it’s seemingly a mile away, regarding the women as if they are infinitesimal. Their flares provide thick red glows that bounce off the cave walls, making their surroundings warm and womb-like. Later, saturated blues and greens will work their way into the color palette – through both phospherecent glows and a nasty surprise that is seen on a camcorder monitor. I can’t labor the point enough that Marshall and McCurdy pick a visual strategy that is absolutely perfect for the material—early moments that capture dust falling in the path of a flashlight beam run counterpoint to later sequences that are slick and wet, and their use of negative space create in-universe “iris” shots, emphasizing choice details, like a silent film. Rather masterful.

This approach will support the narrative drive of the film’s midsection which is, simply put, one damn thing after another: rumblings, cave-ins and unsettling applications of their trade tools: pick-axes, pitons, ropes. Soon, comes an growing sense of hopelessness when it becomes clear that Juno, in her excitement, purposefully led the group to an unexplored cave system—never a good sign. They’re lost. There are bumps in the dark and blink-and-you-miss-it visual cues, and the mounting dread that they may run out of supplies or fall, entombed forever in the Earth. Later, their collective attempt to travel between two underground cliffs is tactile, vicious, and highly effective.  It’s dark and slimy and wet, and there are injuries. And what’s with the discovery of climbing equipment that’s over 100 years old, in a cave system never before explored? Uh-oh.The personalities of the characters become crystallized here, not just in little dialogue breaks between set-pieces, but in ways that inform their decisions even during the frenetic action sequences. Even while using standard tropes, the film never goes on autopilot.

But it does come perilously close in the concluding sections. When the monsters finally come out to play, they are artfully revealed, and the make-up work, supervised by Jennifer Harty and Vicki Lang, is incredibly well done as it visualizes a race of disgusting, two-legged beasts that look like a cross between Gollum and that iconic overgrown tapeworm from that episode of The X-Files. They can crawl across the cave walls and ceilings, their pale complexions and pursed lips are nasty. They are bloodthirsty as all get-out, leading to the inevitable question of what these things usually do for food, since six fleshy girls wandering their lair is presumably an infrequent occasion.

So now you know where this is going, and so does the movie, as it retreats to the well-worn formulas of slasher films as the characters are picked off one-by-one, despite doing a very good job of peering behind rocks and laying low, except when they’re screaming their lungs off.  Other moments are trucked in from the classic horror grab-bag of gewgaws, including the inevitable scene where one character looks in direction A, and then direction B, and decides the coast is clear, until…but you know how it goes. During one bit of dialogue amidst the carnage, they determine the biology of the creature as being entirely dependent on sound, and of course the payoff for that is when Sarah finds herself right in the middle of their lair, and has to watch them eat and snarl and spit and prowl, while staying very very quiet. Don’t get me wrong–the execution is faultless. All of this is done as well as it has ever done before. But it’s been done before.

So it becomes a little rote, but what saves it from being boring is the acting, especially that of Shauna McDonald as Sarah, who over the course of the film progresses from sunny to barbaric (common), and does it with a persuasiveness that is thoroughly compelling (rare). With her trauma and the pressure she’s under, there’s even the possibility that the entire experience is only in Sarah’s head. Close study of the film disproves this, but it has fun toying with the idea. Interesting how Sarah’s descent (get it?) into primal rage is so well-prepared, and how a viewer can be left sharply divided about their sympathy regarding her final actions. She’s perhaps the best horror heroine since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and The Descent shares a similar celebration of hard-edged femininity with James Cameron’s Aliens, but goes beyond that example by planting its hero in an environment dripping with female imagery – the damp, tight tunnels scream birth metaphors, and it not a coincidence that their safety in the womb-like caverns is stripped away by the appearance of white-colored predators. To liken the women and monsters to eggs and sperm is, in this case not too much of a stretch, I think. Also not coincidental: a late surge of power that occurs right after an impromptu swim in a pool of blood. Strange, how The Descent is just as graphic and gory as any other typical modern horror film, yet Marshall’s direction somehow finds a way to be elegant. Plus, there is something about a British accent that can find a way to be almost civilized in the face of death and gore, which also helps give The Descent a refined sheen.

