Based on Thomas Harris’s best-selling novel, Jonathan Demme’s suspenseful, gruesome, vastly entertaining thriller centers on the battle of nerves and wits between an FBI trainee named Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and a diabolical psychiatrist turned cannibal, who becomes Clarice’s sparring partner, in her efforts to hunt down a sicko serial killer.
The first of 1991’s five nominees to be distributed theatrically, “The Silence of the Lambs” opened at an unusual time, in February. By Oscar time, the picture has grossed $130.7 million, which made it the last successful release by the then-recently bankrupt Orion Pictures, the company responsible for “Dances With Wolves,” the Oscar-winner of the previous year. This bizarre financial situation was not lost on director Demme, who remarked, “I know everyone feels the incredible irony of what’s happened to Orion.”
Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is pulled from her training at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit. He assigns her to interview Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a former psychiatrist and incarcerated cannibalistic serial killer, hoping that Lecter’s insight would be useful in capturing a serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), who skins his female victims’ corpses.
Starling travels to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald) takes her—after hitting on her–to Lecter’s solitary quarters. Although initially pleasant and courteous, Lecter grows impatient with Starling’s attempts at “dissecting” him and rebuffs her. As she leaves, a prisoner flicks semen at her, an act Lecter considers “unspeakably ugly.” Lecter gives her a tip that leads her to a storage shed where she discovers a severed head with a sphinx moth in its throat. Lecter tells her that the man is linked to Buffalo Bill and offers to profile Buffalo Bill if they transfer him away from Chilton.
Buffalo Bill abducts Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), the daughter of U.S. Senator (Diane Baker). Crawford authorizes Starling to offer Lecter a fake deal promising a prison transfer if he provides information. Instead, Lecter demands a quid pro quo from Starling, offering clues about Buffalo Bill in exchange for personal information. Chilton secretly records the conversation and reveals Starling’s deceit before offering Lecter a deal of Chilton’s own making. Lecter is flown to Memphis, Tennessee, where he torments Senator Ruth Martin, giving her misleading information on Buffalo Bill including the name “Louis Friend”.
Starling notices that “Louis Friend” is an anagram of “iron sulfide”—fool’s gold. She visits Lecter, who is now being held in a cage-like cell in a Tennessee courthouse. Lecter tells her that all the information is contained in the case file. Rather than give her the real name, he insists they continue their quid pro quo and she recounts a traumatic childhood incident where she was heard the sound of spring lambs slaughtered on a relative’s farm in Montana. Lecter speculates that she is motivated to save Catherine in hope of ending her nightmares. Lecter gives her back the case files on Buffalo Bill after their conversation is interrupted by Chilton and the police. Later that evening, Lecter kills his guards and escapes from his cell.
Starling analyzes Lecter’s notes to the case files and realizes that Buffalo Bill knew his first victim personally. Starling travels to the victim’s hometown and discovers that he was a tailor, with dress patterns identical to the patches of skin removed from each of his victims. She informs Crawford that Buffalo Bill is trying to make a “woman suit” of real skin.
Crawford cross-references Lecter’s notes with hospital archives about a man named Jame Gumb, who applied unsuccessfully for a sex-change operation. Starling continues interviewing friends of Buffalo Bill’s first victim in Ohio while Crawford leads an F.B.I. tactical team to Gumb’s address in Illinois. The house in Illinois is empty, and Starling is led to the house of “Jack Gordon,” who she realizes is Jame Gumb, by finding a sphinx moth.
She pursues him into a multi-room basement, where Catherine is still alive but trapped in a dry well. After turning off the lights, Gumb stalks Starling in the dark with night-vision goggles but gives his position away with his revolver. Starling kills him right away.
At an FBI Academy graduation party, Starling receives a call from Lecter, who is at an airport in Bimini. He assures her that he does not plan to pursue her and asks her to return the favor, which she says she cannot. Lecter hangs up the phone, saying he is “having an old friend for dinner” and starts following the newly arrived Chilton before disappearing into the crowd.