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Monday, May 21, 2018

THE GREAT SILENCE -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

In 1968, the same year Italian director Sergio Leone unleashed his western masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, his compatriot Sergio Corbucci (DJANGO, NAVAJO JOE) gave us this very different take on the usual "spaghetti western"--THE GREAT SILENCE, aka "Il grande silenzio" (Film Movement Classics).

It's a fascinating change of pace from the usual lurid, bombastic entries in the genre with sweaty men fighting and dying amidst much sound and fury in the blazing heat of the desert.  Corbucci's film takes place in a snowbound setting with dark figures riding their horses over plains of stark white or walking down the streets of a town glazed with frost.

Like the setting, everything's muted in this film, including its hero, The Great Silence (French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, ...AND GOD CREATED WOMAN, Z, IS PARIS BURNING?).  His backstory, seen in familiar flashback form, tells of him having his throat cut as a child by the same bounty hunters who just killed his parents as his father was surrendering to them. 

Silence, with his rapid-fire automatic pistol (the story takes place near the turn of the 20th century), is a hero who's also atypical in that, in addition to having deep feelings, he isn't the stoic, emotionally distant figure we see in Clint Eastwood's self-centered mercenary. In fact, he's a bit of a white knight, avenging women whose men have been murdered by bounty hunters. (Although he's not above charging a fee for his services.)

This time, in another departure from Leone, all of the bounty hunters in the story--namely, sadistic thrill-killer Loco (Klaus Kinski, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE) and his motley cohorts--are the bad guys, preying upon a haggard group of outlaws hiding out in the mountains until word of their amnesty comes through from the government. 

Some decide to give themselves up and are picked off, while the rest will eventually be lured to town only to fall into the bounty hunters' ambush.  It's here, with Silence going up against Loco and his crew as they hold their captives hostage in the saloon, that the film's shocking finale will take place.

But before that, Corbucci lingers upon Silence's increasingly fond relationship with the beautiful widow Pauline (Vonetta McGee) after she pleads with him to avenge her husband's murder by Loco.  Their scenes are thoughtful, contemplative--a respite from the bursts of bloody violence that erupt from time to time.

We also follow the tale of seriocomic sheriff Gideon Burnett, played by Frank Wolff (the ill-fated "Brett McBain" in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) who is tasked by the governor to solve the bounty hunter problem but finds it quite a handful.  How Loco manages to outwit him as he's being transported in chains to the nearest prison is almost enough for him to earn a smidgeon of our admiration.

More than anyone else, this is Klaus Kinski's film.  In the cheerfully vile Loco he gives us a delightfully low-key villain, and deftly underplays the role.  Loco never heard of "dead or alive"--his pleasure is in luring errant felons into surrendering and then gunning them down with great satisfaction. 

This tendency will reach its peak in the film's final sequence, which suddenly turns into a bloodbath as the story ends on an incredibly nihilistic note.  I was floored by it, and left unsure how I felt about the movie as a whole as the final music of Ennio Morricone's haunting score began to swell.  And I don't know if that's a bad thing or a good thing.

Corbucci filmed two alternate endings (included in the Blu-ray extras), one of which is exactly how I wanted the film to end.  But regardless of all that, THE GREAT SILENCE is a haunting, beautifully-rendered, and very offbeat western that should stay with you for some time after experiencing it. 

Buy it at Film Movement Classics

Tech Specs:
New 2K digital restoration
1.85:1 widescreen
Italian and English soundtracks, English subtitles

"Cox on Corbucci"--Alex Cox pays tribute to the maestro
"Western, Italian Style"--1968 documentary on the Italian film industry, western style
Two alternate endings
Illustrated booklet with the essay, "Ending the Silence" by Simon Abrams
Original and new trailers


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