Plot: As a brutal Utah winter rages, a ruthless bounty hunter named Loco (Klaus Kinski) and his right hand man hunt down a group of Mormon settlers. Loco intends to collect on a bounty placed on them by Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli), a banker who isn’t exactly the portrait of a proper businessman. The take is a thousand dollars for each, so Loco sweeps in to ambush them and as he doesn’t like to take the effort to turn in live bounties, he kills the settlers outright. After he heads back to town, he hassles the local sheriff Burnett (Frank Wolff) about his payment, but he’s also focused on playing cards, intimidating the locals, and eyeing the women. Also in town is Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a mute gunslinger of unbelievable skill who has been approached by Pauline (Marisa Merlini), a widow thanks to Loco’s wrath. She wishes to see Loco pay for his murderous ways, so she strikes up a bond with Silence and soon after, a clash erupts and Loco’s partner is killed in the shootout. Now a showdown between Loco and Silence seems inevitable, but who will survive this epic duel?
Entertainment Value: This is one of the true masterworks of the western genre, a dark, stylish, and atmospheric picture that sticks with you long after the end credits have rolled. The Great Silence has the kind of action you’d expect from a western, with gun battles and horse pursuits, but it takes a raw, visceral approach to these elements, which makes it feel a lot different from its peers. I don’t think the movie is as violent as some claim, but it does have more blood and violence than most westerns, while the stylized approach does little to dampen the impact. There’s so much more for film fans to feast upon here however, including beautiful visuals and the kind of atmosphere that hooks you in and refuses to let go. The pace is deliberate, but not slow and the film doesn’t waste time, so the pace enables the tension to rise over time and for the story/characters to develop. In other words, this isn’t one action set piece or shootout after another just heading toward a larger scale shootout in the end, this is a character driven piece that you get invested in. The inevitable clash between Loco and Silence might push the narrative and give us a focal point, but The Great Silence is more layered than just that one element. I can see some being put off by how downbeat and grim this vision of the genre is, but Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence is an absolute classic, not just as a western, but as a film in general.
The performances here are strong across the board, the kind of authentic personas a movie like this thrives with. The characters feel like real people in this harsh locale, never like actors in cowboy hats, as we see in many westerns. The grit and toughness are genuine here, which helps bolster the character depth and the overall atmosphere of the film’s world. As a huge Klaus Kinski fan, I am drawn to discuss his performance first and this is an ideal role for him, as you can tell he revels in his character’s vileness, a skill Kinski was a master of. He is always believable as unstable, impulsive characters like Loco, so it is no surprise he is excellent here and his persona of menace adds so much to The Great Silence. But just as impressive is Jean-Louis Trintignant, who conveys so much as Silence, even without dialogue to push his performance. The two leads are remarkable throughout, but really shine in their interactions with each other, as both embrace the tension and rivalry of the characters. The cast also includes Marisa Merlini, Luigi Pistilli, Frank Wolff, and Mario Brega.
The Disc: This 50th anniversary restoration was released on Blu-ray by Film Movement Classics, via a new 2k scan and restoration effort. I hadn’t seen the film since its old DVD release and I was floored by how much better The Great Silence looks here, almost like a new movie in many ways. The image looks super clean and refined, with a gorgeous print that shows minimal signs of wear, while the visuals have been framed to match the intended composition as well. This is a fantastic treatment and while some some minor inherent issues crop up, this is the kind of presentation that should have fans more than satisfied. You can also choose between Italian and English soundtracks, with optional English subtitles provided. The disc’s extras include an almost 40 minute documentary on spaghetti westerns, an introduction with Alex Cox, both alternate endings, and both the original and restoration trailers.