Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)

Utah. The winter of 1898. The small township of Snowhill is in a state of siege. Not from the fugitives hiding in the mountains overhead, but the men who profit from their deaths: the bounty hunters.

The people of Snowhill have lost all hope - until a lone figure rides out of the white, intent on righting wrongs.

His name is Silence...

The Great Silence might be my favourite western. I had heard about years before I saw it, and it was one of those titles that always eluded me. A couple of years ago I finally managed to watch it and left it feeling really underwhelmed - I think I had built it up too much in my mind. Having re-watched it over Christmas, the movie really connected. With the rise of Trump, The Great Silence's evisceration of the western myth (particularly around American notions of individualism and patriotism) has gained renewed potency.

Because so much of this movie's power is based around the way it subverts expectations around westerns, this review is going to resemble a rough plot summary. So if you are interested in watching the movie, go away and watch it.

Jean-Louis Trintignant stars in the title role, a mute gunfighter who is out to kill anyone who commits wrongs against the innocent. Probably best known today for his role in Michael Haneke's Amour, at the time Trintignant was a big French star hoping to break into the international market. Corbucci had long desired to make a movie about a silent hero, and Trintignant was unable to speak English - thus The Great Silence was born.

Despite the lack of dialogue, Trintignant is a fine lead. He takes Eastwood's stoicism to its most logical endpoint,  yet manages to convey a great deal of empathy and vulnerability that the Man With No Name could never do. Quiet, understated and largely based around his eyes, Trintignant's performance is a terrific minimalistic exercise that - while drawing from a familiar archetype - manages to stand on its own.

Klaus Kinski is in unnervingly restrained form as Loco, the cold-hearted bounty hunter responsible for terrorising Snowhill.

Introduced masquerading as a fugitive's lawyer, Loco shoots the man dead in his own home before coolly comforting the dead man's mother (who is splattered with his blood): "I'm sorry but it's our bread and butter, understand?"

Kinski is (in)famous for his full-throttle portrayals of megalomaniacs in Werner Hersog's epics of the 70s and 80s (Aguirre, the Wrath of GodFitzcarraldo). By contrast, Loco never betrays extreme emotions - he is completely focused on making corpses and converting them into money. Complementing his performance is the voice they have given him in the English dub. Unlike so many Spaghettis the voice fits, maintaining the movie's power.

Corbucci follows Loco's introduction with a scene in the Governor's office, where he gives instructions to Burnett, the new sheriff of Snowhill. Burnett is tasked with bringing order to the lawless town.

Burnett is a walking cliche (the reluctant lawman) but Corbucci undermines his authority at every turn. He is introduced clutching his hat, with head cowed. His lack of power is further emphasised by the way he is marginalised within the frame, often wedged into the corner of shots, framed over the Governor's shoulder.

The Governor pontificates about the death of the 'old' west and how people "of all races and persuasions" need to be brought together to make a more unified and peaceful west. Pleased with his statement, he tells a lackey to note it down "for my next speech".

Unlike the taciturn image of most western lawgivers, Burnett is a talker, prone to blurting out whatever is on his mind. After the Governor finishes his spiel about offering amnesty to the fugitives,  Burnett immediately loses his confidence with the following: "A politician would promise amnesty to the murderer of his own father to win an election." 

While it cements Burnett as a moron, it also reinforces the underlying philosophy of the film. This is a world where principles are meaningless, just tools for getting what you want. 

The emptiness of the Governor's rhetoric is further emphasised by the scene which follows: we are back with Loco as he sadistically hunts a man down with a whip. Loco promises to let the man go if he tells him where the other fugitive is. Once he has the info, Loco immediately kills him.

We return to Silence making his way slowly toward Snowhill. Here, we get a neat intro to his M.O.: the old woman from earlier is burying her son. Recognising Silence, she asks him to avenge her son. Silence locates the bounty hunter responsible, Charlie - he is engorging himself on food at a nearby saloon. Silence waits until Charlie draws his gun, then shoots him dead.

We are then introduced to Vonetta McGee's Pauline; Loco is looking for her husband, who is among the fugitives. He takes her hostage to draw the man out then shoots her husband as soon as he drops his gun.

