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Great Silence, The
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by Jay Seaver

"No good guy with a gun."
5 stars

Sergio Corbucci's "The Great Silence" is making the rounds right now, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with a new digital restoration, and despite its age and period setting, it feels especially incisive and contemporary in 2018. Truth be told, it probably never seemed anything else, but it never hurts to rediscover just how incisive this sort of western can be.

As it opens in winter during the 1890s, a group of outlaws are in hiding outside Snow Hill in the Utah territory, prices on all of their heads, although an amnesty is expected from the new governor (Carlo D'Angelo) soon. In the meantime, he's sent a new sheriff (Frank Wolff), and a mute gunslinger known as "Silence" (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is defending them, although Silence is canny enough to never fire a shot not in self-defense. That may not be enough to deal with Loco (Klaus Kinski), who despite his name and vicious streak is canny enough to make sure he's not provoked.

The date of the event which inspired the film is not mentioned until the closing credits roll, but it's not hard to place this movie toward the end of the era; there's an exhaustion to the way that the characters go through some of the motions of Western movies. It's a winter with deep snow rather than a desert of pounding sun, and the assumed lawlessness of the frontier seems to be breathing its last gasp, with the assumption of frontier lawlessness fading as the government at least acts as if it has the power to do something, to the point where even fugitives believe they may get a fair shot. Gunfighters seen as a scourge rather than heroes and legends, with even the title character having a specific sort of cowardice in how he cold-bloodedly arranges for the law to protect him in his assassinations.

Indeed, while the film is set up as a showdown between Jean-Louis Trintignant's Silence and Klaus Kinski's Loco, the most intriguing and resonant conflict arguably develops between Sheriff Gidon Burnett and Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli), who owns the general store among other local establishments. Burnett is introduced as a former soldier, skeptical of the governor's politically-motivated leniency, but he's no petty tyrant: He sees wisdom in the idea that well-fed people cause less trouble even if they are, shall we say, "illegal". He's immediately opposed by the wealthy businessman who sees the law's purpose as protecting his wealth, with anything and anyone (especially the beautiful black wife of one of the outlaws) his for the taking. Compassion and charity, filmmaker Sergio Corbucci implies, are more effective than authoritarianism and vigilantism, but those are hard to resist, even as they are clearly spiralling out of control.

Corbucci might be telling an anti-violence story, but that doesn't mean he's not serving up the sort of action that spaghetti westerns are known for. Gunfights are often brutal - Silence's particular code of honor is quite okay with shooting thumbs off to make sure people don't use a gun again - but he's careful about how the blood splatters, not tainting the pristine snow until he's ready. Instead, he concentrates on the foreplay as long as he can, seeing how well he can play off not knowing exactly what the outlaws have done and thus exactly where audience loyalties should lie, or how Silence can maneuver someone else into making the first move. It's heightened by an Ennio Morricone score that isn't quite operatic but is also no dirge.

That soundtrack might have been made to serve as Silence's voice, but there's no need for that; Jean-Louis Trintignant is never given a flashback where he speaks, but he's plenty expressive enough to communicate his hatred for bounty-killers and for himself, as that's what he's been forced to make of himself. There's weariness and cynicism to him, and it's undistorted by any dubbing. That's not quite the case with Klaus Kinski's Loco, whose Italian voice never sounds quite right, but he's a great villain for this because he comes across as a sociopath a constant step and a half away from obvious mania - just unhinged enough to genuinely enjoy his work but smart enough to treat it like a business. You can see the delight he gets from taunting Silence and Burnett by staying just out of reach of their codes. They are both big enough stars and performers to eclipse the fine work that Frank Wolff does as the sheriff, but Vonetta McGee certainly makes an impression in one of her first roles, not allowing Pauline or her rage to be diminished by her eventual attraction to the man she's paying to avenge her husband's murder.

Her black skin plays into that; Corbucci and his co-writers are plenty thorough in projecting 1960s issues onto the Old West and the result is something that is just as relevant today, if not more so. Even if it wasn't, "The Great Silence" would still pack a wallop today just for being a beautifully-shot western with a fine score and great antagonists.

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originally posted: 05/21/18 23:13:08
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User Comments

5/20/13 action movie fan snowbound but intense corbucci violent western 4 stars
5/05/07 mr. mike one of the best spaghettis i've seen 4 stars
2/19/04 john jaw dropping ending makes this one of the best westerns ever made - great score! 5 stars
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