If I have any lasting problem with The Descent, it is that it runs out of surprises too soon, although its last is not the one you’re thinking of. It becomes just a tad predictable towards the end, which is a shame, since Neil Marshall has made a film that is alive and confident. And I musn’t overlook its specific qualities—it looks great, the six personalities are entertaining and distinctive, and the screenplay resists the hypnotic sway of formula for as long as it can before finally giving in. And give the film credit for not allowing any of its all-female cast to be demoted into eye candy, which is a welcome rebuke to American films, which tend to over-sexualize everyone. It’s also refreshingly fatalistic, even when…ah, but that would be telling. (By the way: in my opinion, you should avoid the compromised “American” theatrical cut and go for the unedited British version, trust me.)

For director Neil Marshall, The Descent is his one qualified success. His other films veer from self-conciously quirky horror (Dog Soldiers) to mile-high carnage (2010’s Centurion). And lets not forget his apocalypse/war/sci-fi/action/exploitation/what-the-hell-is-this epic Doomsday, which is actually kind of fun, but impossible to justify. Marshall is definitely a film geek, and he often makes movies that are too hungry, too overstuffed with homage, too Tarantinoesque. They’re movie-movies. The Descent also has antecedents as long as a long arm, but its done with style and conviction, even when it becomes a tad routine, and it’s electric viewing, especially when watching it on a good set with a great surround system. Could it have been more? Certainly. But for what it wants to be, and what it is, it is every ounce as good as it could be, and that is no easy feat.


NOTES: A special note of attention to sound editors Matthew Collinge and Danny Sheehan (with Michael Marroussas on sound effects duty). Together, they created the entire soundscape of monsters and caves from scratch, since the film was shot on a squeaky Styrofoam set. Not only would you never know it, but if you’ve already seen the film, you may not even believe me when I tell you. But it’s true.

Also, The Descent is certainly not to be confused with 2005’s The Cave, which is a similar story told badly. And I’ve never seen the sequel 2009’s The Descent, Part II, because its existence scares me.

Also, if you’re claustrophobic, this movie is…not for you.

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1979 – Alien

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1999 – The Blair Witch Project

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) enjoy each other's company. "The Silence of the Lambs."

Directed by Jonathan Demme. Screenplay by Ted Tally, based on the novel by Thomas Harris. Produced by Ronald M. Bozman, Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt. Music by Howard Shore. Photographed by Tak Fujimoto. Edited by Craig McKay. Production designed by Kristi Zea. Starring Jodie Foster, Scott Glenn, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Anthony Heald, Kasi Lemmons, Diane Baker, Frankie Faison, Dan Butler, Lawrence T. Wrentz.

Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (based on Thomas Harris’ truly frightening book) is maybe the oddest film ever to win a Best Picture Academy Award. Here is a movie about dark shadows, gross details and arcane rituals, graphic perversions and psychotic evil. And yet it won five Oscars, two BAFTAs, a DGA award, a Golden Globe, critical acclaim and “classic” status. In an era of homogenous Hollywood product, it gives one hope to think of a time when a film this strange not only was made, it flourished.  But it is not just Silence’s peculiarity that gives it strength. It is the high quality of its presentation. Not just the acting (although it is brilliant), and not just the filmmaking (though it is expert), but the whole package together, and how the individual parts interact. It is a special film like Silence that has my favorite attribute to watch for in a motion picture, which is poise. First it knows what it wants to do, then it knows what it’s doing, and then it knows what it did, and all throughout it operates with grace and precision.

One might think it is difficult to obtain a fresh perspective on Silence (one free of its award baggage), but in a certain respect it is not so difficult, because it dovetails with the actual film, which is all about contrasting perspectives. Not just the obviously different mindsets between a sane woman and crazed serial killers, but also about how Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) enters an underworld far removed from the controlled confines of the FBI Academy, one that is ruled by murderers. And also in how Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), though he is seen as a monster by his captors, is well-spoken, refined and insightful, even when discussing his evil past with absolutely no remorse. And also in the way Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), the privileged daughter of a senator, is ensnared through her own kindness by the sadist Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), and goes from a cushy apartment to being half-naked and stranded at the bottom of an old well. It even plays with our own perspective as audience members, as when sly editing suggests that the FBI is seconds away from apprehending Buffalo Bill, when in actuality they are not, and the far-away Clarice is instead the one in immediate danger.

Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography reflects this strategy, adopting specific vantage points at any given time, frequently implicating the viewer in the film’s action (and it frames said action with an autumnal palette—the time of year when living things die). Sometimes the camera adopts Clarice point-of-view, where a subject will talk to her by staring directly at camera, or lengthy pans where she, offscreen, drinks in her surroundings. Other times, we are over her shoulder, behind her, catching little details that she may be aware of, even though she does not specifically see them. Awkward glances, looks, and leers are constantly thrown towards Clarice Starling, and the photography notes and dismisses them, as if sharing a guilty secret with the audience. Still other times, Silence‘s visual technique makes literal the film’s buried themes of subjugated women, such as when Clarice enters an elevator full of tall, intimidating, uniformed men, or when Catherine begs for mercy from her descended prison, and Buffalo Bill towers over her. And it gives us the first visual clue for Clarice (and us) to perhaps admire the menacing Hannibal Lecter: notice how in their first meeting, he stands while she sits, and yet as the two actors are intercut, Lecter’s gaze is always straight ahead. He never looks down on Clarice Starling, which is more than can be said for any other man in the film.

Silence is tactful with the way it navigates tricky themes of sexism without being exploitative. Part of the way the film operates is to scatter little clues that seem invisible—until you see them, and then they’re undeniable. Though she is not verbally abused or harassed at the FBI, Clarice is certainly placed (and places herself) in plenty of awkward situations—the leers, the come-ons, the patronizing manner in which she is treated in the field, her soft-spokenness, her short stature, the way no one listens to her due to her lack of confidence. Even the story’s impetus sexualizes her to a degree, as Clarice is an FBI trainee who is cherry-picked by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), agent-in-charge of Behavioral Sciences, for the assignment of interviewing Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. It’s strongly suggested she is given the task due to her uncomfortable demeanor and good looks (“He hasn’t seen a woman in ages,” smirks Dr. Chillton, Lecter’s smug snake of a warden). Clarice’s task is to pick the brain of Lecter, and her job is, apparently, to appear so inexperienced and alluring that Hannibal will be disarmed, refusing to take her seriously. She holds her own in their first meeting, but he is nonetheless cruel and dismissive of her…until, on her way out, a vulgar patient named Miggs (Stuart Rudin) throws semen in her face, which appalls the good doctor and prompts him to help her. The fact that the film’s fundamental relationship is forged through sympathy for the victim of an act of sudden, degrading sexual violence is certainly not incidental.

This points to the secret of The Silence of the Lambs, which is that Hannibal Lecter is not a bad man. Certainly he is an evil man: capable of it, willing to do it. But “bad” indicates he is without positive qualities, which is inaccurate. In addition to his intelligence and manners, he has a streak of compassion that is endearing. There’s something almost perversely chivalric about the way he retaliates against Miggs’s attack by convincing the inmate to swallow his own tongue in shame. Nasty, yes, but such is the life of a civilized killer. The relationship between Clarice and Hannibal, which becomes deeply intimate and semi-paternal, is wonderful not simply because it subverts our expectations for how a serial killer would behave, but because it doesn’t cheat, and sees both the FBI trainee and the cannibalistic predator strictly on their own terms. And also because by making Hannibal, a focused manifestation of the world of serial killers, so unexpectedly charming it grapples with the thematic underpinnings inherent within Thomas Harris’ novels. In Harris’ stories, professionals must immerse themselves in the culture of monsters in order to catch them, but the crucial, disquieting purpose is how in the Harris books, that universe can have it own sway, offering disturbing psychic rewards, even to the good-hearted. After all, if evil was simply ugly, no one would ever do it. To say that Hopkins and Foster are brilliant in the film is perhaps to belabor my point, but, well, it must be said that they are (and they both won Oscars for their trouble).

