The Great Silence

"... 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.


Five: Spaghetti Westerns not directed by Sergio Leone

Jeffman from Head Full Of Snow recommends five Spaghetti Westerns not directed by Sergio Leone.

A bruised and battered stalwart of the late night cinema circuit, the Spaghetti Western held a bastardised, custom-job revolver to the head of its inferior American cousin and relieved it of both its basic premise and last shred of decency; joyously blurring the line between right and wrong and leaving morality swinging from a ragged noose in the hot, desert sun.

The Spaghetti Western was an Italian phenomenon, mostly financed by Rome's famous Cinecitta Studios, although there were plenty of co-productions with other Euro countries like Spain and Germany, even stretching as far afield as Israel if you count the soul-sapping awfulness that is God's Gun. One man is responsible for popularising the Spaghetti Western, Sergio Leone. If you're a follower of LateMag's frequent forays into the weird and wonderful worlds of cult cinema you'll probably know his films already. The Clint Eastwood 'Man with no name' trilogy: Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The pure majesty that's the operatic and sweeping Once Upon a Time in the West; the Mexican revolution-flavoured epic Gui La Testa (Duck, You Sucker or the more familiar yet boring title, A Fistful of Dynamite); and finally, the unfortunate comic attempt of My Name is Nobody.

Leone's name is synonymous with the Spaghetti Western and it's because of this monopolisation of the genre that Late Mag presents five must-see Spaghetti Westerns not directed by Sergio Leone:

The Great SilenceThe Great Silence

Made by another prolific Sergio of the Spaghetti Western scene, Django director Sergio Corbucci, The Great Silence, Il Grande Silenzio, The Grand Silence, The Big Silence - whichever of these titles you happen to see it under – won't leave you disappointed.

Spaghetti Westerns thrived on bleak amorality and 1967's The Great Silence took this to its logical conclusion with an ending that still shocks despite its grim inevitability, whilst brazenly pissing on the chips of the audience's preconceived notions regarding the superhuman reliability of the hero in cinema.

Eschewing the usual sweat-beaded heat of the Spaghetti Western, The Great Silence is one of the few films of the genre to benefit from a snow setting. This provides some great scenery along the way as a band of sadistic bounty hunters, led by the ruthless and aptly named Loco (Klaus Kinski in excellent form), hold siege to a small town trembling under the corrupt thumb of its justice of the peace, Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli, For a Few Dollars More; Death Rides a Horse). Into this icy hell rides the eponymous Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a mute gun for hire who forfeits the standard Western revolver in favour of one of the first automatic pistols. He has been summoned by Pauline (Vonetta McGee in her debut role) to avenge the cold-blooded slaughter of her husband at the hands of Loco. Also showing up are Frank Wolff as the obligatory bumbling sheriff and Leone regular Mario Brega, as well as several more grizzled fizogs that will be familiar to anybody who's seen the odd Spaghetti Western or two. Add a memorably moving score by Ennio Morricone and alongside The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and A Bullet For the General, you have one of the greatest Spaghetti Westerns ever made.

No Room to DieNo Room to Die

1969's No Room to Die looks just as a Spaghetti Western should. It has the extreme close-ups, the unusual camera angles, the forced perspective shots, and despite the location filming looking quite nippy at times – a sweaty, dusty, grime-ridden feel throughout. It also has a regular of the genre in the lead role, Shango himself, Anthony Steffen. His sun-baked, dry-lipped performance is pitched somewhere between Eastwood's 'Man with no name' and Franco Nero's Django,the omnipresent Spaghetti character who Steffen would play in the supernatural-tinged precursor to Eastwood's High Plains Drifter - Django the Bastard, also made by No Room's director, Sergio Garrone.

Another familiar face from Spags is William Berger (Sabata; Keoma), playing a cold-blooded bounty hunter known as 'The Preacher' and combining two elements popular of the genre: the bounty hunter with a peculiar quirk – he reads the bible and dresses in holyman garb – and an unusual item of weaponry; in this case a seven-barrelled shotgun.
 
With all these elements in place you can almost forget the secondary plot involving a corrupt and brutal landowner smuggling Mexican peasants across the border for cheap labour. You can certainly forgive the gaping holes, the achingly contrived situations, the often disjointed narrative, and character motivation that would topple in a light breeze. It looks great, that's all that matters, and uses every last inch of its widescreen vista. Just as every great Spaghetti Western should.

Cemetery Without CrossesCemetery Without Crosses

Frenchman Robert Hossein co-wrote, directed and starred in this downbeat Spaghetti Western from 1968, which takes the bleak pessimism of The Great Silence and cranks it all the way up to number eleven. There's an impending sense of doom right from the off, with the cold-blooded lynching of the leading lady Maria's (Michelle Mercier) husband and our first sighting of anti-hero Manuel (Hossein), who lives alone in a deserted town in the middle of nowhere. With such a bleak set-up, it's to be expected that things can only get worse.

