Sunday, 5 December 2021

The Great Silence

Silence Still Golden

The Great Silence
aka The Big Silence
aka Ill Grande Silenzio
Italy/France 1968 Directed by Sergio Corbucci
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Spoilers because, of course, you can’t
discuss a great work of cinema like The Great Silence
without talking about the amazing ending of the movie.

“They call him silence because wherever
he goes the silence of death follows.”
Vonetta McGee, Ill Grande Silenzio

The Great Silence is one of those films which will always be in my top two or three all time favourite Italian Westerns. I already talked about it a little in my 2013 look at some of the most powerful endings in cinema history, End Game (which you can read here if you so desire)... but I thought it was time to do a ‘clean review’ with the advent of the Eureka Masters Of Cinema label’s brand new restoration Blu Ray release because, well, the film has never looked better. Perhaps it’s even a little too good looking but... I’ll discuss that comment in a minute.

Now, mainly I suspect because of the films powerful and cynical ending, the film was not shown in some countries, such as the US and here in the UK, for a couple of decades. Banned maybe too strong a word for it in retrospect but, it was certainly stifled at birth as far as English speaking countries go... even though the majority of the actors in this one are lip synching (kind of) in English and the original English dub was made and thankfully still exists (which is probably the best choice to watch this on, given it's the language being spoken on set, which was also an unusual thing for an Italian western... where everybody usually just spoke their native language from whichever country they were born). So my first experience of this remarkable movie was when director Alex Cox showed it on his weekly film series Moviedrome in 1990, under the title The Big Silence... which I believe was the first ever screening in this country.

The plot is simple. A bunch of outlaws who are not really bad, just in unfortunate circumstances created by the officials in the town of Snow Hill and its environs, are being hunted by ruthless Bounty Killers and being shot dead for the reward, whether they give themselves up or not. One of these, Loco (as he is known on the English dub), played by the great Klaus Kinski, is doing a lot of damage to their poor, outlaw community who are hiding in the mountains. A new Sheriff, played by Frank Wolff, is sent to Snow Hill to pave a way for an amnesty for the outlaws. Something not wanted by Loco and the town’s banker Pollicut (who pretty much runs the place), played by Luigi Pistillo. But the so called outlaws have hired the great, law abiding assassin/hero Silence, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, to help rid them of some of the bounty killers. And then, when Loco lawfully but unjustly kills the ‘outlaw’ husband of a local lady, played by Vonetta McGee, she herself hires Silence to put an end to Loco but, as anyone who’s seen this knows, things don’t play out as they would in a more formulaic spaghetti western, for sure.

Silence has his own reason to hate Pistilli’s character, as he slit his throat as a young lad to stop him from telling of the ‘murder for bounty money’ killing he took part of when murdering Silence’s parents in front of him. I don’t know how slitting the boys throat kept him from talking, since it’s clear Silence can still read and write but, yeah, this is perhaps the real reason he’s called Silence at any rate, in contradiction to that wonderful quote from Vonetta McGee’s character, which I put at the top of this review. Well, that and the fact that Trintignant couldn’t speak English. 

Another thing about the character is that he carries an automatic weapon, a German Mauser (a 7.63mm Mauser C96 ‘Broomhandle’ version) in this, which is not a common thing for characters in Spaghetti Western cinema and which most people assume is an anachronism, although these pistols were actually first manufactured two years before the setting of the film... so this overlap with ‘the old West’ is actually distinctive but quite valid. I seem to remember Corbucci’s next Western, Il Mercenario, also has a main protagonist carrying an automatic pistol.

The film is beautifully shot with Corbucci and his cinematographer doing some nice things with the camera. In one shot, for instance, he uses the vertical slats of a prison cell to shoot through to delineate the space on screen and highlight characters in two rectangles... before moving in to highlight just one character, changing the focus as he does so, so that the bars blur out and disappear. It’s almost shot entirely in the snow too (and a lot of shaving foam, by all accounts)... which is unusual for a Western, to have it in a snowbound setting (although it’s not the only one). The director, who was responsible for a fair few good westerns originally wanted to shoot his classic Western Django in the snow but was turned down by the producers (hence, they ended up with a film shot in the mud, a bit like the last 20 minutes or so of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai). However, Django was successful enough so that, by the time he got to making this movie, he was allowed his snow. And the print and transfer has never looked better but, as I intimated earlier, I’m not sure if the transfer it totally correct. The reason I say this is that in all versions of the film I’ve seen before, including screenings at cinemas, there were a few shots here and there at the start of the movie where a kind of MoirĂ© pattern covered the entire shot. Some people have said this was caused by light reflecting on the lens but I don’t see how a simple light reflection could produce that kind of look. I don’t know what caused it and it seemed totally a non-sequitur to the visual continuity of the movie but it was strong enough that I always believed it was a patterned filter put over the camera for certain shots (don’t ask me why). In this new transfer, that patterning is almost entirely absent other than in part of a shot where it’s quickly glimpsed so... yeah... is this from a better source or has this been removed in the transfer process after the fact? The answer is... I don’t know but if anyone does, then please message me via the comments section at the bottom of this blog.

