The Great Silence (1968)
The Great Silence (1968)

Genre: Spaghetti Western Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min.

Release Date: December 7th, 1968 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Sergio Corbucci Actors: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Frank Wolff, Luigi Pistilli, Mario Brega, Carlo D’Angelo, Marisa Merlini, Maria Mizar, Marisa Sally, Vonetta McGee

 


 

I

n the top right-hand corner of the screen, a lone rider slowly treks through pure white snow, leaving just a hint of a trail behind him. Then, suddenly, the camera pulls back to reveal a line of evergreens and a pale blue sky, before finally settling in on the face of the hero, who effortlessly dispatches a platoon of bounty hunters poised with guns drawn, hiding behind shrubbery. It’s an artistic setup, embellished with director Sergio Corbucci’s signature violence and his knack for quirky framing – all before the opening credits flash across more snowy activities.

Although many of the mountain men (forced to become outlaws when provisions and employment dry up) hiding in the hills of Utah during the Great Blizzard of 1899 expect the new governor to grant them amnesty, squadrons of merciless bounty hunters quickly ascend into the snowcapped region to bring back as many dead bodies as possible. The most ruthless hunter is Loco (Klaus Kinski), who kills without remorse and without flinching, thinking only of monetary rewards as he executes citizens of Snow Hill County. He’s even despicable enough to use mothers and wives as bait to draw out targets and, although he has the option of dead or alive for his subjects, he only ever chooses to retrieve corpses. But when a mute sharpshooter known as Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) strolls into town, things start looking up for the oppressed townsfolk. An avenging angel for some and a devil to others, Silence’s moniker – or his inability to speak and his extreme proficiency with firearms (particularly, an uncommon mechanical gun) – precedes him.

In true Spaghetti Western fashion, an excessive amount of red paint is slathered onto human remains after the fact, attempting to heighten the grotesqueness and severity of shootouts – without the more modern special effect of squibs. And while the hero’s exploits are legendary (he brings the great silence of death with him for the truly deserving) and the need for vengeance is abundant, citizens are routinely set up to be dispatched for the most trifling reasons – such as annoyance over a drafty, open door. Meanwhile, a tough-talking but impotent sheriff (Frank Wolff) is unable to aid the bandits or slow the bounty hunters; antagonists amass more rapidly than unassuming extras. There’s also a minor romance that develops between Silence and victim James Middleton’s widow, Pauline (Vonetta McGee), further building on the generally exploitive nature of Italy’s pessimistic slant on the genre.

The bad guys are portrayed quite significantly with details of filth, grit, and greasy fingers; or with the equally unsubtle guise of an official status, wielded for easy corruption – like Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli), the Justice of the Peace, who orders hits on interfering businessmen and troublesome strangers. But, if ever there was an actor cut out to be a villain, it’s Klaus Kinski. He’s at once anachronistic in his aura and perfectly fitting in his portrayal of pure evil, twisting the law around to kill for amusement, taunting with cynicism, and smartly swapping a gun duel against a superior shooter for a surprise fistfight. With his impossibly expressive, bulging eyes, Kinski brandishes far more personality than his protagonist counterpart (Silence is given character development predominantly through flashbacks).

Something must also be said about the wintery setting – a rare choice for a Western. The thick, unwieldy snow and eerily visible breaths by grungy cutthroats provide unique elements for villainy, shootouts, and bloodshed amidst a morbid examination of injustice and failed retribution. Snowflakes falling across close-ups of shiftily surveying eyes further supplement a potent picture, featuring a climax so heavily steeped in historical tragedy (and Ennio Morricone’s resounding score) and dissatisfying resolutions that it required a happier version to be shot for American audiences. The original final minutes are famously bleak, though largely unsatisfactory for a genre known for boisterous showdowns and classically appropriate retaliation.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10