Jodie Foster (agent Clarice Starling) and Hopkins (psychotic killer Hannibal Lecter) single-handedly breathe life into a Hogarth print. Look at them carefully in the early prison scenes. Hopkins’ serial killer snarls and seethes, a chained Satan in love with his narcotic bullying ( “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”) Foster’s FBI apprentice is a willing victim of vulnerability and dark-side fascination. In over her head but determined to stay, Starling flirts with one madman, Lecter, to track down another, called “Buffalo Bill.”
Jonathan Demme’s finest movie isn’t so much about unfathomable crimes and manifold perversion as an effective portrait of caricature, a prolonged snapshot of Madonna and Devil in rare lockstep. Scott Glenn is creditable as Jack Foster, Clarice’s boss; he’s the conscience that reminds you that morality is out there somewhere, but in short supply.
In a two-hour movie, Hopkins’ Lecter is on screen a mere 16 minutes, each one alarming in its own way. Foster uses these sublime minutes to fill out the movie. Never has the name Clarice sounded so ominous.