Lecter is actually not in the movie very much, maybe about fifteen minutes of screen time, which is wise because too much of him would dilute his power (as the 2001 sequel, Hannibal, makes abundantly clear). He is such a strong figure anyway that he lends his essence to scenes that he is not in, like a dark cloud. He sends Clarice on errands based on stray clues laced in his speech, leading to several scenes where we admire Clarice’s pluck in forging ahead even when we worry about her (the scene that takes place in a storage facility is somehow deeply scary, despite the fact that we doubt something will happen to her). Clarice grows as a person throughout the investigation, becoming more authoritative and forceful. She gathers her resolve to order men out of an autopsy bay (the smile Crawford gives her after she does so–I’ve never been able to decide whether it is prideful or condescending). And she discards her standard defensive combat posture by the end of the film, even in a pitch-black basement, hunted by a murderous creature that is toying with her. It is through her relationship with Lecter that she finds her strength, as she gives and gets via his game of quid pro quo. He questions her methods, delves into her personal history, and latches onto her formative motivations. These scenes of makeshift psychotherapy are inherently compelling, maybe because they speak to how well both characters are put together. Clarice’s backstory is touching, and also we note that Lecter is supposedly an esteemed psychiatrist; even while imprisoned, we can see why.

Lecter’s scenes with Clarice are vital not only because they illuminate the mind of a serial killer and speak dread secrets, but also because they reinforce the sickly notion that Clarice has found strength through the help of a monster. She is warned that she doesn’t want Hannibal in her head, but in time he forces the issue, and she compromises herself, in a way that she wrestles satisfaction from. It is one of the great subtle ironies of the film that Clarice is herself a victim of objectification, just like Buffalo Bill’s captive, and yet she herself quietly objectifies Catherine by conflating her rescue with her own desire to be accepted by the bureau, and getting an award for her trouble. By the end of the story, we don’t doubt that she will become a successful FBI agent, but perhaps at the cost of a bit of her humanity. Perhaps just a tiny bit of Hannibal rubbed off on her. These are tricky moments, and while every review singles out the brilliant Hopkins as Lecter, let me take a second to praise Foster, how well she conveys the nervousness, the fragility, the inner steel, the raw need of Clarice.

There is a lot of talk in The Silence of the Lambs­—addictive talk that creates a special charge, when it becomes clear that these characters are allowed to discuss things in distinctive voices. Ted Tally’s screenplay is literate in its dialogue, but also terse—rather than lingering over the scenes of Hannibal and Clarice together, the script realizes a little of it goes a long way: it would rather be brief than ever give into pretension. And it even knows when to shut up, wringing maximum fear out of the closing sequence where Clarice stumbles in the dark, as Buffalo Bill watches her—objectifying her, trying to touch her, all before the exciting release of the kill. It’s no coincidence that the smartest thing that Clarice does in this climax is to use the skill that she cultivated during sessions with Dr. Lecter: she listens. Very closely.

The film is a perennial, and it rewards repeat viewings with effortless little grace notes. Like Hannibal’s restraints and cold mask, which make him paradoxically even more frightening than in the moments of violence. Or the odious voice of Dr. Chillton, who stretches out his words as if he wants them to snap. Or the way a corpse sighs when a moth cocoon is extracted from its throat. Or the way Hannibal is sometimes lit harshly, like a demonic presence, and other times softly, like a figure that belongs in front of a classroom. Or his quiet command of necessary posture, as if in constant recoil. Or when Pilcher (Paul Lazar), one of the bug geeks, nervously admits that he’s hitting on Starling, giving a slight chuckle that seems, for just a moment, to well up from the same mental place that Buffalo Bill lives. Or the way the camera regards Bill himself, not really passing judgment, as if he operates outside of our moral understanding, like an alien. And it has an ending that provides a chilling sense of closure, since Dr. Lecter, miles away, informs the moment where Clarice is awarded for her bravery—it feels pointedly cheap, since by catching one murderer she inadvertently helped a worse one escape. One step forward, two steps back.

