Friday, August 15, 2008

The Great Silence

I don't like "Spaghetti Westerns" that much but this 1968 film The Great Silence by Sergio Corbucci really won me over, mainly on account of the shockingly bleak ending which is guaranteed to leave anyone gaping in horror and stunned disbelief. Sergio Leone's films and other revisionist westerns are also pessimistic but they are still centred around a more or less conventional masculine hero representing good who ultimately triumphs over evil, even though the films often acknowledge the moral and spiritual costs of revenge and violence. In Corbucci's world good however (or even moderately decent) has absolutely no chance of survival against evil and any kind of human decency always turns out to be a fatal and mortal weakness.

In the film Klaus Kinski plays a brutal and sadistic "bounty-hunter" named Loco who along with his minions is murdering petty outlaws to collect the reward which the law has placed on their heads. After one of his latest rounds of killings, the wife of one of his victims vows to take revenge and asks "the great silence" played by Jean-Louis Trintignant for help. He is introduced as a mythical, almost God-like figure, with one character claiming that he is called "silence" because wherever he goes "the silence of death follows." The real story turns out to be more prosaic and brutal. Basically when he was a kid one of those evil bounty-hunters murdered his parents and so that he wouldn't be able to speak as a witness they cut his throat and made him mute. So he has a personal grudge against Loco and the stage is set for the final confrontation but everything doesn't go as expected.

Corbucci's visual style is messy and nowhere near as elgant as Sergio Leone's, specially in the way the gunfight scenes are edited and spliced together. In great westerns these scenes come out as if elegantly choreographed but here it is mostly a mess. He however more than makes up for it by shooting the snow-covered landscapes in a very evocative manner. There are also some beautiful shots of mirrors and reflections.

The best part of the film however, and which makes the ending so powerful, is the score by Ennio Morricone. It must surely rank with one of his best (which admittedly will be much more than quite a few). It is not what one expects from a score for a western but it works beautifully all the more because of it. Unfortunately Kinski's voice is dubbed but he is still very good. Some of his closeups and his cold blue eyes send shivers down the spine. Trintignant doesn't have a word to say but he is also a very powerful presence in the film. The newcomer african-american actress Vonetta McGee is also quite good and I am guessing that the sex scene between her and Trintignant must also be one of the first to involve to a white hero and a black actress.

Throughout the film Corbucci makes his anarchistic (as opposed to Fascist) political ideas very clear. Unlike regular westerns, or even films like Dirty Harry which is based on the same mythology and character types, law isn't shown to be wimpy and unable to deal with criminals but rather law itself turns out to be the source of criminality and injustice. Throughout the film Loco keeps insisting that he is only following the law which makes him very different from conventional psychopathic villain, in the sense that he represents the "system" itself. In this light the unhappy ending makes even more sense.

The wikipedia article of the film is quite good. Not suprisingly Michael Haneke is a great fan of the ending too. The DVD also contains an alternative happy ending involving what can only be called a deus ex machina. It is ridiculous and funny in way and it seems Corbucci had a lot of fun shooting this alternative sequence.


puccinio said...

''Il Grande Silenzio'' is the best of the Spaghetti Westerns and yes it's way better than Sergio Leone's. I was always irritated whenever people went bananas over Leone's whole mythos of the Western which to me was too pastische-like and screechingly mannerist. But ''Il Grande Silenzio'' is definitely the real thing. A great take on the Western ideas and concept and while deconstructing it contributing to the genre at the same time. The ending is absolutely chilling and cold.

Especially the way they destroy Trintignant's body. Interestingly Trintignant didn't want to do the picture and he was a fusspot during the shooting, he was irritated with the whole process of dubbing of the shooting which meant he had to mouth of numbers in place of dialogue(as shown in ''Day for Night'') and then have that dubbed by another actor in post-dub. He said he'd do it if he didn't have to say a word. A rare occassion when an actor playing a prima donna paid off artistically.

It's also similar to the Eastwood-Leone films. Leone had initially planned the Eastwood characters to be very talky and having a lot of dialogue but Eastwood suggested that he speak little since he realized that great American stars like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum largely reacted and generally worked best with strong supporting actors. So Eastwood was partly the auteur of their collaborations(as much as Ennio Morricone anyway).

