The film is considered "culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant by the US Library of Congress and was selected to be preserved in the National Film Registry in 2011.
A young FBI cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.
Promising FBI Academy student Clarice Starling is pulled from her training at the FBI Training Facility at Quantico, Virginia by Jack Crawford, head of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit. He greets her and reminds her of their first meeting. He presents her with an errand. He wants to task her with presenting a VICAP questionnaire to the notorious Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant forensic psychiatrist and incarcerated cannibalistic serial killer. After learning the assignment relates to the pursuit of a serial killer nicknamed "Buffalo Bill". Crawford wants Starling to observe and question Lecter, but warns her not to give him any personal information, warning that she does "not want Hannibal Lecter inside your head". Crawford reminds her not to forget what Lecter is. Starling queries what he means.
"Oh he's a monster, pure psychopath" Dr. Frederick Chilton replies to Starling at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. After making several awkward passes at Starling, he takes her to see Lecter. Chilton goes through the extreme security measures they use when handling Lecter, describing that he once ate a nurse's tongue at the hospital when security was more relaxed. The orderly Barney warmly greets her and directs her to Lecter's cell. While unnerved by the disturbed inmates, especially "Multiple Miggs" who hisses obscenities at her, Dr Lecter is quite the opposite. He stands in the middle of his cell, which has a Perspex bullet proof wall instead of bars, and greets her politely. Starling introduces herself and her and Lecter have a brief conversation about "Buffalo Bill". At Lecter's request, Starling reveals that "Bill" has killed and skinned at least five women, and received his nickname from a tasteless joke made by Kansas City Homicide.
Although initially pleasant and courteous, Lecter is unimpressed with the VICAP questionnaire, grows impatient with Starling's attempts at "dissecting" him and viciously rebuffs her. He gives her an accurate, yet unflattering cold reading based on her appearance and demeanor. Shocked, Starling responses that Lecter should look at himself with that kind of accuracy, and taunts Lecter that maybe he's too afraid to. Lecter dismisses her, giving her a gruesome description on how a census taker tried to test him, and that he ate the man's liver with fava beans and Chianti, then makes a vile slurping sound. As Starling departs, Lecter's neighbour Miggs flings fresh semen into her face, enraging Lecter who calls Starling back and offers information containing details about a former patient, Miss Hester Moffat. The name is actually an anagram (Miss The Rest of Me) that leads to a rent-a-storage lot where Starling discovers the severed head of Benjamin Raspail. Starling returns to Lecter. Lecter identifies the head as Raspail, who insists he did not kill Raspail, merely stored the head in the garage. Raspail was Lecter's patient, being unsuccessfully treated for manic depression. From the women's clothing found in the garage, and Lecter's remark about a killer's previous efforts, Starling believes that Buffalo Bill killed Raspail, and that Lecter knows his identity. Lecter offers a psychological profile of the killer in exchange for better facilities where he has an open window so he can view trees and far away from Chilton.
Miles away, Buffalo Bill abducts Catherine Martin, the daughter of United States Senator Ruth Martin. Bill abducts her by pretending to be injured and imprisons her in a well at his home. "Bill" taunts Martin and demands that she puts lotion on her skin, while she pleads for her life. Martin screams in horror when she realises who has her. Starling is pulled from Quantico and accompanies Crawford to West Virginia, where the body of Bill's recently-discovered victim resides, and where Starling helps perform the autopsy and extracts the chrysalis of a Death's-head Hawkmoth from the victim's throat. They later find the same type of moth in Raspail's throat, confirming him a victim of Buffalo Bill. At Quantico, as news of Catherine Martin's abduction sweeps the country, Crawford authorizes Starling to offer Hannibal Lecter a fake deal promising a prison transfer if he provides information that helps profile Buffalo Bill and rescue Catherine Martin. Seemingly unimpressed with the deal, Lecter instead begins a game of "quid pro quo" with Starling, offering comprehensive clues and insights about Buffalo Bill in exchange for events from Starling's traumatic childhood. Ignoring Crawford's warning, Starling reveals that at the age of 10, her father was murdered by two armed robbers and went to move onto a ranch with relatives. Lecter explains that Buffalo Bill is under the delusion of being a transsexual and has been turned down by all three major sex reassignment clinics. Unaware to both Starling and Lecter, Dr. Chilton tapes the conversation . Later on, Lecter is restrained and Chiilton mocks him. He smugly says that Starling's deal was a sham, but offers to transfer Lecter in exchange for a deal of his own making. Lecter agrees, but wants a deal of his own.
