Home > Reviews > THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – Howard Shore


February 19, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Despite having first appeared on screen in 1986 in director Michael Mann’s Manhunter, the character Hannibal Lecter exploded into public consciousness five years later with this film, The Silence of the Lambs. Based on the best-selling novel by Thomas Harris and directed by Jonathan Demme, the film follows the investigation into a serial killer dubbed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ who abducts young women and methodically strips skin from their bodies before murdering them. Rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is tasked by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the head of the Behavioral Science Unit, to visit and interview the incarcerated Lecter (Anthony Hopkins in a career-defining role); as well as being a cannibalistic serial killer himself, Lecter is also a brilliant psychologist, and it is believed his insight may help the FBI catch ‘Bill’ before he kills again. However, as well as helping build up a profile of the murderer, Lecter also convinces Clarice to provide details of her own life as part of a ‘quid pro quo’ arrangement, and the two begin an unlikely intellectual relationship that threatens to derail the investigation.

The film was an enormous critical and commercial success, with many commentators considering it to be one of the greatest horror/thriller films ever made, with a legacy that continues to influence film and television some thirty years later. Despite him having already had an acclaimed career stretching back to the 1960s, it made the then-54-year-old Anthony Hopkins a bonafide movie star, with his startling performance as Lecter becoming a gold standard for the genre. Many of the film’s lines – “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti,” “It rubs the lotion on its skin” – have become iconic in cinema history, and hindsight has shown that the film ushered in a public fascination with serial killers which continues to this day. I personally consider it to be one of my all-time favorite films, and the Academy Awards agreed with me: at the time of writing it remains one of only three films to win the Big Five of Best Picture, Best Director for Demme, Best Actor for Hopkins, Best Actress for Foster, and Best Screenplay for Ted Tally. However, perhaps a little surprisingly, the one aspect of the film which tends to be overlooked is its score, by Howard Shore.

The Silence of the Lambs was the first collaboration between Demme and Shore, but Shore’s hiring for this film made sense considering that the unassuming Canadian had made his name scoring a series of dark, brooding drama, horror, and thriller films for director David Cronenberg, notably Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, and Dead Ringers. His work is a claustrophobic, overwhelming exercise in tension and suffocating atmosphere, filled with endless scenes of restlessly shifting string writing and low brass, which sometimes rises to beautiful, operatic heights. The score does contain themes – several of them, in fact – but everything is subservient to Shore’s intimidating tones, which help give the scenes between Lecter and Starling an overwhelming sense of dread.

The “Main Title” – which underscores a fun piece of misdirection which initially makes you think Starling is being chased by a killer, until you realize she is actually completing an FBI training assault course – is anchored around a hopeful and lyrical 5-note recurring oboe motif that acts as a theme for Clarice, and gradually grows to encompass a brooding, slightly morose set of textures that oscillate between low strings and low woodwinds. The second main recurring theme appears at 0:55, and is a more haunting 7-note motif that foreshadows Clarice’s impending encounters with Hannibal Lecter. The rest of the piece is a series of variations and collisions of these two ideas, moving backwards and forwards and through each other, while the rest of the orchestra performs a series of unsettling, undulating chords to add to the sense of unease. It’s actually very clever how Shore presents this musical symbiotic relationship right from the get-go, before Starling and Lecter have even met, planting the musical seeds in the mind of the viewer and the listener.

The various encounters between Starling and Lecter at Dr. Chiltern’s Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane build on this relationship even further. Their first meeting, underscored by the cue “The Asylum,” is awash in a deadly serious atmosphere of trepidation and anxiety, as Shore pulls his orchestra down to the lowest depths of bass woodwinds, brooding strings, and slow, hesitant pacing. Deconstructed statements of both Clarice’s motif and Lecter’s motif dance around each other as the two protagonists feel each other out, each vying for dominance. “Clarice” offers reflective statements of both themes, again mostly for woodwinds and strings, but with perhaps a little more dissonance in the background chords, capturing the nervousness that betrays Starling’s lack of confidence and experience in dealing with the incarcerated serial killer.

