The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci / Italy-France, 1968):
(Il Grande Silenzio)

Sergio Corbucci's art is such that in the first shot he combines Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, and then proceeds to revise the Marxism pasteurized in Lean's Pasternak blockbuster. The title's great silence may be death, possibly Raymond Chandler's Big Sleep, definitely Jean-Louis Trintignant with shredded vocal cords, furs and stubble caked with frost, riding through the icy void into an ambush -- he decimates all of his attackers, one throws down his pistol and squeals for mercy, Trintignant blasts off his thumbs just to be on the safe side. Killing's a trade in Corbucci's old West, and every death profits somebody: the hero may insist on a shaky moral sliver by forcing his targets to draw first and claiming self-defense, but bounty hunter Klaus Kinski is more upfront about the business ("it's our bread and butter," he says to the mother of the youth he's just gunned down). Kinski stashes his victims in the gelid Utah countryside, the stagecoach collects them as freight on the way to Snow Hill, a hamlet later reborn as Altman's Presbyterian Church; the mountain "outlaws" are in reality disbanded proles so hungry that they eat the horse of sheriff Frank Wolff, who's outraged at the legalized slaughter yet is put on the spot when asked about the line dividing murder and punishment. Widow Vonetta McGee is among the striking figures pitted somberly against the blizzard, having seen her husband killed by Kinski ("What times we live in... Blacks worth as much as a white man"); she and Trintignant first come together as partners in vendetta transactions and then finally as tragic outsiders, both denied their voices in society. The frozen setting heightens Corbucci's severity here as it did de Toth's in Day of the Outlaw, with similar offhand brutality -- Luigi Pistilli, the slimy town banker (and the film's stand-in for capitalism), violates McGee while his goon dips Trintignant's palm into burning coals. The great shock, however, is reserved for the finale, where snow isolates without purifying, Cimino's tragic West is anticipated, and Ennio Morricone's score weeps for it all. With Mario Brega, Marisa Merlini, and Carlo D'Angelo.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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