Gene Hackman’s Silence of the Lambs and other movies that were supposed to exist

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Who can resist the allure of “What if?” casting? Not me. And not Kazuo Ishiguro either, if his 1995 novel The Unconsoled (described in the NS by Leo Robson as a “500-page fever dream”) is anything to go by. 

The book contains references to a version of 2001: A Space Odyssey in which Yul Brynner stars with Clint Eastwood, who prowls the space station brandishing a “long-barrelled gun.”

“I realised we were coming close to the famous scene in which Yul Brynner comes into the room and tests Eastwood’s speed on the draw by clapping his hands in front of him,” the narrator says. I know this version of 2001 doesn’t exist. Yet simply by imagining it, Ishiguro has, in a way, made it real. As real as any of the other non-existent films I can imagine.

Cinema is full of them. Al Pacino balked at playing Sonny, the tormented but tender bank-robber in Dog Day Afternoon, so soon after wrapping on the similarly intense The Godfather Part II. That is, until he heard that Dustin Hoffman was itching to play the part. Then there was no stopping him. 

And imagine, if you will, George Raft in the lead in Casablanca. Claude Colbert, rather than Bette Davis, as Margo Channing in All About Eve. Bette Davis, instead of Joan Crawford, taking the title role in Mildred Pierce. All these things nearly came to pass. Raft, in fact, was first choice for several other Bogart pictures, which he turned down for reasons ranging from a superstition about dying on screen (High Sierra) to a mistrust of first-time directors, which disqualified him from John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon. (Raft also had a prejudice against remakes, and there had already been two previous stabs at that Dashiell Hammett novel.)

Next week’s re-release of Jonathan Demme’s unique 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs calls to mind another example of alternate reality cinema. For one thing, it was never intended to be Demme’s film. Had everything gone to plan, we would now be referring to Gene Hackman’s The Silence of the Lambs. Orion Pictures had snapped up the rights to Thomas Harris’s novel with a view to letting Hackman have it as his first outing as a writer and director; the actor also had an eye on the picture’s plum role, Hannibal Lecter, though he later considered scaling back his responsibilities and playing the less demanding part of the FBI chief Jack Crawford instead. 

The screenwriter Ted Tally, who had read an early proof of Harris’s book, wanted to write the script. Executives at Orion told him: “Hang in there, because we don’t think [Hackman] can do this.” (Tally recounts this story in the fascinating book Screenwriters’ Masterclass, edited by Kevin Conroy Scott.) Their predictions proved to be true when they contacted Tally three weeks later, informing him that Hackman was “up to page thirty of the screenplay and only on page thirty of the book, so that’s not going to work out.”  

Tally toiled for a while on the screenplay while Hackman was still attached. The actor brainstormed ideas for possible Lecters. “He did say, ‘maybe Bobby will play Lecter,’ but I didn’t have the nerve to ask, ‘Bobby who? Bobby Duvall? Bobby Redford? Bobby De Niro?’ He just assumed that I would know who Bobby was.” My money’s on Duvall. Anyone who has seen him at his most unnerving in The Apostle and The Gingerbread Man (both made post-Silence) would surely bet the same way.

Rumour has it that we have Hackman’s daughter to thank for his decision to bail on the project. She is said to have read the novel, called him and declared: “Daddy, you’re not making this movie.” Demme told Deadline last year: “God bless Gene Hackman’s daughter, if that’s true, and that’s what I’ve always heard. God bless her.” But even under his control, there were still other casting options to consider before the film ended up being offered to Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. 

Demme had recently directed Michelle Pfeiffer in the sweet, gaudy Mafia comedy Married to the Mob and was keen to cast her as the FBI agent Clarice Starling. Pfeiffer mulled it over but turned it down on account of its violence. Sean Connery, who had just starred opposite Pfeiffer in The Russia House, was a plausible and highly commercial choice for Lecter, but he also had issues with the grisly content. “Word came back shortly that he thought it was disgusting and wouldn’t dream of playing that part,” Demme recalled. 

Hopkins was next on the list, based on the director’s typically intelligent logic: having played the ultimate beneficent doctor in The Elephant Man, there would be a special kind of kick in casting him as a good one gone rotten.

One masterful film and five Oscars later (including one apiece for Demme, Foster, Hopkins and Tally) and this unborn Lambs, this unspoken Silence, is nothing more than a curious footnote. But the voodoo power of unmade movies is such that it still seems to exist faintly in the imagination, screening on a loop at a ghostly picture palace shrouded in mist. 

It plays alongside the late-1970s version of Eyes Wide Shut that Kubrick briefly considered making with Steve Martin in the lead. Giant with Alan Ladd and East of Eden with Montgomery Clift, both leaving James Dean high and dry. Salt with Tom Cruise, not Angelina Jolie, and Beverly Hills Cop with Sylvester Stallone elbowing Eddie Murphy aside. The Vertigo in which James Stewart becomes obsessed with Vera Miles, not Kim Novak. The One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in which Kirk Douglas helps the lunatics take over the asylum or the Sunset Boulevard in which it was Mae West, rather than Gloria Swanson, who stayed big while the pictures got small. They’re not better alternatives—just bewitching ones.

The Silence of the Lambs is in cinemas from 3 November.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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