From the Back Row: The Great Silence
From the Back Row is going to be my editorial of choice that I’ll dive into every once in a while when the mood strikes me. The purpose is simple: highlight some lesser known films that I feel deserve far more attention and discussion than they receive, and hopefully inspire a few people to queue them up on their on their online rental service of choice. Today we’ll take a look at The Great Silence, the 1968 classic spaghetti western from director Sergio Corbucci.
The Great Silence follows the story of a mute gunslinger-for-hire in late 19th century Utah named Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) – a man who always draws second, but shoots first – who agrees to help a group of outlaw Mormons and a woman (Vonetta McGee) who wants to avenge her husband’s death at the hands of a ruthless gang of bounty hunters. Between Silence and Loco (Klaus Kinski), the psychotic leader of the bounty hunters, lies an honest sheriff (Frank Wolff), a man who despises the idea of bounty killing and only wants to see justice.
It’s one of the bleakest and most cynical spaghetti westerns I’ve ever watched. While Sergio Leone’s visual style and characters were admittedly far more influential to the genre, his stories and plot structure were rather conventional – this is what separates The Great Silence from Leone’s classics and most other great westerns. As soon as the first frame of film comes on the screen, only a snowy emptiness to be seen rather than the usual dusty, hot deserts, you know you’re in for something completely different, completely unconventional. It’s depressing. It’s cold. The romance of the west is completely demolished. In that respect, it’s not so dissimilar to Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Similarly, while most westerns have you fantasizing you were in the gunslinger’s shoes, this one makes you shudder at the thought, and not just because it looks cold.
As the appropriately named Silence, Trintignant (a superb actor who reportedly only agreed to star in a spaghetti western if he didn’t have any lines, thus the muteness) is able to express so much without ever speaking a word and creates for us one of the coolest and most memorable protagonists in any western ever. Same with Kinski, the undeniable legend that he is, who creates one of the most ruthless and despicable, yet chillingly human bad guys this side of Fonda’s Frank.
The incomparable Ennio Morricone scores the film, and as expected, you’ll be humming along with it long before the movie’s end. It’s fairly simple and repetitious compared to some of his other, better known work, but it’s effectively pounding and contributes heavily to setting the atmosphere of the film. As for Corbucci, with this, he only solidifies the fact that he’s the greatest spaghetti western director out there besides Leone (you can check out his better known cult classic Django or his spiritual sequels to The Great Silence, The Mercenary and Compañeros for further evidence). The distinctive atmosphere of the film, the lingering and haunting shots of a snow-covered Utah, the icy stares from both Silence and Loco, the final, climatic gunfight – they will be on your mind for days afterwards.