Scene Dissections: The Silence of the Lambs – The Buffalo Bill Dance Scene

The Silence of the Lambs is Jonathan Demme’s 1991 horror/thriller film, which is based on Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel of the same name. It’s about an ambitious, promising young FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who has been recruited by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, to assist with the pursuit of serial killer Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), known as Buffalo Bill, who kidnaps, kills, and skins young women. Starling’s assignment, which involves interviewing another serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), gains greater urgency when Buffalo Bill abducts his latest victim, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), the daughter of Tennessee Senator Ruth Martin (Diane Baker).

Though the scene discussed here is typically called the Buffalo Bill Dance Scene, it’s as much about Catherine Martin as it is about Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill. Occurring during the film’s final act, it comprises a series of crosscuts focusing on the two characters and their very different aims: Gumb, as he immerses himself in his fantasies of sexual desirability and transformation, Catherine, as she executes a plan to gain a bargaining chip and save her own life by luring Precious, Gumb’s beloved dog, into the basement pit where Gumb has imprisoned her.

This scene serves several purposes within the film. It gives the audience a brief but illuminating glimpse into Jame Gumb’s inner life and aspirations, an aspect of the novel that was largely sacrificed for the film adaptation. It also underscores the depth of Catherine’s peril in the face of Gumb’s strong motivations to cut her up in service to his fantasies, highlights Catherine’s determination and resourcefulness, sets the clock ticking for her as she puts her plan into motion, and ratchets up the tension.

The dance scene is not in Thomas Harris’ novel or Ted Tally’s screenplay, though it was inspired by a moment early on in the book when Gumb stands in front of a mirror and tucks his penis between his legs. The dance was the result of an on-set collaboration between Jonathan Demme and Ted Levine. Demme filmed two versions. The one used in the film is set to Q. Lazzarus’ Goodbye Horses, a song about transcendence and an appropriate choice given Gumb’s aims. The alternate version showed Levine performing a striptease to Bob Seger’s Her Strut. There is no doubt that Demme made the right choice for the film, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see the latter.

Please note that this scene is NSFW (nudity). Also, this video omits a couple of seconds at the beginning of the scene and goes on a few seconds beyond its end.

The scene begins as Catherine, in the pit, prepares a trap for Precious using twine, the plastic bucket Gumb has been using to send her food scraps, and bones she has saved from her meager meals. She is startled as music suddenly blasts from an adjacent room, but she immediately springs into action, taking advantage of Gumb’s distraction. Catherine throws the bucket up and over the edge of the pit and calls to Precious.

Meanwhile, Gumb, wearing hair scalped from a previous victim, adorns himself with makeup and jewelry. He’s revealed in a series of tight shots focusing on different parts of his body and face: a tattooed hand, an eye, a chest tattoo, a pierced nipple, his upper torso, his lips. This piecemeal presentation of Gumb evokes the gruesome cost of his fantasies, namely, the cut up bodies of the women he’s killed. The camera focusing entirely on his mouth, he (presumably) gazes at himself in a mirror, admiring his appearance, asking his reflection, “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me, I’d fuck me hard, I’d fuck me so hard.”

Catherine, her desperation mounting, continues to call Precious until she appears at the pit’s edge, but the first attempt to trap the little dog fails. Catherine cries in frustration and despair, which draws Precious back to the edge and, as we later discover, down into the pit.

Finally, Gumb turns on his video camera and appears whole before it—the disparate parts integrated—and dances while wearing a colorful fabric wrap. At the conclusion of his dance, he moves close to the camera, grimaces slightly, and then walks backwards, his arms lifted and draped in fabric, which looks like the wings of the death’s head hawk-moths Gumb raises. Staring at the camera, he reveals his body, naked except for a pair of blue stockings, his penis tucked between his legs, his temporary transformation achieved.