Hossein is the gunslinger to who Mercier looks to administer brutal revenge on the rancher who killed her husband; this revenge involves infiltrating the rancher's inner circle before kidnapping his daughter and standing aside while the dead man's brothers administer their own form of justice upon her. Yes, the line between good and bad is not just blurred, but completely obliterated. The ending is as grim as Spaghetti Westerns get, with any vestige of hope lain bloody and dead in the dust as the closing score kicks in. Just the sort of thing this writer likes.

A Bullet for SandovalA Bullet for Sandoval

1969's A Bullet for Sandoval plays like a Greek tragedy, one that's been dragged kicking, screaming and bleeding profusely from a nasty buckshot wound to its gut into the equally grim world of the Spaghetti Western. Julio Buchs' (A Few Bullets More; Django Does Not Forgive) dark tale of despair and revenge stars Spag regular George Hilton (Any Gun Can Play; I Am Sartana, Trade Your Guns for a Coffin) and Dominic Santini himself, Ernest Borgnine.

Sandoval is a Gringo hating, Mexican landowner, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Borgnine. Hilton plays confederate deserter, John Warner, who finds himself cast out with his newborn baby when cholera takes the mother, Sandoval's daughter. Unable to look after the child it soon dies and Warner swears revenge on Sandoval and all the others that denied him and his son help. In this moment he transforms from the obvious hero of the piece into a cold-blooded killer, and with a gang made up of a couple of fellow deserters, a fallen priest and a treacherous convicted "child molester" (!?!), takes to robbing, maiming and killing along the Mexican border.

A Bullet for Sandoval is superb stuff, even if it's crying out for a remastered and fully restored release. The only dubbed print currently on DVD has fallen foul of those who used to carve these things up to cater for the short attention span of an American audience, shoehorning them into TV spots or double features. Hence it suffers from an often disjointed and episodic flow.

Nevertheless, there's plenty to make up for this, with viewer expectations challenged by Warner's switch to a heartless and sadistic killer, plenty of violence, an embarrassingly bad narration by Borgnine (possibly added for the US market to explain away what's been removed), some hilariously bad drunken acting from Hilton and a memorable and sombre climax where the band of desperadoes face down the might of the Mexican Army at the Plaza de Toros. Great soundtrack, a complete lack of moral compass and that classic Spaghetti feel; what more can mortal man ask for?

A Bullet for the GeneralA Bullet for the General

It was a hard fought race for fifth spot on this list with Django, The Big Gundown, $10000 Blood Money and Death Rides a Horse all jockeying for position. However, it was a last minute viewing of an old favourite that saw Damiano Damiani's 1966 masterpiece, A Bullet for the General, come from further down the field and pip all four to the post.

This Spag Western has it all. Political chicanery, amoral anti-heroes, a bomb-hurling holy man, a high-velocity golden bullet, sun-scorched vistas and enough sweat-soaked lingering close-ups to please an army of salophiles. Throw into the mix a terrific Luis Bacalov soundtrack and the requisite stopped-counting-when-it-nudged-over-50 body count and you have one of the best.

Gian Maria Volante (Fistful of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More; Face to Face) plays Mexican bandit-turned-revolutionary gunrunner, El Chuncho, whilst Lou Castel (Kill and Pray) is the sharp-suited Gringo mercenary who infiltrates his gang to take out a high-profile revolutionary leader. The backdrop of the Mexican revolution provides plenty of scope for Franco Solinas's (Tepepa; The Mercenary) excellent script to explore the left wing themes it so proudly wears on its sleeve. Klaus Kinski, who appeared in over 20 Spaghetti Westerns, quite often at the low rent end of the market (Black Killer; Fistful of Death – made by the Godfrey Ho of Spaghetti Westdom, Demofilo Fidani) plays Chuncho's brother, El Santo, notable not only for the fact he's a grenade-toting monk quoting passages from the bible whilst administering explosive justice upon the repressive forces of the Mexican army, but also for his blue eyes and flowing blonde hair. "Our mother is the same, but his father... who knows?" As El Chuncho explains.

With there being so much to recommend A Bullet for the General, whether it's the sumptuous cinematography, the sweeping Luis Bacalov score, the epic Spaghetti Western ambience, or the symbolic victory over imperialist capitalism at the denouement; it's safe to say that if you only see a couple of Spaghetti Westerns in your lifetime, make sure A Bullet for the General is one of them.

To read more from Jeffman visit headfullofsnow.com which covers psychedelic, acid, prog and classic rock as well as his upcoming contributions to the print magazine Shindig! You can also follow him over at twitter @jeffman1

 


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