Pauline immediately begins to plan vengeance, and gets word to Silence to make sure that Loco pays for his crimes. It is interesting how Corbucci juxtaposes his heroes and villains: the bad guys are all white, with all the money and power to exert their will over Snowhill. At the end of the movie, the people who stand up to Pollicut and Loco are a disabled man, a black woman and a prostitute - people who have no place in these men's self-centred version of western progress.

Loco is not even the main villain - that role goes to Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli), a miserly businessman who uses his position as Justice of the Peace to extend his business empire, and punish those who stand in his way. The outlaws hiding out in the mountains are not bad - they are people who have been economically marginalised by Pollicut (in the English dub, they are also Mormons). The Great Silence is not just about good v evil, but about the conflict between ideals of justice, and unfettered capitalism.

    After Pauline has sworn vengeance, we are re-introduced to Sheriff Burnett struggling through the snow on his horse - until he loses it to bandits. His gun is frozen so he cannot defend himself. He has to hitch a lift on a passing stagecoach. Covered in snow, he collapses inside at Silence's feet. He then babbles his whole story, completely oblivious that his travelling companion cannot speak. Snoozing, he wakes to find a corpse leaning against the window.

    We are then given insight into Silence's motives, with a flashback showing how he lost his voice: bounty hunters pretend to be law officers and kill Silence's father. During the firefight, both of his parents are killed. The fake sheriff throws his silver star away and draws a knife to make sure the child never talks.
      Aside from backstory, this flashback performs a couple of functions: it shows that Silence's personal  code is not shared by others; that the violence of this diegesis is not limited to adults; and finally, it reduces Loco's evil, from that of a singularly evil individual to a symptom of a broader problem that has existed long before him.

      To further emphasise the uniqueness of Silence's code, Corbucci focuses on more of Sheriff Burnett's actions: he tries to exercise his authority over Loco, declaring an investigation into the death of Pauline's husband. This does not appear to be from any sense of justice, but the fact that Loco treated him like an idiot. The sheriff revels in Loco's discomfort, but the filmmakers undercut his sense of triumph: "First I'm going to interview the widow and exhume the dead body. Then I'll file a report to the Governor who in turn will pass it on to the proper department of state or... wherever." 

      What makes this even better is that he says this with shaving cream on his face.
      Burnett keeps telling people he is the sheriff, but no one cares. That ambivalence extends to the way the movie regards traditional authority figures: In  this universe you have no authority unless you are willing to use violence. Even then, that is no guarantee. 

      The sheriff is a good shot, but otherwise his senses are poor - he tries to intimidate Loco with a war story and leaves without realising Silence has been in the room the whole time. His interview with Pauline is callous - he is far more interested in Loco than the man he killed. The body is no longer a person, but a unit of transaction (money for Loco; evidence of Loco's corruption for the sheriff).

      Having neutered a possible ally for his hero, Corbucci begins to pull the rug out from under  Silence in his first confrontation with Loco.

      Following his formula, Silence tries to bait Loco into drawing first, by throwing a match and a a cigarette into his drink. Like everyone else in the movie, Loco is aware of Silence's legend and ignores his provocations. He dares Silence to break his moral code and shoot first. Unable to act, Silence is caught by surprise. Loco proceeds to beat him with his fists. Silence only escapes due to a log he throws at Loco's head.

      From here on, Silence's power as the stereotypical 'good' gunfighter is reduced. Pauline tries to help Silence heal. As with a million other action movies, they end up making love. Whereas that act is generally restorative, here it feels more futile - two brutalised people drawn together by a shared sense of loss.

      Meanwhile, a shackled Loco is busy agitating the Sheriff in the jail house. Once again, Sheriff Burnett completely mis-reads the situation: even though he is Loco's jailer, he is still under Loco's thumb - the bounty hunter dismisses the Sheriff by reminding him that he is the only lawman in town. Burnett tries to gain the upper hand by engaging in a debate with Loco about the difference between murder and killing under the law.

      Loco sees no distinction, and as always Burnett is unable to defend his side of the argument (and legitimacy as a force for good).

      Burnett decides he is going to take Loco off to a proper jail, and makes peace with the fugitives in the mountains, telling them about the governor's plans for amnesty and offering them food and shelter back in town. In any other western, this could be the ending.

      It is at this point that The Great Silence begins to break from the formula.

      As expected, Loco outsmarts and disarms the sheriff on the edge of a frozen lake.

