The legendarily bleak ending of the 1968 spaghetti western The Great Silence — in which everybody dies, including anti-hero vigilante Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) — still hurts so good a half-century later. Co-writer–director Sergio Corbucci (Navajo Joe, Companeros) constantly subverts the generic tropes that he dabbled with two years earlier in Django, that blood-soaked and oft-imitated riff on A Fistful of Dollars.
For starters: Silence isn’t a mercenary with a heart of gold but rather a traumatized drifter who legally gets away with murder because he only shoots badmen after they reach for their guns. In fact, the biggest difference between Silence and his sadistic antagonist Tigrero (Klaus Kinski) — a ruthless bounty killer hired to exterminate Snow Hill’s unjustly taxed citizens by vindictive banker Henry Pollicutt (Luigi Pistilli) — is that Trintignant’s gunfighter is relatively sympathetic. He takes a savage beating when he defends clueless but well-meaning sheriff Gideon Burnett (character-actor god Frank Wolff) during a bar fight and even allows himself to be mounted by confident widow Pauline (Vonetta McGee, a rare African-American western heroine) during their tender sex scene.
Then again, violence never really solves Silence’s problems: Tigrero’s heavies are easily replaced and Kinski’s antagonist is protected by the wealthy Pollicutt. Silence may be quick on the draw, as demonstrated when he beats Burnett at an impromptu target practice session by blasting six perfect doughnut holes into as many potatoes. But because Silence’s might doesn’t eventually set things right for Snow Hill’s residents, The Great Silence goes out with a devastating bang.
The Great Silence
Directed by Sergio Corbucci
Film Movement Classics
Opens March 30, Film Forum
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