The single greatest Spaghetti Western you haven’t heard of, The Great Silence is a beautifully bleak film, and one of the most influential of the genre. Directed by Sergio Corbucci (the second most prolific Sergio in Italian Westerns) it’s an incredibly violent, relentlessly unforgiving film, that’s nonetheless beautiful in its fatalism.
Corbucci reveled in playing around with Western tropes- while most have the same sunny, sandy environment, his films tend to have more unusual settings, Django is muddy and miserable, while The Great Silence is set in snow covered mountains, which only adds to the harsh feel of the film.
During a severe blizzard, the townspeople of Snow Hill resort to stealing food to survive. As a result the town’s corrupt banker (Luigi Pistilli) brands them all outlaws, driving them into the hills and attracting a gang of bounty killers, led by the deliciously evil Tigrero (Klaus Kinski). The hired guns ruthlessly execute the warrants on the outlaws, killing their targets in cold blood, until the arrival of an enigmatic, mute gunslinger named Silence (Jean Louis Trintignant) threatens their livelihoods.
Silence is a unique protagonist in Spaghetti Westerns. He has more of a moral code than the characters played by Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy, only killing in self-defence, but maiming the villains who surrender to him by shooting off their thumbs. Trintignant has had an incredible career, appearing in at least four outright masterpieces – as the calm young prosecutor in Z , the reluctant hitman in The Conformist and the lead in Amour. He’s an inspired choice for Silence (accepting the role on the condition he didn’t have to speak a word) clad in black with a unique Mauser pistol. In an entirely non-verbal performance, he manages to be cool and impassive in his scenes with Kinski and reveals a more vulnerable side in his scenes with Vonetta McGee‘s grieving widow.
Despite Kinski’s reputation as the most temperamental actor in cinema history, this seemed to have been a relatively harmonious shoot (by his standards anyway – he still nearly provoked actor Frank Wolff into strangling him!). Maybe he recognised the quality of the role, as he clearly relishes getting his teeth into his character. He makes Tigrero (or Loco, depending on which version you watch) one of the most pragmatic, malevolent western villains of all time. He operates within the parameters of the law, but plays fast and loose with his interpretation of this. In a genre obsessed with ideas of honour, Tigrero is uniquely uninterested in a fair fight. He knows Silence is faster on the draw than him so he simply refuses to be coaxed into a gunfight with him, playing entirely on his terms.
The film cast a huge shadow over westerns, with Tarantino in particular paying homage in The Hateful Eight, with the snowy setting, and the way Tigrero collects his bounties by stacking his bodies on top of the stagecoach. Ennio Morricone’s score is also iconic – it’s not as flamboyant or technically impressive as his work with Sergio Leone, but it’s still my personal favourite of his work in the genre; a sorrowful melody that is entirely appropriate for the film itself.
My love for Spaghetti Westerns is well documented on this site (See also here and here) but The Great Silence represents the very pinnacle of the genre. It’s hardly a feelgood film, with perhaps the bleakest ending of any western, but it remains eminently watchable due to its uniquely pessimistic tone, striking cinematography and iconic performances from the two leads.
This presentation by Eureka, taken from a 2K restoration, is the best this film has ever looked, and it comes with a ton of extras. There are few people I’d rather listen to talking about film than Alex Cox, and he’s all over this release. His commentary track, and the short featurette Cox On Corbucci are both insightful, engaging and thoroughly interesting. Other features include two alternate endings, brand new audio commentaries from Western expert Howard Hughes and filmmaker Mike Siegel, a new interview with author Austin Fisher and a 1968 documentary, Western, Italian Style.