Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Spaghetti Western Watch: The Great Silence (1968)

Watched:  06/26/2018
Format:  Alamo Ritz
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1960's

I hadn't previously heard of The Great Silence (1968).  I'm willing to own that.  Apparently it's a cult film of the Spaghetti Western variety (but how many of you own copies of the Captain America: Death Too Soon?  Not many, I'd bet.  So.  You know.  I'm good at some things.).  In fact, when SimonUK asked me to see the film, I agreed because I'm currently trying to say "yes" to as many suggestions and new films as possible.  But 24 hours prior to watching the movie, I only knew the title, I guess, because I thought it was movie about mountain fighting during World War I.  Literally no idea where that came from.

Instead, The Great Silence is a western set in Utah in the winter of 1898.  The Alps double for the Rockies, and only a single American appears in the cast - the lovely Vonetta McGee (most famous to me as Marlene from Repo Man) - who is overdubbed into Italian even as you can see her delivering the same lines in English appearing in the subtitles (don't try to watch this too much, you'll go insane).

That's to say: the version I watched was Italian, sub-titled in English.  I have no idea in what language Kinski delivered his lines.  It's currently showing in limited engagements across the U.S. as part of a 50th Anniversary 4K restoration.  And, hey, in general is something is enjoying a 4K restoration, limited engagements and a 50th Anniversary celebration - it just might be worth checking out, if not for reasons you might immediately expect.   It's difficult to get exactly what happened with US distribution, but it looks like it didn't get any kind of real release here until 2001.  I assume it was on home video one way or another before then, but - I'm guessing due to a deeply un-American-type-ending, the movie was not seen as potentially profitable stateside.

The film itself is a mix of well-considered photography against the snowy peaks and valleys of the mountain setting, a sort of wasteland of ice and snow, and a mix of film stock, visible screens over the lens and a few long shots where you can see them racking focus and moving the camera in ways I don't think they intended to be noticed.

The plot:  a group of farmers (I think) have taken to the hills as outlaws, their lives turned upside down by a local merchant/ banker/ Justice of the Peace who has essentially robbed all of them, stranding them in the mountains.  Bounty hunters circle, trying to make a buck hauling in the desperadoes, dead rather than alive, as the desperadoes give up, the life in the mountains sure to bring a slow death and a rumor that the newly elected Governor is to provide a pardon for folks in their situation.

Klaus Kinski plays "Loco", one of the best bounty hunters, a polite and bright sociopath, quietly going about his business murdering and counting up his earnings.  Meanwhile, Silence/ Silenzio (Jean-Louis Trintignant) appears - a man who does not speak, and who spends his days hunting down bounty hunters himself.  And the Governor deploys a Sheriff to Snow Hill to bring order to the area.

From the snow-blasted mountains to the buddy-buddy relationship between Kinski and his fellow bounty hunters, the familiar tropes of the Spaghetti Western are thrown off-angle.  Is the Sheriff a goofy doofus, or is he actually a sober lawman and a crack shot?  Do the bounty hunters have a point about being the only law around?

As mentioned:  Spoilers

As we make the final turn into the film's finale, first our Sheriff is killed, and then the local Madame with a heart of gold.  And then our heroes (Silence and Pauline).  And then the townsfolk they're protecting.  And the Bountyhunters, who have wanted posters for everyone they kill and can prove Silence and Pauline pulled guns, ride off to collect their money.

It is a wildly messed up finale, but it manages to leverage the expectations of the Western, even the revisionist view of Westerns that arrived in the mid-60's thanks to Sergio Leone, to give the viewer both a "but what if it didn't work out?" view of any action film's conclusion, as well as make some pointed commentary on the slippery value of what the "law" states and the limitations of law versus right or justice.

The brand of law driven by justice is murdered, duped by Kinski claiming he needs to take a shit, and while the Sheriff's back is turned, he pulls a hidden weapon and kills the lawman.  The conniving pragmatism of Loco and his band of bounty hunters, men who make their living preying on those with the misfortune to have already been exploited into a life of crime, has application beyond the boundary of this film.  That the law supports their work as the world tries to move forward, likewise.

Whether director Sergio Corbucci was intending on a humorous (not exactly laugh out loud, but...) or just warped satire of Leone's take on the taciturn man with a gun at the heart of his movies is something I can't say.  But by stripping him of his voice altogether, something taken from him by bounty hunters in his youth, is hard not to want to assign meaning.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this movie, now fifty years old, also contains the earliest interracial sex scene I can recall seeing in a film. And from what I've seen online, Corbucci knew what he was doing with that scene and how it would play.

As part of the movement of the 1960's occurring in Hollywood around this time, it's a bit unfortunate this movie didn't get a wide American release.  Who knows what it would have lent to American cinema?

Eventually I will want to see the movie again.  It was something of a shock, honestly, when the dominoes began to fall in the last quarter of the film, and what seemed like a pat Western began to unravel quickly.  A re-watch would likely be worth it just to see what else I let skim by that Corbucci was slipping in there, but I need to finally watch Django, first. 

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