Color, 1968, 105 mins. / Directed by Sergio Corbucci / Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Frank Wolff, Vonetta McGee, Luigi Pistilli / Music by Ennio Morricone / Cinematography by Silvano Ippoliti

Format: DVD - Fantoma (MSRP $29.99) / Letterboxed (1.66:1) / Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono

Strangely never released in the U.S. for reasons never made clear, The Great Silence is one of the most neglected top run spaghetti westerns. The constant snowfall and eccentric storyline immediately set it apart from its desert-bound ilk like the Sergio Leone classics, and the downbeat, gritty approach still makes it a potent, unforgettable experience.

In the snowswept wilds of Utah, the mysterious outlaw Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) coldly guns down armed bounty hunters who cross his path. The most nefarious of these legalized killers, Loco (Klaus Kinski), crosses paths with Silence in a remote and despairing mountainside town, where Pauline (Vonetta McGee) enlists Silence's services to avenge the death of her husband. The town's owner, Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli), allows the bounty hunters to commit legalized murder with impunity, but the genial new sheriff (The Lickerish Quartet's Frank Wolff) has other ideas and crosses paths with Loco. Pauline and Silence also begin a tentative love affair, but greater, more sinister powers control their destiny.

One of the greatest international actors, Trintignant makes the most of his non-speaking part to convey a dense moral ambiguity lurking within a gun-slinging mute (his vocal chords have been slit), able to strike back only in self-defense. He's matched every step of the way by the Aryan Kinski, whose fascist behavior gives the film a more disturbing political subtext than your average Euro oater. The film also marks the debut of McGee, an interesting actress who later returned to snowy climes for Clint Eastwood's The Eiger Sanction. Her interracial love scene here is something of an anomaly in westerns, Italian or otherwise, and her relationship with Silence gives the unexpected finale an even greater resonance. And as for that ending... well, let's just say it's one of a kind and will either make or break the film for most viewers.

Director Sergio Corbucci made a name for himself by directing Django, one of the most popular non-Leone spaghetti westerns, but in many respects The Great Silence is a far more impressive work. As with Django, he avoids the spacious scope framing one normally associates with the genre, choosing instead to evoke a tight, claustrophobic atmosphere through bizarre framing and cramped visual spaces. The oppressive snowstorms which punctuate the film provide some startling tableaux of men on horseback trudging through the hills; even more than the notorious Cut-Throats Nine, this is a western that seeps into your bones and makes you want to curl up in front of a fireplace for a few hours. The rough technical nature of the film (some rough edits, a few shaky camera shots, visible imperfections in some of the film stock) in many ways enhances its curiosity value, distinguishing it from the slick Hollywood product of a director like John Ford. Naturally it also wouldn't be complete without an Ennio Morricone score, and the maestro doesn't disappoint. The main theme is one of his most haunting, and the rest of the music perfectly captures the violence and melancholy inherent in the story.

Most viewers first experienced The Great Silence in some video incarnation of the Japanese laserdisc, which was slightly overmatted but good for its time. The Fantoma DVD marks the extremely overdue U.S. release of the film, and it's hard to imagine the film looking much better. The original negative with the English soundtrack was used for the transfer, and every blemish and imperfection in the original material has been left intact. The opening credits look a bit tight on the sides, but overall the framing seems balanced and compliments the sharp, colorful image quality. The disc also includes a battered theatrical trailer, extensive liner notes, an appreciative introduction by director Alex Cox (who used McGee in Repo Man), and best of all, an unused "happy ending" (which, spoiler haters will note, gives away the fact that the movie's real ending is about as horrifically depressing as they come). This bizarre resolution (including a freakish twist involving Trintignant's hand) contains no existing audio, so Cox contributes his own analysis of this anomaly on an optional audio track. Obviously one of the key cult releases of the year, this disc is a must see for western fans, exploitation buffs, and art house audiences alike.

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