All sorts of macabre things have gone on, and are still going on just off screen, in Jonathan Demme's swift, witty new suspense thriller, "The Silence of the Lambs."
Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer nicknamed Hannibal the Cannibal, once liked to feast on his victims, daintily, in a meal designed to complement the particular nature of the main dish. He would, for example, choose a "nice" Chianti to accompany a savory liver. A fine Bordeaux would compete.
Hannibal is a brilliant if bent psychiatrist, now under lock and key in a maximum-security facility.
Still at large, though, is a new serial killer, known as Buffalo Bill for reasons that can't be reported here. Bill's habit is to skin his victims.
At the beginning of "The Silence of the Lambs," Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the F.B.I.'s man in charge of Bill's case, seeks the assistance of a bright young agent, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster).
Her assignment: to interview Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), arouse his interest and secure his help in drawing a psychological profile of the new killer.
The principal concern of "The Silence of the Lambs" is the entrapment of Buffalo Bill before he can kill again. Yet the heart of the movie is the eerie and complex relationship that develops between Clarice and Hannibal during a series of prison interviews, conducted through inch-thick bulletproof glass.
Hannibal, as grandly played by Mr. Hopkins, is a most seductive psychopath, a fellow who listens to the "Goldberg Variations" and can sketch the Duomo from memory. It's not his elegant tastes that attract Clarice, and certainly not his arrogant manner or his death's-head good looks. His smile is frosty, and his eyes never change expression. It's his mind that draws her to him. It pierces and surprises. Hannibal is one movie killer who is demonstrably as brilliant and wicked as he is reported to be.
In their first interview, Hannibal sizes up Clarice from her expensive bag and cheap shoes, her West Virginia accent and her furrow-browed, youthful determination not to appear intimidated. Hannibal isn't unkind to her.
He is at first skeptical and then amused. Finally he is seduced by her, at least to the extent that his egomania allows. She is flesh and blood and something more.
As played by Miss Foster, Clarice is as special in her way as Hannibal is in his. She is exceptionally pretty, but her appeal has more to do with her character, which is still in the process of being formed. She's unsure of herself, yet clear-headed enough to recognize her limitations.
Clarice has the charm of absolute honesty, something not often seen in movies or, for that matter, in life. She's direct, kind, always a bit on edge and eager to make her way.
When Hannibal finally agrees to help Clarice, it's with the understanding that for every bit of information he gives her, she will tell him something about herself. Because Hannibal, by nature and by profession, is an expert in prying, the questions he asks, and the answers he receives, both frighten and soothe the young woman.
For Hannibal, they are a turn-on.
Through the bulletproof glass, in dizzy succession, Hannibal and Clarice become analyst and analysand, teacher and pupil, father and daughter, lover and beloved, while always remaining cat and mouse.
Miss Foster, in her first role since winning an Oscar for "The Accused," and Mr. Hopkins, an actor of cool and eloquent precision, give exciting substance to the roles written by Ted Tally, who adapted the screenplay from a novel by Thomas Harris. An earlier Thomas novel, "Red Dragon," in which the homicidal doctor also appears, was the basis of the 1986 film "Manhunter."
Miss Foster and Mr. Hopkins are so good, in fact, that Clarice and Hannibal sometimes seem more important than the mechanics of "The Silence of the Lambs," which is, otherwise, committed to meeting the obligations of a suspense melodrama.
Mr. Demme meets most of these obligations with great style. The buildup to the dread Hannibal's first scene is so effective that one almost flinches when he appears. Never after that, for good reason, does Hannibal become trusted, though he is always entertaining to have around.
Eventually, though, the demands of the plot begin to take precedence over people and plausibility. Hannibal not only can help with the Buffalo Bill case, but he also knows who Buffalo Bill is. About halfway through, so does the audience, at which point the movie shifts to a lower, more functional gear even as the pace increases.
The screenplay, which is very effective in detailing character, is occasionally hard pressed to feed the audience enough information so that it can follow the increasingly breathless manhunt without a roadmap.
I'm told it helps if one has read the book, but reading the book shouldn't be a requirement to enjoy the film. At a crucial point the audience must also accept, as perfectly reasonable and likely, some instant surgery that allows the story to continue moving forward.
This may be hair-splitting. "The Silence of the Lambs" is not meant to be a handy home guide to do-it-yourself face liftings. Yet the movie is so persuasive most of the time that the wish is that it be perfect.
Although the continuity is sometimes unclear, the movie is clearly the work of adults. The dialogue is tough and sharp, literate without being literary.
Mr. Demme is a director of both humor and subtlety. The gruesome details are vivid without being exploited. He also handles the big set pieces with skill. The final confrontation between Clarice and the man she has been pursuing is a knockout -- a scene set in pitch dark, with Clarice being stalked by a killer who wears night-vision glasses.
Mr. Glenn is stalwart as Clarice's F.B.I. mentor, but the role is no match for those of his two co-stars.
The good supporting cast includes Anthony Heald, as another doctor who might be as nutty as Hannibal, and Ted Levine, as a fellow who spends more time making his own clothes than is entirely healthy. Roger Corman, the self-styled king of B-pictures, who gave Mr. Demme his start in film making, appears briefly as the director of the F.B.I.