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.