Sergio Corbucci's sorely overlooked classic in the spaghetti-western genre Il Grand Silenzio (The Great Silence) is, without a doubt, his masterpiece. 2 years prior, the prolific Corbucci made what many will tell you is his best (when in fact it is merely his best-known), the admittedly absolutely awesome Franco Nero vehicle Django. The Great Silence follows a similar hero, this one even more laconic than Django, but with good reason - he's had his throat torn out. Any normal person would have probably died, but not Silence - all he has to show for the mishap is a nasty scar around the neck which is covered with a neckerchief (don't you love that word?).
The convoluted plot has some bandits hiding up in the snow-covered mountains, a few bounty hunters on their trail, and Silence in the thick of it all. Jean-Louis Trintignant is excellent as the titular Silence, but it would have been interesting to see Corbucci reg Nero in the role (he was supposed to have played Silence, but was otherwise engaged with the production of another film at the time). Oh well - I'll give Trintignant his due. He certainly is the better actor of the two, and communicates much here without saying a word (one of the three greatest "silent" leads in sound cinema in my opinion, along with Zoe Lund in Abel Ferrarra's Ms. 45, and Warren Oates in Monte Hellman's Cockfighter). Italian genre vet Luigi Pistilli is also great as the reprehensibly sleazy Pollicutt, who is sort of the town lawyer, judge, tax-collector, and backstabber all-in-one. Throw into the mix a flabbergasted but tough sherriff (a wonderfully warm and comic turn by the great Frank Wolff), a stunning and tender and ultimately tragic Vonetta Mcgee as Silence's hunka-hunka-burnin' love, and the inimitable Klaus Kinski as the head mercenary, insane as ever, and you've got a real cookin' stew o' fun.
Now, people are all abuzz, like, Daniel Day-Lewis is soooo great and his performance in There Will be Blood is gonna get him an Oscar fer sher (what? you can't mend shoes with a little golden statue, can you Dan?), but what these people fail to recognize is that all his over-the-top histrionics stem directly from THE man, the late, great Klaus Kinski, who gives the Plainview performance of '68 in this one.
Ennio Morricone contributes a gorgeous and haunting score, which bolsters the lush and washed out cinematography of Silvano Ippoliti, (in)famous for his work on a coupla the bigger Tinto Brass pics.
It should be noted that this is a unique western in that it not only takes place entirely in wintry climes (the mountain shots with the bandits were on location in the snowy Pyrenees), but it has probably one of the most downbeat endings, in film, EVER. Seriously, even the grittiest westerns offer some glimmer of hope, but here.....none. Be sure to watch the alternate "happy" ending on the Fantoma-produced disc - totally bizarre, with Trintignant and Corbucci paving the way for future classics such as Tron, the little seen 1979 action flick The Glove, and that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring with the close-up on Sauron's severed hand. Dont worry, it'll make sense when you see it.....or will it? The film really is an anti-western, in the sense that it breaks a whole bunch of genre conventions. Keep in mind, folks, that this came out 3 years before Altman's supposedly ground-breaking snow-bound western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Could Bobby have been a secret fan of Italian genre cinema? God only knows....(literally).
Be sure to watch the humourous and informative interview with Repo Man's Alex Cox on the extras of the Fantoma disc. The release is sound, with the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio intact. The audio is off in a few places and the print is faded in others, but this is the best you can currently do for this near-forgotten classic. Be forewarned - Corbucci's filmmaking style is not what you would call slick - there're messy jump-cuts, some dodgy camera work, and, in this film particularly, a few plot holes you could drive a stagecoach through (particularly the Kinski gun find - can someone please tell me how that made ANY sense?); BUT, there is a palpable energy to his ragtag films, and that shines through especially well here. Highly recommended for fans of Kinski, spaghetti -westerns, horrible English-language dubbing, and whip-cracks that sound exactly like gunshots.