The Silence of the Lambs is perhaps one of the most influential films of the past twenty years: it kicked off an era of serial killer films through its own official sequels (Hannibal, Red Dragon, the deeply unfortunate Hannibal Rising) and spiritual successors (Se7en, Zodiac, and some films best forgotten) and was acknowledged for heavily influencing one of the defining TV series of the 1990s, The X-Files, in addition to being an important milestone in the history of stories about killers that includes newspaper reports about Jack the Ripper, In Cold Blood, the novels of Caleb Carr, Dexter, and many others. These stories interest us, I think, because they are horrors we hear and read about frequently, and we as a society are hungry for understanding the predators in our midst, because so often such people harbor our own thoughts and desires—amplified, twisted, and unhinged, but recognizable just the same. History mentions maps made when the world was new, where unexplored portions were labeled “here be dragons.” For FBI Behavioral Sciences today, it is possibly much similar, except the map is the mind, and some are tasked with walking on the edge every day. And some days, all it would take to fall off the map, into another world altogether, is the tranquil, wise voice of Hannibal the Cannibal.


NOTES: Another great example of Tak Fujimoto’s insidious photography is the entire, chilly first walk to Lecter’s cell. In one moment, as Clarice and Chillton pass the camera, we linger on the hallway for an extra frame as a shackled inmate suddenly comes into focus, and then disappears as we cut to a different shot, as sudden and unexpected as an act of violence. Moments later, Chillton and Clarice reach the entrance of the basement security room, which is framed by a red gate, justifying a sudden, soft red light across the entire frame. The gate slides open, but the light remains unchanged, to create a hellish feeling as Chillton shows Clarice a photograph of one of Lecter’s victims. What a well-shot film.

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The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

A mysterious boarder (Ivor Novello) is a serial killer. Or is he? You have 90 minutes to decide. "The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog."

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Scenario by Elliot Stanard, based upon the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes. Produced by Michael Balcon, Carlyle Blackwell. Music by Ashley Irwin. Photographed by Gaetano di Ventimiglia. Edited by Ivor Montagu. Art direction by C. Wilfred Arnold, Bertram Evans. Starring Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, June, Malcolm Keen, Ivor Novello.

If I’m allowed to make one stray observation about director Alfred Hitchcock, I would say that he was a man born to make movies with sound. Think of the most potent sequences from Hitchcock’s oeuvre: the piercing shriek of strings during the most intense moments in Vertigo, or the ree!-ree!-ree! of Psycho’s shower sequence. Perhaps the way a cheerful radio always plays as counterpoint to the suspected grisliness outside Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in Rear Window. Or the menacing flutter-flutter of birds landing onto a jungle gym, one after the other, after the other, prepared to attack, in The Birds. The man loved to play with acoustics. Don’t get me wrong. He was also an intensely visual director (his arguably finest masterwork, Vertigo, only makes a lick of sense if you pay strict attention to the way it is shot). But he hit his stride later in his career, when he possessed every tool that modern cinema could provide (and he loved that modernity, too–he even played with the growing field of 3D in his Dial M for Murder). This idea of mine that Hitchcock was best suited to sound film hit me as I viewed The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, which is his first ever feature-length production. It is silent, and in its strategy you would be forgiven if you perceived a frustration the filmmaker has with his format. It’s a silent film that doesn’t want to be one. It’s an inauspicious start for one of the most legendary directors of all time. But not a worthless one.