Leone's only great film and a fantastic achievement is his ''Once Upon A Time In America'', it's the gangster genre instead of Westerns and a homage to classics like ''Scarface'',
''The Public Enemy'' and ''The Roaring Twenties'' but also serving as a contribution in itself with it's wonderfully constructed and textured flashback narrative. Who ever knew someone as loud and noisy as Leone could make something as jaw-droppingly beautiful and as filled with operatic grandeur.

Another favourite spaghetti-Western, of sorts anyway is this film made by Luc Moullet. Moullet is the forgotten genius of the French New Wave and he made this western called ''Une aventure de Billy le Kid'' with Jean-Pierre Leaud as Billy. It's rare now. I saw it once(ten years back). Don't think it's on DVD. It's this unbelievably hilarious(you'll laugh every two minutes) take on Westerns, Hollywood and Italian with amazing compositions that suggest John Ford and Luis Bunuel. Moullet couldn't get distribution for that film in France. But since Leaud had a star-following outside he distributed the film across the world and turned a profit. He also made an English language version aimed specially for America called ''A Girl is a Gun''. Those who have seen it told me that it has intentional bad dubbing and just as crazy a laugh in(very bad) English.

On a less digressive note, one Western that's a lot like ''Il Grande Silenzio'' is Andre deToth's ''Day of the Outlaw'' starring Robert Ryan. It's out on an excellent DVD from MGM along with titles like ''Man of the West''(by Anthony Mann) and others.
''Day of the Outlaw'' is set in snowy landscapes as well and it forms a very bleak and harsh environment for it's characters. Another one is Altman's ''McCabe & Mrs. Miller''.

Alok said...

Actually "Once Upon a Time in America" has been on my to-watch list for a long time but haven't been able to see it yet. Will move it to the top of the queue now.

I have the same problems with his "Dollar trilogy" and Once Upon a Time in the West. They feel "artificial" and not in very interesting ways. I agree with you about these being pastische-like and mannerist, which would have been okay if they had any original idea and presented them in an iconographic manner. They are mostly the same old idea...loner hero, good vs evil etc etc. Also I have never liked Eastwood.. i think he is a better director than an actor, and even there i like him less than everyone else seems to do.

there was an interesting article in slate about Dirty Harry which though ambivalent and mostly critical still says that it should be seen ironically and that Siegel himself hated the title character. this seems to me a backhanded defence which is in fact applicable to the Eastwood-Leone films too and which doesn't convince me.

Thanks for the tip about the Day of the Outlaw. I had heard its name in connection with my Robert Ryan fan-ship. Will check it soon.

I saw two westerns by Anthony Mann early this year: The Naked Spur and Winchester '73. Both were brilliant specially The Naked Spur. I also love McCabe and Mrs Miller though I find it hard to say what is it exactly that makes it so special and different.

puccinio said...

Well the thing with ''McCabe & Mrs. Miller'' is that it's a non-Western. It's set in similar locations features similar stock characters from the genre but it's presented with an immediacy and reality absent in most Westerns. Altman with that film wanted ro re-create with the greatest possible realism what an actual Frontier town would be like. It raised the model for period films influencing films like ''Barry Lyndon'' by Kubrick.

this seems to me a backhanded defence which is in fact applicable to the Eastwood-Leone films too and which doesn't convince me.

Nor should it. I've found ''Dirty Harry'' problematic too. It's not fascist but it certainly flirts with it dangerously. But ''Sudden Impact'', a sequel which Eastwood himself directed is excellent. I like Eastwood. I realize that not everyone does nor does everyone need to but I think his films are fairly critical of masculinity and certainly deal with the emptiness of violence. ''Unforgiven'' especially. His own performance in ''White Hunter, Black Heart'' deals fairly critically with the macho attitude of Old Hollywood and it retaining colonialist ideas and deflating it. Of the Leone Westerns I like ''The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'' best. It's wild, loud and obnoxious but it has a sense of opera in it's attitude and Eli Wallach and Eastwood have a nice Martin & Lewis-esque relationship.

''Once Upon A Time In America'' is really something special. Leone wanted to make that film since before ''Good Bad Ugly'' and all the films afterwards were just digressions while he gathered funds and resources for that film. He wanted to release it into a 6hour film shown as a diptych of two 3hr films but ended up editing it to a 3h40mns version(the shortest near 4hr film in history this side of ''Lawrence of Arabia''). That's out on DVD now thankfully while the American version which butchered it(an act that gave Leone a heart attack and shortened his lifespan) is dead and buried.

The film by the way might have been influenced by ''McCabe & Mrs. Miller'' in it's approach to period detail.