The first week, I began a list of things to look for in a scene, including conflict, escalation, power shifts, imagery, and meaning. Ultimately, I’ll build this into a list of questions that can help you make sure that being squeamish, walking away too soon, or not making a big enough effort is not shortchanging your story. Last week, with a look at the comedy Some Like It Hot, I added promise, escalation, and irony.
This time, it’s The Silence of the Lambs, and the scene where Clarice gets the name she needs. The deeper purpose of this scene appears to be to reveal the motivation — the deep and touching motivation — for Clarice’s sacrificial work to save a woman. Powerful stuff. (You can see the scene yourself via 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made.)
Beat 1Time is running out,
Beat 2 Argument: Clarice demands the killer’s name, but Hannibal wins, insisting on his quid pro quo.
Beat 3 Interrogation: Clarice’s story is revealed, prompted by Hannibal.
Beat A Clarice awakes to screams.
Beat B Clarice discovers the slaughter.
Beat C She frees a lamb.
Beat D She flees with it.
Beat E She’s caught.
Beat F Consequences: Clarice is exiled to the orphanage. The lamb is slaughtered.
Beat 4 The MEANING of the story is revealed.
Beat 5 Hannibal accepts her offering. (“Thank you.”)
Beat 6 Clarice demands her reward.
Beat 7 But they are interrupted by Chilton, who has her taken away.
Beat 8 A last bid by Clarice.
Beat 9 Clarice gets her reward.
Beat 10 She has a dividend taken from her. Hannibal’s touch.
Beat 11 Clarice and Hannibal are separated.
This scene is a bit of a cheat. A narrated sequence is embedded in the overall scene. The past collides with the urgent present. That takes time — over four minutes. The text in the script is amazing. (The scene starts on page 88.) But director’s choice was to forgo the flashback visuals. Instead, the acting and camera work, especially Lecter’s eyes, SHOW us the cost to Clarice (and, by extension, the price she’s willing to pay for her quest).
The plot would have been served by Clarice asking for the name and Hannibal providing it. The scene purpose might have been served if Clarice (provided she knew it) had simply stated why she left the ranch and what had scarred her. The writer, instead, deepened the scene with a story that had to be extracted. And more. Want to guess what creeped me out the most here? That stolen touch.
This great scene:
- Begins with a ticking clock.
- It moves into a conflict.
- The interrogation is filled with imagery, supplied by the imagination of the audience.
- A revelation —through the symbolism of saving a screaming lamb (and a redemption) — is presented.
- A false ending is provided with Hannibal’s thank you and Clarice’s demand. (Set up with incessant quid pro quos. We know how this works.)
- This is frustrated by the interruption.
- Clarice makes a final attempt. It’s her Hail Mary play.
- She succeeds.
- But she pays a higher price.
I’ll continue to expand the options for brilliant scenes next week with the exploration of another classic scene.