Set in Utah during the Great Blizzard of 1899, the small town of Snow Hill has gone through some tough financial times, forcing some of the less than privileged citizens to rob and steal just so they can eat and stay alive. With no other choice for survival, these unfortunate citizens have become considered outlaws by the town and with prices on their heads, they are targets for bounty hunters (or bounty killers as they're called) who now infest the area. The leader of these bounty hunters, a madman named Loco (Klaus Kinski), kills a man in cold blood that has a bounty on his head, resulting in the victims wife, Pauline (Vonetta McGee) hiring a gunslinger named Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to seek revenge and kill Loco.
Silence is not the biggest fan of these powerful money hungry bounty hunters and he makes it his hobby to shorten their life span when he can. When Silence was a young boy, he watched as his mother and father were killed by bounty hunters, who thought it a good idea to slit the young boys throat to keep him from saying anything, ever again, thus the name, Silence. To keep within the law, Silence doesn't just go up and buck shots into dudes, he goats them into shooting first, so it is considered self defense and completely legal when this quick on the draw, outlaw kills his victims.
1968's The Great Silence (Il grande silenzio, or The Big Silence) is a Spaghetti Western with all the right moves in so many ways. It has a grand and gorgeous setting, an amazing Ennio Morricone score, and stars some of the best actors of the genre. While this film and the performances are slightly hindered by bad dubbing, there is a nice and to be expected, squirmy, Luigi Pistilli as Pollicutt, who is Show Hill's Justice of the Peace and the one paying for the bounties on the outlaws heads. I also really enjoyed Frank Wolff, who plays the Sheriff of Snow Hill. He starts off almost bumbling, but he quickly makes the transformation into a very self assured and honorable man of the law, who only wants things to be fair for everyone. However, he isn't liberal when it come to holding the bounty hunters accountable to the laws of the town, no matter if they are a threat to him or not.
While there are two stars of The Great Silence and despite the title of the film, Jean-Louis Trintignant and his character, Silence is not one of them. I liked the character of Silence and J.L.T. does a competent enough job in this role, but he is nothing spectacular either (Nero would've been much better). He has the right look for the emotionless gunslinger, but he just seems to lack that certain charisma needed to be great. I don't claim he is not one of the stars because he doesn't have the magnetism of other Spaghetti Western leads, it is because he is not really meant to be the main focus of this film.
The real focus and star of The Great Silence is without a doubt, Klaus fucking Kinski and the character of Loco. This film is a true showcase for the talents and lunacy that is Klaus Kinski and he is as good as ever in this film. He steals every scene playing a character that is as mean as it gets, but is also kind of a wise guy that can easily keep his cool in most any situation. I have seen a decent amount of Kinski films and his portrayal of Loco may be the best I have ever seen of him on screen. Except for Crawlspace of course!
Director Sergio Corbucci treads territory that is not the norm of the genre. As with his best known film, 1966's Django, which was set in a town completely engulfed by mud, The Great Silence is entirely set in the snow. There are very few Westerns, Italian or American that have been set in these conditions and the only ones that come to mind are Pale Rider and Unforgiven, both of which are not entirely snow bound. Though, both are pretty damned fantastic and directed by Clint Eastwood, who apparently was rumored to direct a remake of The Great Silence, so the inspiration is fitting.
So when I said there were two stars of The Great Silence, if Kinski is one, then the other is the snowy backdrop of this truly frigid film. I've said before how much I love winter/snow set movies and this may be one of the best uses of the purdy powder. Mixed with the amazing Silvano Ippoliti cinematography, the presence of epic winter is engulfing to the senses and as I watched, I couldn't help but feel like I too, was as cold as these outlaws. It also gives the characters a reason to wear very nontraditional western garb, where these dudes really need to gear up for the blistering elements. How often do you see a gunslinger wear a fur coat? I'd like to see someone splash fake blood on Loco in protest.
I have seen more than my fair share of Westerns and I am a pretty big fan of Django and consider it an upper echelon film of the Italian Western genre, but it is not quite up there with the Leone films. The Great Silence, on the other hand, is certainly on par with the master filmmakers movies and may be one of the best Westerns, Italian, or whatever, that I have ever seen. It has some flaws with an muddled plot and while Corbucci can be an amazing director, he doesn't seem to mind having little flubs of imperfection in his movies. Even then, The Great Silence is a masterpiece of the genre and of cinema period. I didn't even go near talking about the crazy ending of this film, but that is a major spoiler that needs to be seen by you when you watch this movie. It is a must see.