Sunday, 20 December 2009


Il grande silenzio, Le grand silence
Sergio corbucci, 1967, Italy/France

In "The Great Silence", Klaus Kinski is Tigrero, the fearful embodiment of unbridled capitalism: he sees people, life and death only in cash value, as opportunities for earnings. And a little sadistic pleasure. He goes through the affectations of charm with his psychopathic politeness and manners, but he is also charmless, fooling no one; both fascinating and totally chilling. A bizarre figure with a light voice, dressed like an old woman with a shawl around the head and a fur coat, topped with a preacher’s hat, it is an unforgettable performance. Kinski is measured and restrained (which he is not necessarily renowned for) that conveys effortlessly Tigrero’s soulless, detached nature, watching with amusement the emotions and mechanics of the supposed civility around him as he goes about his business as a bounty hunter. It is just about as far from his compelling mannerisms in "Nosferatu" and breakdown mania of "Woyzeck" as one can imagine. When we first meet Tigrero, he apologises to the mother of the man he has just helped to murder, saying "Try to understand, madam, it’s our bread and butter." And having orchestrated the final massacre, he says indifferently and yet surely with barely concealed relish, "All according to the law." And he is right.

Spaghetti westerns were always chock full of corruption, torture, amorality, random cruelty and absurdity. Many, of course, came to this through the Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood "dollar" films. Spaghetti westerns were the messy punk reaction to the self-congratulatory stateliness and conservatism of the American westerns. They spit "You lie!" to John Wayne and John Ford. But not even the Leone cynicism and strokes of vulgarity could prepare a viewer for the thorough nihilism and bleakness of "The Great Silence". In this vision by writer-director Sergio Corbucci, the corruption of the privileged and the perversion of the law is so thorough that not even the typical lone mysterious super-gun-slinging hero can beat the odds. The conclusion will devastate anyone so comfortable with western convention and heroics. Also, there is no fair play, no code of conduct between gunslingers: quite simply, the bad guys cheat and get their blood money. It troubles, horrifies and deeply upsets.
The snow-caked carraige is one of the wonderful, not-so-typical and slightly otherworldly visions of this offbeat western.

Our hero is "Silence", also a bounty hunter, but one that preys upon murderers, on other bounty hunters, who will never pull a gun first, who is quicker than all and bears a novelty handgun. But when forced into a fist-fight, he’ll improvise too and grab a log to smack his adversary. No, no code of conduct here at all: just cash and survival. A merciless world, although we wrongly suspect some form of primal righteousness will ultimately prevail. "Silence" comes to the mountains of Utah to the town of Snow Hill, where the local justice of the peace and banker Policutt has driven out almost all the townsfolk and put bounties on their heads. If westerns typically promise hot, dry, sun-drenched sweaty scenarios, again Corbucci subverts this by giving us a world covered in snow, whiteness and bitter winds. The vistas are fantastic and the grubby detail exemplary without drawing attention to itself. It’s frequently beautiful, but there appears little real comfort here. It is both scruffy, as most spaghetti westerns are, and often verges on the ethereal. Out of the white, like an angelic avenger, comes "Silence," evidently on his own mission of vengeance against those that cut out his vocal chords as a boy to silence him as a witness to the murder of his parents.

Into this den of bounty hunters and corruption also comes a sheriff, Burnett. It probably undermines our anticipations when he turns out not to be corruptible but well intentioned, yet he is no match for the forces against him either. If you are not corruptible, malleable to money, then you are expendable, it would seem. There are some strong, beautiful women too, carrying around furious grief and demands to avenge their murdered men. How will it all be resolved? In a showdown, of course. But.

The director Alex Cox loves "The Great Silence" and tells - in his book "10,000 Ways to Die"* - of how Corbucci was inspired by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Che Guevara. The finale of the film taps into the genuine outrage of people having their idols and heroes stolen from them by overwhelming violence and corruption - but it is not only that: everyone innocent in "The Great Silence" suffers, not only our dubious protagonist, so it achieves far more than a narrow tale of martyrdom. As Cox states, "The message of ‘The Big Silence’ … is that sometimes, even though you know you’ll fail, you still do the right thing." And this, then, is how such a film differs so much from your typical western of any strain. We feel Eastwood’s stranger is too canny and resourceful to truly feel he’ll fail; he’ll take chances, sure, but not failure. It’s the same with the Django films, and there is never any chance of failure with Spaghetti Western cartoons such as "Sabata". We never feel like "Silence" is in total command of events. No, but we do feel that Tigrero is.

"The Great Silence" is somewhat a lost treasure. Obviously but not crushingly politicised, alive with genre nuance and subversion, black humour and relentlessly, shockingly bleak. There is also a wonderful soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and a rather fine love scene. Due to studio indifference and undoubted horror at the tone and endgame of the film, it sunk into obscurity and it can only be hoped that it will claim its rightful place as a remarkable cult item with a new lease of life on DVD.
* Alex Cox, "10,000 Ways To Die: a director’s take on the spaghetti western", (Kamera Books, Herts, 2009), pages185-193

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