Asides from the wonderful cinematography, there are three other great strengths inherent in The Great Silence. The first one I should mention is that the performances by the wonderful cast are all excellent. Trintignant’s Silence is a powerful, silent figure and McGee is wonderful as the wronged spouse who falls in love with him, after hiring him to kill Loco. Kinski is absolutely wonderful when he’s playing a villain anyway (as he often did). The weasel face contradicted by the big, blue puppy dog eyes are the perfect look for a villainous presence on screen but the film is full of little acting details which go the extra mile, such as when Kinski licks his lead pencil before totting his kills up in his notebook. The supporting cast of Luigi Pistilli and Frank Wolff are wonderful too, with Wolff playing somewhat against type to play the likeable, truly honourable sheriff character (something you couldn’t say about a lot of sheriffs in Italian Westerns for sure). It struck me for the first time while I was revisiting this film again, when they shared a scene or two together, that Pistilli and Wolff both went on to kill themselves in real life (Wolff just three years after making this movie and Pistilli in 1996).

Asides from the acting, another big strength of the movie is the late, great Ennio Morricone’s amazing and sparsely spotted score. There’s not a huge amount of it (indeed, the 35 minutes that have been released on CD in the past is pretty much the entire score, from what I can make out) but it’s got a wonderfully elegiacal tone and is full of addictive melodies. This means it’s one of those movies to which I am constantly tapping my toes in time as I watch it, which is no bad thing.

Lastly, of course, there’s that ending. Big spoiler for this and don’t read this if you’ve not seen it and want to... you need to go in blind...

At the end of the film, Loco and his gang of evil bounty killers shoot Silence’s hands up, parodying Silence’s trademark move of shooting off the bad guy’s thumbs so they can’t use a gun against him. They then shoot him dead, then shoot dead his new girlfriend who hired him... and then massacre the roomful of innocent ‘outlaws’, men and women, who they have tied up to the bar in the saloon... “all in accordance with the law” as Loco remarks... and he and his group of truly evil bad guys ride off into the snow to commit evil deeds elsewhere. It’s a powerful ending and one which will surprise most first time watchers. Especially since the dialogue is peppered with foreshadowing throughout the film, highlighting the more expected ending of Loco getting his just and bloody desserts at the hands of the film’s main heroic protagonist, Silence.

The new Eureka Masters Of Cinema is definitely one to get for any fans of the movie. Transfer aside it’s loaded with amazing extras... some of which are legacy from other companies’ releases over the last 20 or so years and others which are brand new (to me at least). Everyone who has one of the previous releases will remember, for sure, the silent alternate ending scene, with the preposterous return of Wolff’s character (somehow alive after being dropped and sucked under a frozen lake) and the armour gauntlet reveal of the lead character... where Loco is indeed killed and the good guys have a happy ending. This release does this one... or two... better in that, in addition to Alex Cox’s commentary on the alternate ending, the non-commentary version of this actually now has the sound restored. So you can hear the original Italian dialogue (subtitled in English) for this silly scene. Not only that, but they’ve unearthed another alternate ending, which they call the ‘ambiguous’ ending and, honestly, it’s like a cut down version of the original ending where, by the ommission of most of it, Silence is wounded and everyone remains alive but so do the bad guys, who decide to just leave everyone alone and get out of there... or that’s what it seems like. I’ve no idea what we’re supposed to make of that version, to be honest.

But there’s more, including various behind the scenes featurettes, archival documentaries and also some new talks, including a wonderful fifteen minutes by Alex Cox himself. And, although I haven’t had a chance to explore these yet, there are three commentary tracks on here, including a recording of a live commentary that Alex Cox gave at a screening earlier this year (which I most certainly do need to listen to, for sure).

And that’s me done on The Great Silence. One of the all time greatest Westerns ever made (if you watch it with the proper, original ending) and an absolute joy from start to finish. Everyone who is interested in Western cinema should give this one a watch and I would recommend this one to pretty much everyone. And don’t snooze on the new Ltd Edition Blu Ray from Eureka Masters Of Cinema, which also has reversible artwork, a nice slipcase, a set of miniature, reproduction lobby cards and a double sided poster. A wonderful purchase and the most definitive release this film has ever had, I would say.

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