Lecter is flown to Tennessee under the highest security possible. After being taken off the plane, Chilton introduces Senator Martin to Lecter. Lecter describes Buffalo Bill, saying that his real name is Louis Friend. He was introduced to Lecter by Raspail, and found out that Friend was killing people back then. Lecter then causes extreme offence to Martin by taunting her about Catherine. Marin furiously demands Lecter to be taken to Baltimore, but Lecter gives a physical description of Louis Friend, before remarking to the senator “love your suit”.
As the manhunt begins, Starling travels to Lecter's special cell in a local Tennessee courthouse, where she confronts him about the false information he gave the Senator. Lecter refuses Starling's pleas and demands she finish her story surrounding her worst childhood memory. After recounting her arrival at a relative's farm, the horror of discovering their lamb slaughterhouse and her fruitless attempts at rescuing the lambs, Lecter rebuffs her, leaving her with her case file before she is escorted out of the building by security guards. Later that evening, Lecter escapes from his cell using an improvised handcuff key and brutally attacks his guards, biting Sgt Pembry on the face and knocking him unconscious; handcuffing the other, Sgt Boyle, to the bars and beating him to death. Shots are heard in the building, prompting the local police to storm the floor. The scene is one of carnage, discovering Pembry barely alive, his face mutilated, and Boyle disembowelled and strung up on the walls of the cage. Paramedics transport Pembry in an ambulance and speed off while a SWAT team searches the building for Lecter. On one floor they see the elevator shaft doors open. The officers find Lecter, with a gun by his side and copious blood pouring from his head, seemingly having committed suicide. One guard shoots him in the leg as a warning. At the same time, the ambulance guards discover blood dripping from the elevator ceiling. As they surround the area and release the door, they find it is not Lecter. Meanwhile, as a paramedic is giving information about "Pembry" to the hospital, "Pembry" sits up and removes his face, revealing himself to be Lecter.
After being notified of Lecter's escape and that he killed the paramedics and a tourist, Starling pores over her case file, analyzing Lecter's annotations before realizing that the first victim, Frederica Bimmel, knew Bill in real life before he killed her. Starling travels to Bimmel's hometown and discovers that Bimmel was a tailor and has dresses with templates identical to the patches of skin removed from Buffalo Bill's victims. Realizing that Buffalo Bill is a tailor fashioning a "woman suit" of real skin, she telephones Crawford, who is already on the way to make an arrest, having cross-referenced Lecter's notes with Johns Hopkins Hospital and finding a man named Jame Gumb. Crawford instructs Starling to continue interviewing Bimmel's friends while he leads a SWAT team to Gumb's business address in Calumet City, Illinois.
At Gumb's house, Martin lures Gumb's beloved dog Precious into the well. When Gumb finds that Martin is holding Precious hostage, he becomes enraged and devastated and threatens to kill her. Starling's interviews lead to the house of "Jack Gordon". After pleasant talk, Starling soon realizes that Gordon is actually Gumb, after seeing a moth fly past, and draws her weapon just as Gumb disappears into his basement. Starling pursues him, discovering a screaming Catherine Martin in the dry well just before the lights in the basement go out, leaving her in complete darkness. Gumb stalks Starling in the dark with night vision goggles and prepares to shoot her when Starling, hearing the machinations of his revolver, swivels around and shoots Gumb dead.
Days later at the FBI Academy graduation party, Starling receives a phone call from Hannibal Lecter, now in the Bahamas. As Lecter assures Starling he has no plans to pursue her, he excuses himself from the phone call, remarking that he's "having an old friend for dinner", before hanging up and following Chilton through the streets of the village.
- Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling
- Masha Skorobogatov as young Clarice Starling
- Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter
- Scott Glenn as Jack Crawford
- Ted Levine as Jame Gumb
- Anthony Heald as Dr. Frederick Chilton
- Brooke Smith as Catherine Martin
- Diane Baker as Sen. Ruth Martin
- Kasi Lemmons as Ardelia Mapp
- Frankie Faison as Barney Matthews
- Tracey Walter as Lamar
- Charles Napier as Lt. Bill Boyle
- Danny Darst as Sgt. Tate
- Alex Coleman as Sgt. Jim Pembry
- Dan Butler as Roden
- Paul Lazar as Pilcher
- Ron Vawter as Paul Krendler
- Roger Corman as FBI Director Hayden Burke
- Chris Isaak as SWAT Commander
- Harry Northup as Mr. Bimmel
- Don Brockett as cellmate and "pen pal"
- Lawrence A. Bonney as FBI Instructor
|Trailer||Famous Clip - "I ate his liver"|