Further cues such as “Return to the Asylum,” “Quid Pro Quo,” and “Lambs Screaming” dwell in the same murky depths, but what’s interesting about these cues is that, despite their overwhelmingly bleak tone, they remain accessible throughout. Cleverly, as the relationship between Lecter and Starling gradually becomes more approachable, almost friendly, Shore often adopts lighter textures and instrumental ideas as a way of conveying that. For example in “Quid Pro Quo” he plays Lecter’s theme on a harp, uses warmer horn chords in the background, and even offers some slightly playful, dance-like string ideas to illustrate the idea that their relationship is becoming co-dependent. Later, in “Lambs Screaming,” the tonal quality of the interplay between the strings and woodwinds is soft, almost romantic, and ends in the realm of neoclassical beauty. People will say they’re in love.

It’s also interesting to note that anyone coming at this score from a post-Lord of the Rings point of view will clearly hear just how much those scores were built from the existing blocks of this score, and others like The Fly and Dead Ringers. While Shore’s music for Middle Earth is much more flamboyant and dramatic in its final execution, everything that makes those scores what they are can clearly be found in these earlier works; the chord progressions, the specific interplay between instruments, the way the music is layered, it’s all classic Shore, and it echoes on to his music for Peter Jackson’s fantasy epics in many clearly recognizable ways.

The second major aspect of the score deals with the film’s new serial killer, Buffalo Bill. If anything, the music that accompanies Bill and his various nefarious activities is even darker and more menacing than the music for Starling and Lecter. “The Abduction” underscores the scene where Bill kidnaps his latest victim, Catherine Martin, with much the same orchestral makeup, but with a tone and texture that you can feel crawling over your skin, as well as with a touch of gothic tragedy for poor Catherine’s fate. A motif for Bill slowly begins to emerge over the course of the cue, reaching its zenith around the 2:00 mark as the brass asserts itself and performs a dominant 3-note motif with terrifying clarity and overwhelming power.

“Lecter in Memphis” and “Lecter Escapes” contain the score’s only music which could be classified as ‘action,’ wherein Shore increases the brass quotient of the score significantly, and inserts a series of pulsating rhythmic ideas that layer the different parts of the brass section against each other in a variety of fascinating ways. Cleverly, when Lecter is speaking to Catherine’s mother Senator Ruth Martin and telling her what he knows about her captor, Buffalo Bill’s three-mote motif can be heard in the background of the conversation; listen to what the flutes are doing after the 5:02 mark of “Lecter in Memphis”. The tremulous explosions of brass-led horror in “Lecter Escapes” mark one of the few instances where Shore scores Hannibal the Cannibal rather than Dr Lecter, and show just how dangerous he is when he is fully unleashed. Ready when you are, Sergeant Pembry.

The final three cues – “Belvedere, Ohio,” “The Moth,” and “The Cellar” – underscore the film’s final sequence where Starling journeys to the hometown of Bill’s first victim on a hunch, and then inadvertently stumbles into the killer’s lair for one final confrontation. Here, instead of the themes for Lecter and Starling, it is the themes for Starling and Bill which move around each other and play against one another, first as Starling speaks to one of the victim’s old friends about Bill, and then during their encounter when Clarice slowly realizes who she is speaking to. The air of horrifying revelation and sheer terror that Shore injects into this music is palpable, with “The Cellar” standing as one of the most overbearingly tense pieces of music you are ever likely to hear. Shore uses instruments at their extremes – high, whining strings against low, growling woodwinds – and then moves into a sequence of disturbing electronic sound design and musique concrète sound effects, creaking and whining and whispering over your shoulder. The atmosphere is thick with dread, and utterly compelling.