The Lodger, based on a novel by Marie Belloc Loundes, is founded in a neat conceit: it draws a modern (well, then-modern) parallel for the story of Jack the Ripper, who of course has provided the impetus for countless movies throughout the years, because the case still compels a powerful fascination, being one of the first well-documented intersections between drawing-room society and premeditated murder. In The Lodger, an unknown serial assailant (here called “The Avenger,”…yes, really) preys upon the blonde (and only blonde) women of London. The police are baffled, and an undercurrent of hysteria permeates the day. Seemingly far removed from the mayhem is Mrs. Bunting (Marie Anault), who is landlady for a boarding house, where she lives in domestic bliss with her daughter, Daisy (June) and her husband (Arthur Chesney), who basically wanders around the background and looks cross, perhaps because no one has remembered to give his character a name. One day a mysterious man comes to Mrs. Bunting’s door. He’s distant, pale, has an angular face, and is rather deeply unpleasant: he’s history’s first recorded member of Team Edward. He doesn’t want to answer questions about his past. He throws Mrs. Bunting a wad of bills and asks for privacy, although he does insist that she remove the portraits of young women that litter the walls of his room.  Well, that’s not a good sign, is it?

The lodger, named Jonathan Drew (Ivor Navello), is a peculiar, secretive man, certainly troubled. He grows close to Daisy, who works at a fashion parade with other nice girls, but their burgeoning affair is given two obstacles. First, Daisy’s beau, Joe (Malcolm Keen), who doesn’t much like this mysterious man living in his sweetie’s house. Secondly, Jonathan’s spontaneous nighttime constitutionals make her soon suspect the worst about him: that he is the Avenger. (The Avenger, much like The Ripper, doesn’t leave fingerprints). Or maybe he’s just a weirdo.

I am now going to have to struggle with all of my might to resist giving spoilers, not because they are huge, but because, percentage-wise, there’s not much more plot left to reveal. Mrs. Bunting continues to spy on Jonathan leaves the house in the middle of the night, for parts unknown, probably to go gallivanting around town with his murdering. She inspects the room in his absence and finds evidence that is as suspicious as it is circumstantial. Meanwhile, Daisy continues to work at the fashion parade, showing off designer dresses in a gaudy arena to an audience of appreciative men (which is a forum not too hard to tilt in the direction of creepy). And things heat up when the people of London get involved in the hunt for the Avenger, and Joe begins to actively investigate Jonathan.

It sounds like the makings of a spellbinding thriller: the collision of the mundane with the sensational, the inflamed imagination of an innocent leading to very real (if unverified) paranoia, and perhaps even the familiar plight of the innocent man wrongly accused (if Jonathan’s eventual protestations at the police are to be believed). All of these are themes, of course, that will inform Hitchcock’s later work, and it is worth a look to see them in embryonic form here. But the noose never tightens in The Lodger, and it becomes a curiously remote experience. Sequences arrive and promise suspense, but they don’t pay off. There’s an absence of nuance throughout; it never gives you more than one thing to think about at any time. The most illustrative moment concerns a climactic pair of handcuffs, and who will see them, and when. The concept is Pure Hitchcock™, but the execution is flaky and uncertain.

The film suffers under a discomfort with the silent form. The acting generally favors naturalism over exaggerated pantomime, which, for the medium and story on hand, feels perhaps a mistake. Dialogue is frequently extended and just as often unsupported by title cards. The effect is like watching a more sophisticated-than-average conversation for a silent film, but one that we’re not made privy to. The broad strokes are easily identifiable, but there are lengthy parts where we’re just watching people’s lips move. Well…what are they saying?

Hitchcock was reportedly a perfectionist (and I think that comes through in his classics). So, if you know that, it’s hard not to wince with sympathy pains at The Lodger, which is mostly made of rough edges. Transitions are clunky, and sometimes the blocking is flat and artificial (Mrs. Bunting’s search through Jonathan’s room, for example). The film seems to be yearning for something transcendent: more visuals evoking the gloom of London after dark, more development of the awkward love triangle, evocative sound effects, a mournful piece of music…something. Instead, we get something that feels compromised, right down to its score, which is so ill-matched it sounds like a radio left on in another room for an hour and a half.

