To be clear, this is about the MOVIE, not the book. I devoured the book when I first read it, and felt the little background details about Jame Gumb were fascinating, but the movie is far superior. The book is straightforward facts, and the movie has many things to say. I'm including the deleted scenes, and working off the screenplay by Ted Talley.
On the surface this is a slasher movie. A movie where a scary bad man hunts women, terrorizes them, and skins them. It's a movie that is anti-abortion - I'll get to that in a bit - anti-women in the work place, anti-psychiatry, anti-religion... It appears to promote the glass ceiling for women in the workplace. That women are things. But that's the surface. This movie was written and went into production during one of the more conservative periods in modern American times. The Reagan/Bush years. It was during the hey-day of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart were on the rise again, and much mockery was made in the public eye about "therapy" and "psychiatry." Anti-abortion activity was reaching a fever-pitch with bombings, death threats, and so forth. Commercials were aired routinely with graphic images or sounds, or continual images of happy children, the intent to shame.
The movie opens with Clarice, a little upstart from a small mining town in West Virginia, thick accent, small bodied, running an obstacle course through the woods. It's reminiscent of standard slasher movies where the helpless victim - female - runs from the Bad Guy through the woods only to fall down, cry, hands at her face and be killed. Clarice passes a series of signs: HURT, PAIN, AGONY, LOVE IT, PRIDE, which is seriously worn out. She is in a man's world, which is reinforced continually. She gets into the elevator to see Crawford and is small, feminine, and completely surrounded by huge men staring down at her. This is repeated throughout the movie. She is out of place and objectified. However: she is completely oblivious to their objectification, and is shocked each time anything sexual is presented to her.
She respects the old ways - the rules of the FBI, of order, but the very fact of her double Xs is a threat and a challenge to the other men in the workplace. When she travels to see the newest victim of Buffalo Bills and is left standing with a crown of deputies - left there as Crawford pulls the old "let's not discuss sexual matters in front of a lady" with a significant eye roll to her, she finds her inner steel, and remembers that she outranks those cowboys and sends them out. Interesting that she sends them out with the patois of a matriarch of a small town who knows what's best. "Y'all go on now. Let us take care of her."
WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE/FEMINISM
We see glimpses of Clarice at Quantico. She is small, but tough. She stands out, both in stature and with her brains. She makes one mistake in class that is pointed out. She excels on the gun-range, typically dominated by men. Crawford sends her as a pretty bit of bait to Lector - or does he? Chilton mentions this, and it confuses her, makes her doubt Crawford, who is her father figure. It's interesting to me that the role of father figure switches to Lector in a way. So here is our little spitfire being used as bait, as a pretty object to get the Men in Charge the information they need. If this movie had been made even ten years earlier, surely there would have been sexual tension written in - because that's how a woman gets what she wants, right?
She begins to see that her femininity can be used to her advantage, although in small doses. It's not SEX that she uses, but HER SEX. There's a slight difference. When Chilton, in effect, hits on her by offering to show her about Baltimore, she demurs in a way to not piss him off. She can see that he's an important key in getting to speak with Lector. But she does remind him that she is here to work, and that U Va is "not a charm school." It's softness that is the key, softness in approach, not some sort of rolling over and taking it. This is what separates her from other women in movies prior.
Ultimately, Clarice is able to get the clues needed by matching the wits of one of the greatest criminal masterminds - and a little dumb luck. She is able to collar the Bad Guy - something the Men in Charge weren't able to do in ten months. She did in less than a week. It's also interesting to note that she does so with a gun - not something women are allowed in film to excel at - in the deleted scenes, there's a moment where you see she is the fastest, and the most accurate. And not only does she get him, she UNLOADS her weapon into him in blackness, shattering a window and flooding the room and her actions in the light after having been subjected to the old horror movie standby of being stalked by the Bad Guy in the dark. By the time Gumb has his night-vision goggles on and reaches out to stroke her hair while she fumbles in the dark, her fear evident, we have come to identify with Clarice. She is strong, tough, determined, and we are rooting for her. She doesn't fail us.
Only when she was stripped of her duties with the case, ie, when the deal with the Senator fell through spectacularly, and Crawford assures her he has the culprit in his sights, THEN she is able to save the day. All of the rules and structures she has adhered to and literally swore an oath to follow are gone, and all that's left is her and her weapon. I don't know of any other film that leaves a woman with nothing but her gun. It's High Noon and it's a female. The best thing about this, for me, is that she STAYS a woman. She isn't hardened into something that won't threaten men (example: a butch dyke, or something to that effect - the typical "wink, wink" thing Hollywood does with women if they aren't sexual objects), she's the same tough feminine woman she's been all along. She nervously pulls her gun. She makes mistakes in not checking corners when down in the basement. She didn't call for backup. Also interesting is the genuine fear on Crawford's face when he realizes that she'll be the one to confront Buffalo Bill. But. It does say something for him that he's recognized her talent. You could argue that he knew it before, which was why he picked her in the first place.
About the time this movie was in production, a very powerful commercial was in heavy air play for the Pro-Life folks. There were pictures of a child at birth, toddler years, and then footage of a young kindergarten-aged kid playing on a swing-set, full of life and vigor. The voice over is a young woman explaining that this is her child, his name is such and such, and then finally, that she contemplated abortion, but just look at the child! Isn't everything so much better now that she didn't? Horrible ad, but that's for another day. (It doesn't deal with adoption, with women who can't physically care for the child, etc., etc.) Now. Go back to the scene where Ardelia and Clarice hear a commercial on the TV in their dorm with the Senator doing the EXACT SAME THING. Over and over she says, "This is my daughter. Her name is Catherine. You have the power to giver her life, to give her death... Please. This is my daughter, Catherine." Clarice clues everyone in to the fact that if Catherine Martin becomes more than just a "thing" to Buffalo Bill, it's likely he can't "cut her up."
