The Violence of Silence

In the annals of spaghetti westerns, few motion pictures are regarded with higher praise than Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 odyssey of evil THE GREAT SILENCE.  Up to now, it was also one of the hardest titles to find, especially in decent, uncut versions.  Thus, it is with a great (non-silent) sigh of relief that I can reveal the unveiling of a newly minted 50th Anniversary Special Restoration, loaded with fantastic extras, in (mostly) superb shape and now available on Blu-Ray from Film Movement Classics.

Sergio Corbucci is the most difficult of the spaghetti Sergios (the others being Sollima and, natch, Leone) to embrace with affection.  And for good reason.  Taking a page from William S. Hart and a chapter from Erich von Stroheim, Corbucci never sugar-coated his epics (Minnesota Clay, The Hellbenders, Django, The Mercenary, Companeros).  They are grim, haunting, relentless morality tales that usually end up in a Mephistophelean universe, just south of Tucson.  Corbucci liked to set the screen on fire, then pour gasoline over it, step back and watch the carnage.  Even a bravura work like 1966’s Navajo Joe concluded with heart-stopping, unexpected tragedy.  THE GREAT SILENCE not only tops Joe for its ruthlessness, but totally reinvents the genre.  It could be Corbucci’s most personal flick.

The locale itself, the town of Snow Mill and its surroundings, is a major character.  Unlike the majority of spaghetti western terrain, SILENCE eschews the parched, desert landscapes for an icy, blizzard-plagued frozen tundra (SILENCE makes a great double-bill with De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw).  The hero, christened Silence, is not traditional either – on or off the screen.  On-screen, he’s a mute, off-screen, he’s not Clint Eastwood or any other American TV western star on hiatus, but international French superthesp Jean-Louis Trintignant.  His lover, Pauline, is not your typical Italian sexpot, but the beautiful African-American actress Vonetta McGee (in her screen debut).

Intrigued?  It gets better.

Silence is a man out for vengeance.  As a child, he saw two carpetbagging scumbags murder his family.  Rather than kill a young boy to prevent him from talking, they slit his vocal cords.  Silence vows (obviously to himself) to wreak horrific violence upon the pair.  To prepare for this, he earns his living as a bounty hunter, rivaled only by brutal, sadist Loco.  Loco, it should be mentioned, is played by Klaus Kinski, in perhaps his greatest villain role (think about that).  From the get-go, Loco/Kinski snarls his way through the proceedings, living by his mantra of there ain’t no such thing as “alive” in “dead or alive.”  Loco’s current plan is to annihilate (and collect) on a band of innocents awaiting amnesty.  He, in turn, is being watched by a well-intentioned sheriff, assigned to Snow Mill as penance for rubbing corrupt politicians the wrong way.  Can’t forget Pauline (Loco killed her husband, one of the amnesty band), nor the brutal wrath of the season’s natural elements.  The combination of these narrative bits tightens the suspense and intensity of this 105-minute adventure with each successive foot of celluloid.  Tightens, as in a noose.

Truly, THE GREAT SILENCE freaks you out in almost every shot.  For all the unorthodox themes and variants in the piece, the picture is nevertheless jam-packed with spaghetti-western icons; aside from Kinski, the vocal-cord cutting beast (now a town entrepreneur) is Luigi Pistilli.  His lead henchman is Mario Brega (almost unrecognizable without his trademark grubby beard); the sheriff is Frank Wolff.  Crowning this spaghetti western’s greatness is a (what else?) magnificent score by Ennio Morricone.

As in all Corbucci works, the movie is extremely political.  Below the surface, THE GREAT SILENCE is a warning about the threat and rise of fascism and how it can engulf and infest a relatively docile environ (the double meaning of the title, therefore, transcends the protagonist and tells viewers that keeping quiet can lead to doom).  If it can chip away at democracy here, it can do so any place.  Loco is the personification of this disease, and seems to have quantum leaped Mein Kampf as his instruction manual.  In quick succession, he aligns himself with dubious capitalists, lies continually until people accept his treachery as fact, places himself above the law, and spews racism like so much chewing tobacco.  It can be said without hesitation that Loco is not only the most repugnant villain in a spaghetti western, but likely a contender for that title in all of cinema.  If the genre’s Clint Eastwood was the Man with No Name, Kinski is the Man with No Shame.  Every line he seethes, every slithery inflection of body language, every contorted facial expression, exudes flesh-crawling savageness at its zenith of creepiness and decrepitude.  Of course, his is the primo performance in the picture.  But we can’t shun either Trintignant nor McGee nor Pistilli.  They are excellent as well.

THE GREAT SILENCE was Corbucci’s pet project (a western with a handicapped hero) for quite a while (Corbucci co-authored the script with his brother, Bruno, along with Vittoriano Petrilli and Mario Amendola, with English dialog added by John Hart and Lewis E. Ciannelli). He was reportedly egged-on by Marcello Mastroianni, who expressed interest in playing Silence, but opted out, due to his lack of English (spaghetti westerns were generally filmed phonetically in English, and, then, like all Italian pics, post-dubbed). It’s a curious escape hatch, as Silence is, well, silent. Trintignant didn’t speak much English either, and has stated that he did the movie as a favor to his pal/coproducer Robert Dorfmann. Indeed, the movie is a French-Italian co-production.

The movie was sumptuously photographed by Silvano Ippoliti in the Dolemites. It couldn’t have been an easy shoot, as evidenced by visible lens hairs in some compositions, as well as a number of opening moments that look as if they were lensed through a veil. The horses indeed are having a tough time.

In spite of all this gloom and human ugliness, THE GREAT SILENCE has one sequence of exquisite beauty – a love scene between Trintignant and McGee, quite simply one of 1960s cinema’s most stunning romantic interludes. That it is smack dab in the middle of such nightmarish events makes the segment all the more memorable.

Spaghetti westerns were riding high worldwide in 1968, largely because the phenomenal box-office that UA achieved with the Leone pics. All the majors wanted in on the genre. Fox was no exception. Darryl Zanuck, upon viewing past Corbucci efforts, optioned THE GREAT SILENCE, and, supposedly, after being screened rushes, was immensely pleased by the unusual feel of the piece. That ended abruptly when he viewed the final cut with its horrendous, escalating viciousness. He dropped the picture from the American Fox release schedule (although it still was distributed by 20th overseas). Finding a company to take over the U.S. bookings for SILENCE proved difficult, causing the movie to be eventually set adrift in obscurity. Of course, the irony is that the following year, Warners would clean up with The Wild Bunch, a similarly grim American counterpart.

The international SILENCE release also experienced enough of a downer reaction to force Corbucci to reshoot not one, but two alternate endings, one still harsh, but with a less unnerving climax, and another a total opposite happy-sappy capper. Neither was ever shown in the States, and both are included as supplements in this Blu-Ray edition. Other exceptional extras on this monumental platter include a complete 1968 documentary, Western, Italian Style, director/film historian Alex Cox’s Corbucci tribute, a new essay on SILENCE by critic Simon Abrams, the accessibility of THE GREAT SILENCE in either the English-dubbed or Italian language (with English subtitles) versions, and the original theatrical trailer.

For spaghetti western fans, political movie buffs, and 1960s cinema aficionados, THE GREAT SILENCE is a disc essential for your library. Definitely not the feel-good show for your movie night, THE GREAT SILENCE offers instead a riveting deep, engrossing saga that no one will ever forget.

THE GREAT SILENCE. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA remastered stereo (English dubbed or Italian w/English subtitles). Film Movement Classics. All-region Blu-Ray. CAT # GREATSILENCEBLURAY. SRP: $39.95.

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