      Before he kills the Sheriff, the bounty hunter differentiates himself from the Sheriff in an awkward speech that nevertheless provides the movie's thesis on the nature of power: while Burnett is "on the side of the law of the law," Loco is on the "side of the law of survival of the fittest." In a further rejection of the rules governing western duels, Loco kills the Sheriff by drowning him in a frozen lake.

      Meanwhile, Pollicut sneaks into Pauline's house to assault her and kill Silence - of course, Silence is still too injured to fight, and his condition worsens after he finally overcomes Pollicut.

      Loco and his men return to town, where they kill or capture the defenceless fugitives as they return to town.

      With all the stakes against are hero, and the lives of the remaining fugitives in the balance, the scene is set for a good old-fashioned western showdown.

      The ending is infamous for being one of the great downers. What is so amazing about it is the way that Corbucci uses the directorial cliches of westerns to undermine the viewer's expectations.

      In a scene familiar from a thousand westerns, Pauline tells Silence not to go - he is "just one man". Sadly, the movie goes on to prove Pauline right. 

      Even though it will hinder him, Silence still sticks his gun in his belt. As he waits for Loco outside the tavern where he is guarding the captured fugitives, we are still in vaguely familiar territory.

      But then Corbucci breaks the tension - a bounty hunter breaks a window and shoots Silence in his uninjured hand. Both Silence and the viewer are reeling. This is not the way this is supposed to play out!

      Silence is now on his knees outside the tavern. Loco stands in the entrance, his men visible on either side of him at the windows. Corbucci then intercuts hero and villain, cutting closer and closer to the character's faces. The cross-cutting between Loco and Silence is not the build-up to a duel, but an execution.

      The first shot does not even come from Loco, but one of his goons through a window. Think of how many action and war movies where the hero and villain fight while the villains' army does nothing?

      Instead of using editing to create a quick-draw finale, Corbucci draws it out by showing Silence using his destroyed hands together to pull his gun out of his belt. It is so drawn out that the viewer has to wonder, how can he win?

      Silence barely has time to react to the hit. Loco leisurely draws and fires his gun, shooting Silence in the head.

      Over a series of shots, Corbucci draws out Silence's death as he slumps and collapses. Pauline runs in and tries to shoot Loco. Loco shoots her dead.

      Loco and his men then turn their guns on their prisoners and kill them. The resulting bloodbath is not particularly graphic, but Corbucci throws in details which make the sequence feel more grotesque - as the camera surveys the dead, one dying prisoner spasms around against the ropes.

      In the final shots, Corbucci offers a final statement: As Loco and his men ride off, Corbucci shoots their departure as a reflection in a broken saloon window. One of the panes has been shot out so the viewer can see one of the dead fugitive's bodies hanging grotesquely from the ceiling.

      The final shot of Loco's men riding off is a parody of the traditional western resolution - with Silence and Pauline's bodies splayed in the foreground.

      In any other movie, Loco and his bounty hunters would be the anti-heroes. Think of A Few Dollars More or any western based around an anti-heroic gunman protecting a colonial society he can never be a part of. The Great Silence takes this trope and strips it of its iconic status, to show it for the monstrosity that it is.

      Sergio Corbucci's westerns usually end tragically. Our hero is disabled or betrayed, but always manages to defeat the villains. Sometimes the hero dies. With The Great Silence, Corbucci took an extra step. A former partisan against the Fascists, Corbucci came up with the story out of his disillusionment after the deaths of Malcolm X and Che Guevara. The biggest thing that stands out about the movie is how much a product of 1968 it is. The movie is filled with the disenchantment and cynicism running through the western world at the end of the 60s. At the climax, the meaning of the movie's title becomes clear: It does not refer to the main character, but to the moral void that he fails to fill. 

      In this film, the hero's idealism means nothing, and it is only after great death that any change can take place (as we are informed via chyron over Silence and Pauline's bodies).  Amnesty is never inevitable - as the doomed Sheriff Burnett (Frank Wolff) recognises, it is dependant on the Governor getting what he wants - another term in office. 

      Ennio Morricone's mournful theme tune mirrors the movie - its melody resembles an elegy, evoking the romanticism of classic westerns while undercutting its sentiment. The music acts as a commentary on characters like Silence - they are ultimately too good to be true.

      The movie is not flawless. The characterisation is a little half-baked (the relationship between Paula and Silence feels a little arbitrary), and occasionally the budgetary limitations show, but none of these things detract from the movie's power.

      A definite recommend.

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