Later, there is a scene with Catherine down in the "womb," the dried up well small, large head (we can't see her curled up body) whispering frantically, "mommy, mommy, mommy, I want my mommy," followed by the camera panning up the side to show scars of earlier "abortive attempts" from Bill's earlier victims, and a fingernail buried into claw marks - presumably where someone tried to get out whole.
However. Clarice is able to save her. There's also a good case for PRO-abortion in Buffalo Bill. In the deleted scenes (and the book) we learn that Bill is trying to BECOME his mother. That his mother didn't want HIM. A little quick surgery when the rabbit died would have saved many lives.
God is dead. Psychology killed him. There's your Nietzsche for the day. Chilton has put himself in God's place in his little asylum, but Lector is the real ruler. He is still conferred to by those in the biz. That always killed me. Chilton says that Lector is beyond definition, that he cannot be pigeon holed, and in the same breath, considers himself Lector's nemesis. Lector will be having him for "dinner" later to let him know what he thinks about THAT. Throughout the movie, religion is used as punishment. When Lector talks Miggs into swallowing his tongue as penance for bad manners towards Clarice, he is punished with screaming televangelists. I also found it interesting that through his years as a psychiatrist (God) he was able to convince his "followers" into doing his bidding. Killing, even. He is above rules, beyond order. He feeds off the fears and foibles of lesser beings. Satan is more accurate, but he sees himself as doing something noble.
Back to Chilton, who thinks he's running the show. He's crazier than the nuts in the nuthouse. Is psychiatry really shown in a positive light? Absolutely not. Utlimately, we are left with the idea of those who are strong should look out for the weak. That is the ultimate moral in this movie. And it's nice that the person who is the strongest is a woman who feels, who cares, and who is sharp and strong. Lector senses this and enjoys her company, which is why the "world is a more interesting place with [Clarice] in it."
Oh, this is my favorite bit. It's also the most gruesome in the movie, but so damn brilliant. Officer Tate becoming the Death's Head Moth, a symbol of terrible change. First, when the camera pans to the frosted glass of the gymnasium and we see flickering lights and something very, very wrong, it's a Messiah image. Hung, arms outstretched, head tilted to the side, martyred so that, in this case, one could be Free. But as the camera gets closer, you see that his belly skin has been sliced away, and there's something very wrong with his body. That position has a name, called a Blood Eagle. The ribs are broken, the lungs are spread out like wings from the severed spine, and the victim dies of suffocation quickly. What's our nation's symbol? The Eagle. Now, look closer. What is Tate hung up with? American flags. The Messiah image wrapped up in the pagan torture method, but also a further reminder of Bill and his calling card. I always thought of that as a warning to Clarice that Bill was going to strike soon unless she figured out who he was.
When Gumb decides to end Catherine - the whole dog captured scene - he goes to his room and grabs his gun from his bed with a duvet covered in swastikas. He also has American flags in the background. When he's gunned down, and the camera cuts to the broken window, there is a Vietnam-era helmet on a shelf and two small American flags. I haven't worked out what the helmet is. But Gumb is a man trapped in a "false" identity, trying to be reborn into something he feels worthy, something pure. That's why he has the butterflies everywhere (there's a spinning decoration with a white and yellow butterfly on one side, and a huge yellow one on the other - this is after he has been defeated - he did NOT become pure.) It stands to reason that he would embrace the ideals of the Swastika - the bloodthirsty pursuit of purity. But... that's evident in America, as well.
Also interesting to note that Gumb picks a Senator's daughter. He could have picked her simply because she was "big through the hips... roomy," but he did nothing without observing. Just a small slap at government.
Lector draws an image of Clarice holding a lamb in her lap after hearing her story. It's a recreation of a Madonna with Christ Child. An old concept is: would Christ have been if not for Mary? Lots of Mary worship still goes on today. When Clarice goes back to Frederica Bimmel's house and checks out her room (and finds the hidden images of Frederica, shamed of her body) look at the items on her desk. A Mary watching over a flock of sheep. Hell, the damned DOG, PRECIOUS is cut to look like a sheep.
DOGS VS CATS
I told you this movie has everything. What do all of the victims have? Cats. What does Gumb have? A dog. Ha. Still, it's true!
Gah, I'm getting worn out. I'm sure I'll think of fifty more things. OOH! Like how Lector tells her EVERYTHING and she doesn't catch on. He asks her if she's seen the Duomo from the Belvedere. Where is Jame Gumb? Belvedere, Ohio. He tells her the key is Simplicity. Simplicity is a pattern maker. What is Bill doing? Making a human suit.
Oh!! One more. Told you this was going to be jumpy. When she kills Bill? And he has his night-vision goggles and is shot through the neck? He looks like a god damned bug. Love it. Look at his hands, curled up. His bugged eyes in the goggles. AHHHH. Man, I haven't even touched on the director's wonderful things in this, like the reflection of Clarice in Lector's eyes in EVERY close up of him, and vice-versa with her. ACK! Or when Clarice prepares to look at her first dead body, where she's now "one of the guys" she makes a mustache with the Vicks. Normally, in forensics, you would swipe the nostrils inside with that.
Okay, this is never going to stop unless I quit. *does* *for now duh duh duhhhhhhhhh*