The score’s “Finale,” in which the now-missing Lecter calls Clarice in the middle of her FBI graduation ceremony from a Caribbean island, tells her he’s having “an old friend for dinner,” and then casually strolls down the street after his old tormentor, the panic-stricken Dr. Chiltern, is a superb summation of the score. The opening moments of the cue, which feature lithe strings and plucked harps, are playful, almost mischievous, before rising to a large and impressive crescendo for the full orchestra. The end credits offer final statements of Lecter’s theme, Clarice’s theme, and Buffalo Bill’s theme, and several variations thereon, in their most conventionally appealing and recognizable arrangements.

The original soundtrack release of The Silence of the Lambs was on MCA Records, and was a generous 50-minute album featuring most of the score’s key ideas and sequences. In 2018 the Spanish label Quartet Records and producer Neil S. Bulk released a limited edition expanded soundtrack, featuring the complete score in chronological order plus various alternates, presented in a handsome package with in-depth liner notes by writer Jeff Bond. I’m not sure how many people really need more of this unsettling music, but the fact that consumers have a choice over which album to pick up is a good thing.

The Silence of the Lambs is a terrific score, one of Howard Shore’s career best. As I mentioned earlier, it’s fascinating now to go back and listen to his pre-Lord of the Rings work and realize just how much of his early music is awash in the stylistics that so many people around the world love so much, but to recognize that he often used them in very different emotional circumstances. Make no mistake, The Silence of the Lambs is a bleak, dark, occasionally disturbing score, which takes no prisoners in conveying the quiet power of Hannibal Lecter, the unremitting evil of Buffalo Bill, and the strength of will it took for Clarice Starling to confront and, in many ways, beat both of them, either intellectually or physically. The fact that Howard Shore was able to do all this with elegantly classical orchestrations and clever thematic interplay, make it tremendously effective in context, AND make for a compelling album experience, is no mean feat. Personally, I think it should have had an Oscar nomination too.

Buy the Silence of the Lambs soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (5:04)
  • The Asylum (3:53)
  • Clarice (3:03)
  • Return to the Asylum (2:35)
  • The Abduction (3:01)
  • Quid Pro Quo (4:41)
  • Lecter in Memphis (5:41)
  • Lambs Screaming (5:34)
  • Lecter Escapes (5:06)
  • Belvedere, Ohio (3:32)
  • The Moth (2:20)
  • The Cellar (7:02)
  • Finale (4:50)
  • Main Title (5:05)
  • Bulletin Board (1:13)
  • Visit to Lecter/You Look Like a Rube (4:01)
  • Miggs (1:16)
  • First Flashback/FBI Montage (2:10)
  • Clarice (3:05)
  • I’ll Help You (1:12)
  • The Abduction (3:03)
  • West Virginia Car Ride (0:52)
  • Rock of Ages Flashback (1:09)
  • The Bug Cocoon/Washington (2:13)
  • Death Head Moth (1:19)
  • Quid Pro Quo, Yes or No (3:33)
  • Lecter in Memphis (5:42)
  • Lambs Screaming (5:36)
  • Lecter Escapes (6:13)
  • Laundromat (1:18)
  • Belvedere, Ohio (3:33)
  • To Calumet City (2:39)
  • The Moth (2:20)
  • The Cellar (7:02)
  • Finale (4:51)
  • Clarice (Alternate) (3:03) BONUS
  • Death Head Moth (Alternate) (0:57) BONUS
  • Drops of Blood (Lecter Escapes Alternate Excerpt) (2:53) BONUS

Running Time: 56 minutes 22 seconds – Original
Running Time: 77 minutes 19 seconds – Expanded

MCA Records MCAD-10194 (1991) – Original
Quartet Records (1991/2018) – Expanded

Music composed and conducted by Howard Shore. Performed by the Munich Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Homer Denison. Recorded and mixed by Alan Snelling. Edited by Suzana Peric. Score produced by Howard Shore. Expanded album produced by Neil S. Bulk.

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