"... They call him Silence, because wherever he goes, the silence of Death follows."
A gang of ruthless bounty hunters, for whom the "Alive" in "Dead or Alive" is mere filler, terrorise a snowbound mountain community, sanctioned by the town's corrupt Justice of the Peace, Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli) – who disposes of those he doesn't like by placing a price on their head.
Following the needless slaughter of her husband at the hands of the sadistic bounty killer, Loco (Klaus Kinski), Pauline (Vonetta McGee) enlists the aid of a wandering gunslinger, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to avenge his death. The presence of Silence in the desolate town of Snow Hill brings events to a head between the besieged inhabitants and the bounty hunters, and as the black-clad, mute gunman seeks retribution; he can do nothing to halt the massacre that is on its way.
Sergio Corbucci brought a manically fresh perspective to the Spaghetti Western with 1966's ultra-violent Django. With 1967's The Great Silence (aka The Big Silence) he rewrote the rules once again, not only setting his story in the snowy wastes of Utah, but making it so oppressively bleak that any shred of hope you may have entertained before sitting down to watch, are long gone by the time the closing credits roll. It's a bleakness matched only, as far as the Spaghetti Westerns I've seen are concerned, by Robert Hossein's Cemetery Without Crosses. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, it remains one of your humble reviewer's favourite Spaghetti Westerns outside of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
The moody silent-type, embodied by so many anti-heroes of the Spaghetti Western genre, is taken to a natural conclusion by having Jean-Louis Trintignant's Silence unable to speak. This is as a result of having his vocal chords sliced open as a child, following the murder of his parents by Pollicut's henchmen. The avenging angel is also given an extra dimension in that he only kills in self-defence, choosing to shoot the thumbs off of those deserving of his brand of justice, so that they may never fire a gun again. Of course, where the bounty killers are concerned and he has a contract to fulfil, his method is to provoke them into drawing, ensuring that when he shoots them dead he remains on the right side of the law. He also uses a Mauser automatic pistol, a departure from the revolver employed by the majority of ultra-cool killers in the barren badlands of the Spaghetti Western.
Klaus Kinski, a regular to the genre, puts in another fine performance as bounty hunter Loco, reining in his often twitchy excesses – the part of the hunchback in For a Few Dollars More being a case in point – to deliver a lesson in steely-eyed, calculated evil that's as cold as the landscape he mercilessly stalks.
Which brings us to the snow. It's impossible to review The Great Silence without giving over a few column inches to the powdery white stuff, of which this film has an abundance. There's no scorching heat, or dust caked panoramas providing a scenic comfort zone for the seasoned Italian Western veteran here. It's relentlessly cold, with horses literally freezing to death in the waist-high snow. This unforgiving climate augments the feeling of isolated desperation that permeates every frame of what is, in my opinion, Corbucci's finest work. Off the top of my head I can think of two other Eurowesterns set in the snowy wastes. These are Taste of Death and Cut-Throats Nine, the latter being more of a Spanish gorefest that just happens to have a western backdrop. Neither can match The Great Silence for sheer power, festering emotion, or chilly despair.
As with all Spaghetti Westerns, violence plays a key role throughout the film, guiding us towards its heartbreaking and austere climax. There are the obligatory shootings through the head, thumbs being decapitated, Mario Brega's face held over the hot coals of an open stove, and a child's throat being cut. It ramps up the blood-spattered savagery and nihilistic approach that had marked Django out from the crowd and destroys that last tiny vestige of faith in humanity you may once have harboured.
The Great Silence also gut-wrenchingly spells out in giant red letters that, as in the real world, the good guy doesn't always win and real evil has a tendency to prevail. Until then, a largely unheard of concept for the Western, Spaghetti or otherwise.
Once again, the musical score by Ennio Morricone sets the mood perfectly, adding to a cinematic treat that is brutal perfection, met on equal grounds by Damiano Damiani's A Bullet For the General, but only surpassed by Sergio Leone's audacious and ultimately majestic definition of the Spaghetti Western and the greatest film ever to have drawn breath, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.
With Christmas less than a week away and snow on the ground outside, The Great Silence ensures perfect alternative viewing for those in need of a more cynical, yet just as chilly, festive fave.