It is with Daisy that, I think, that the film reaches its finest levels of success, but that’s probably only because it complements so well Hitchcock’s later work. And it is telling that his first ever leading lady is…well, she’s a classic Hitchcock blonde, darn it. Winsome and sweet, she’s the kind of girl you would understand men going mad over, even if she often seems stuck for conversation. The script makes a point of unwholesome attention being cast her way, and even though she’s a grade-A fashion model, there’s a definite point being made when Jonathan visits one of her shows and seems to leer at her. Of course, Jack the Ripper, in real life, targeted prostitutes, and there’s clearly a link being made between professions where women treat their sexuality as a marketable commodity. There’s a subtle (but definite) hint of sexual frustration in Jonathan Drew, who looks on at Daisy and her beau, unwholesomely. And notice the moment where Jonathan stares at Daisy’s cute little feet splashing in a tub of bathwater.

Hitchcock, of course, favored an icy sexuality when photographing his female characters, and was frequently criticized for objectifying (even festishizing) femininity in his work. Oh, and Hitchcock did also have a serious thing for blondes. So what do we make of The Lodger, since it is about a man who turns women into objects to possess or fear? Jonathan sees Daisy and Joe’s relationship with jealous disdain, and has his own difficulties treating her as a person rather than an object of lust. A later revelation about his suggests a man permanently warped by a woman, one that has colored his every move ever since. In effect, Hitchcock made a first film that was in many ways about the topics that he would explore in the future, and here he casts the character he would most sympathize with as a potentially psychotic weirdo. A harsh bit of self-analysis for Hitch, or just all in good fun? That’s the thing about Hitchcock, you never quite know.

But there has to be ending, of course, where rights are wronged, and loose threads are tied up, and boy does The Lodger finish with a shrug. Everything gets explained, and much of what came before is realigned into something more approaching a quasi-heroic subtext, which is a bit too tidy, and sweeps away the psychological underpinnings in favor of a stock romance and a final moment straight out of The Thin Man. The resolution of “The Avenger” plot I will not reveal, but I will temper my frustration with it by linking it to Hitchcock’s concept of “The MacGuffin,” which is the element that gets the plot started, even though it’s actual nature is irrelevant. Ah, poor Avenger…you were always just the MacGuffin, weren’t you? Shame that all those girls had to die. Shame you had to pick such a goofy name, too. In a sense, the MacGuffin is best ignored once the real thrills begin, but when neither element is up to code, it only reminds how slight the whole enterprise is. And that, after all this time, is how The Lodger feels. Slight.

The Lodger is a mood piece, and every so often it does provide some haunting imagery. When Jonathan enters the boarding house, he is wrapped in winter clothing, and he seems to bring with him a waft of fog—he comes in, literally, under a cloud. Later, he’ll become trapped on an iron fence, as two separate crowds on different planes try to pull him in opposite directions, like angels and devils battling for possession of a soul. Isn’t it nifty the way the other fashion parade girls casually tie leather gloves to the hair under their hats to trick the Avenger into thinking they’re not blondes? Why can’t women in modern-thrillers be that instinctively smart? And there is something to be said for the ghostly countenance of Ivor Navello, who is…don’t take this the wrong way…perfectly plausible as a potential killer.

There’s even nice little visual grace notes (spare as they are), which manage to tell the story. Note how everything we need to know about Joe and Daisy is said when Joe visits his paramour and bakes cookies with her. He uses a Valentine’s Day cookie cutter, and he plants a heart-shaped piece of dough in front of her, lovingly. She laughs and throws it back at him, playfully trivializing his affections, and he quietly rips the cookie in half. Nice But if you can sense that I’m grasping at straws here, my only defense is that I think The Lodger is rather stifling to think about. It just doesn’t really offer much, and the best ways to discuss it are to bring in ideas from other works. As I viewed it, I ended up thinking more about Alfred Hitchcock then about the people in it, and whether they would live or die.

I can’t help but conclude that The Lodger is best appreciated in an academic sense. There is little here that would distinguish it from later, better works in the suspense thriller genre, and its sense of detail leaves much to be desired. You can feel within it a sense that silent film is maybe not the best medium for this story. And indeed, The Lodger has been remade in 1932, 1944, and 2009, all to varying degrees of success, all much more empowered by an increased ability to create mood. The Lodger, truly is the work of a skilled artist with one hand tied around his back. But you watch out for this kid Alfred Hitchcock. He’s going to go places. Just you wait.


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