IN "THE SILENCE of the Lambs," Anthony Hopkins looks like a wine connoisseur as he tilts his head, extends his nostrils and delicately inhales the scent of visitor Jodie Foster. After correctly identifying her skin cream, he informs her, "Sometimes you use L'Air du Temps, but not today."
But this brilliant, demented psychiatrist is not in a restaurant or a winery. Nor is he smelling FBI agent Foster with heterosexual interest. He's in prison, behind a maximum-security plastic shield, for acts of cannibalism. To Hopkins, Foster's fragrance, wafting through breathing holes in the glass, is the bouquet of a potentially lovely meal.
This is the kind of character creepiness that Jonathan Demme's gripping cat-and-mouse thriller indulges in. A smart, restrained entertainment, it doesn't splash around in blood and hysteria. It doesn't have to. The menace exists in small places, in Hopkins's eyes, or in the threat posed by "Buffalo Bill," a serial killer so named for his signature carving up of victims.
The wave of killings is what brings Foster to Hopkins's lair. Dispatched by special agent Scott Glenn, the fledgling Fed has come to solicit the genius-monster for psychological insights. But Foster is dealing with a predatory intelligence capable of running rings around her. Her guilelessness, as Glenn tells her, is her only protection.
Normally associated with more eccentric, freewheeling fare, Demme switches gears successfully from "Something Wild" to something eerie. With trusty cameraman Tak Fujimoto, he refrains from predictable stylishness, plasmatic reds and murky shadows. Instead, he gives "Lambs" a surprisingly bright appearance, so that the horrors occur, as it were, in broad, natural daylight.
He builds the suspense in sure, strategic steps: The face-to-face meetings between Foster and Hopkins are nostril-hair close, the camera cuts rapidly between them. A scene in which Foster searches through a storage room, which has not been opened in 10 years, is expertly scaring. Demme also places the gruesome in uncomfortably strategic spots: At one point, a Buffalo Bill victim, awaiting certain death at the bottom of a well, discovers a bloodied fingernail stuck on the rocky wall. The implication is far more horrifying than the actuality.
Although the Demme-isms are scarce, there are touches only he could have come up with. A Tom Petty song -- ostensibly on the car radio of a murder quarry -- is played in its entirety, mainly because, well, Demme likes the song. At another point, Foster consults a wonderfully dorky, cross-eyed bug expert.
"You mean, this is like a clue from a real murder case?" he says. "Coo-wol!"
But Demme's primary focus is the interplay between Foster and Hopkins. As the eager beaver determined to solve this mystery and who slowly begins to take charge, Foster carries the right mixture of determination and vulnerability (which is where the significance of the title kicks in). Hopkins, meanwhile, plays his part with the kind of frosty, clipped authority only the British seem capable of pulling off.
"Best thing for him really," says this macabre sociopath when he hears about the death of a former patient. "His therapy was going nowhere."