My favorite stories tend to put the heroes and the bad guys in the same room long before the final showdown. Early on in The Great Silence, Sergio Corbucci puts his three most combustible characters in the same stagecoach, which will take them to the little town where the final shootout will brutally go down. And boy, I do mean brutal: the resolution is so alien to what casual audiences are used to, Corbucci was forced to shoot an alternate ending, which I believe is lost by now. Any copy you can track down today will have the original ending in all its hard-hitting, don’t-give-a-fuck glory.
The hero of the film is Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who had his vocal cords cut when he witnessed his parents’ murder as a kid. Legend says they call him Silence because the silence of death is the only thing that remains in his wake. His holster is a wooden box, which can also be attached to the end of his pistol like a makeshift rifle stock. Instead of killing bad guys, he shoots their thumbs off so they can never hold a pistol again. According to Wikipedia, Corbucci got the idea for a silent gunslinger from Marcello Mastroianni, who always wanted to do a western like this, but couldn’t speak English.
Then there’s the sheriff who’s played by Frank Wolff, an American-born actor who made his career out of foreign films and westerns like this one. He’s an honest, scared, and competent lawman who’s investigating the town over allegations that its bounties aren’t ethical, even though they’re technically lawful. The character immediately distrusts the latest addition to his stagecoach: a bounty hunter named Loco who cheerfully ties his victims’ corpses to the roof. It’s obvious Loco is a man who didn’t give a damn about the law until it became corrupted enough to protect him.
Here’s the thing about Loco. When you create a hero as bad ass as Silence, you’ve gotta work hard to come up with a worthy villain. So Corbucci cast none other than Klaus Kinski. Director David Schmoeller made a short documentary about the legendary difficulties Kinski was known to create on movie sets. At the end, Schmoeller suggests a reason why directors like Werner Herzog continued to work with the maniac: few actors were as compelling.
Here’s the full vid:
When Loco kills the husband of Pauline (the beautiful Vonetta McGee of Blackula fame… or infamy, depending on where you stand on blacksploitation films), she sells her house to the banker who’s responsible for creating the corrupt bounties. She plans to use the money to hire Silence so that he can set things right. Silence, who’s fallen in love with Pauline, tries and fails to goad Loco into a shootout. The problem is, Loco is as clever as he is sneaky. He refuses to partake in a shootout until the conditions favor him 100%.
It’s a slow burn to the explosive ending, which makes it clear the filmmakers are unwilling to dilute their message for commercial viability. This is probably the reason the film never saw a proper release in the United States until a few years after DVD players came along. What I just watched was one of those earlier DVDs and it only makes me hurt more for a proper Blu-Ray release.
Ultimately, I’ve enjoyed other Corbucci films a little bit more for keeping true to the entertaining style and convention of spaghetti westerns, but few have been as masterful—or risky—as this one. It’s a great movie because it’s harder to digest than traditional films. Love it or hate it, you won’t be unaffected.