Classic Film Review: “The Great Silence,” a Wintry Spaghetti Western from the director of “Django”

The archetypal camp and iconic macho of Sergio Leone’s 1960s and ’70s classics dominate any discussion of “Spaghetti Westerns.” But leaving out rival Sergio Corbucci’s is not something Quentin Tarantino, for one, takes sitting down.

Corbucci’s “Django” and the downbeat snow-covered slaughter “The Great Silence” were the biggest “influences” Tarantino leaned on for his Westerns, especially “The Hateful Eight.”

There’s something about hard men bundled up on horses struggling through snow, the visual contrasts and whiter-than-white palette that all that blood will be spilled on that makes films set in that season memorable.

The snowy stagecoach ride opening of “The Hateful Eight,” the battle over mines and the high Sierra town of “The Claim,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Day of the Outlaw,” the John Wayne farewell scene in “True Grit,” winter alters the Western landscape, closes the world in around characters and adds to the perils faced by the desperate and desperados alike.

“The Great Silence” is Corbucci’s best film, if not his most famous, a story of a mute hired gunman brought in to defend and avenge a community of accused men and their families from an 1890s Utah onslaught of pitiless bounty hunters.

It’s gorgeous to look at, “Shane” lean in its narrow focus and romance and Peckinpah-bloody in its violence. It’s on Film Movement+ and if you’ve seen every classic American Western too many times and never warmed up to most of the hundreds of Audie Murphy/Randolph Scott filler films that flesh out the lineup of The Western Channel, Grit-TV, etc., it’s a must-see.

Jean-Louis Trintignant, later to star in “Amour” and turn up in films as varied as “Z” and “Stranger than Fiction,” is “Silence,” the tall dark avenger who shows up in Utah’s high country, summoned to defend assorted outlaws and their families, hiding beyond the reach of the law, from the summary justice of “bounty killers.”

Right from the start, Corbucci is flipping the script — a hired killer is hunting hired killers on behalf of wrongdoers.

A wealthy town boss (Luigi Pistilli) is using the bounty hunters as a means to an end. The governor wants it stopped, and has appointed a new sheriff (Frank Wolff) to take over in Snow Hill and curb the violence. Not that the sheriff isn’t capable of handing out rough justice.

“He kept complaining about the cold. I gave him an overcoat…made of wood.”

But he’s too late to save many, as the killer known as “Loco” (the great Herzog muse, Klaus Kinski) has been littering the snow with corpses, ordering locals to “leave him be,” (in Italian with English subtitles). “I’ll be back to collect on him later.”

But widow Pauline, played by African American Euro-star Vonetta McGee of “Blacula,” “The Eiger Sanction,” “Shaft in Africa” and “The Kremlin Letter,” is taking matters into her own hands. She summons Silence personally.

A confrontation is coming thanks to the quiet man who watches, notes and plots his moves and keeps his fancy new semi-automatic Mauser pistol dry.

What’s so striking about the Italian Westerns of this pre-Internet era is how much detail they got right, and how much just looks alien, fresh and in some ways wrong. A later John Wayne Western featured the intrusion of “modern” German pistols like this into the world of six-shooters and Winchesters.

But Corbucci and Leone both went nuts with the ordinance they shoved into “Django” and especially “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” Anachronistic European artillery in a Civil War setting just adds to the disorienting Spanish settings of many of these films.

“Silence” was shot in the North of Italy, in the deep snows of an Alpine winter. The hats the men wear, their fondness for scarves, fancy thigh-high riding boots, the types of buildings the settlers live in all feel more Swiss than Salt Lake City.

Check out the Matterhorn pitch of the roof of one barn Silence and his new crush Pauline hide out in. Even the stagecoach looks more at home on the Vienna to Salzburg run than trundling between Salt Lake and Snow Hill.

The violence — Silence is fond of shooting off the fingers of foes he never wants to fear again — is more graphic than in Leone’s films. Instead of humor, he gives us a sex scene more in step with European mores than what Hollywood dared show at the time.

And at the end of all this unnerving break from Western formula, he leaves us with a finale so grim and troubling it sticks with you. No Eastwood one-liners, no Eli Wallach or Lee Van Cleef smirk, just a brutal reality in a fictional Western filmed half a world away from where it’s supposed to take place.

MPA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, sexuality, nudity

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Frank Wolff, Marisa Merlini, Luigi Pistilli and Vonetta McGee.

Credits: Directed by Sergio Corbucci, script by Sergio Corbucci, Vittoriano Petrilli, Mario Amendola and Bruno Corbucci. A Film Movment+ release.

Running time: 1:45

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