The Great Silence

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Silence

One of the great puzzles about Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 spaghetti western The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio) is how shakily it starts. In one gruesomely unsteady shot after another, using lenses that are way too long, cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti appears to be putting on a demonstration of the genre’s technical shortcomings, with distant figures swinging wildly all over the frame, rendering action almost impossible to follow.

Stick with it, it settles down. By the end, as events build towards a climax that’s satisfying because it’s so unexpected, Ippoliti and Corbucci have relaxed into a groove and are delivering cinematic storytelling at its finest. Scenes play out in as much time as feels necessary, minor characters get enough space to develop, the weather and landscape become a more obvious part of the plot dynamics, wide establishing shots are contrasted with severe close-ups and dramatic switchback editing, while Ennio Morricone’s score soars in a sweet and ultimately ironic way.

Morricone thought it one of his best, and Corbucci also thought The Great Silence one of his best films. The settings really help. Rather than shoot on the Spanish plain, where so many Euro-westerns were made, Corbucci took off for the Italian Dolomites, which stand in for a snowbound Utah, where an elemental story plays out all the better in the stark white landscapes.

Star Jean-Louis Trintignant could speak no English and so it was decided to make his character a mute – I’ve no idea why this was a problem since the whole film was dubbed (appallingly) anyway – he is the Silence of the title, though obviously the Great Silence, like the Big Sleep, is another euphemism for Death.

So maybe not a Man with No Name, but certainly a Man with No Voice, Silence is the familiar lone, sharpshooting gunman, sucking on a cheroot as he rights wrongs in a West that is about to be civilised – “the old West is dead” , says a minor character early on. But it isn’t quite.

Wearing the black hat is Klaus Kinski as the psychopathic killer Tigrero (or Loco, depending on the dub you’re watching), leader of a gang of bounty hunters who are keen to kill as many outlaws as they can before an upcoming amnesty ruins their business, and they don’t care too much how how sloppily they go about their work, particularly Tigrero.

Klaus Kinski as the mad Tigrero
Klaus Kinski as the mad Tigrero

So when a widow loses her son, and a woman her husband, they both turn to Silence for help. Cue a series of gunfights in which Silence always “draws second, but shoots first,” as Tigrero has observed, a fact he’ll put to use when the eventual showdown between the two men climaxes the film.

It’s a case of the familiar and the slightly novel – Kinski plays the whackjob Tigrero as a slightly effeminate man, the ineffectually stupid but honest town sheriff is played by Frank Wolff, who’s usually a gruff baddie, Silence gets some love interest in the shape of the particularly effective Vonetta McGee, a black woman out West being a rare sight in 1960s westerns, one with this much agency doubly so.

The film is often described as a left wing or anti-capitalist western, on account of the outlaws being fairly benign and the bounty hunters being the bad guys. But there’s a right wing reading to be had too, since the bounty hunters are instruments of a big state that’s overreaching itself. Perhaps The Great Silence’s great strength is its elemental nature – stark figures against a white backdrop, like a version of shadow-puppet theatre, add your own ideology. As for the idea, floated by Corbucci himself, that he was addressing in some way the deaths of Che Guevara and Malcolm X… bizarre. The Great Silence does not wander far from the western’s beaten track thematically, not matter which way you squint.

Things do not end well for Silence and Pauline (McGee) and the orgy-of-killing grand finale is considered by many to be a problem. The studio didn’t like it, for one, and asked for an alternative happy ending, which they also didn’t like.

You can see those endings on the newish restorations. Film Movement do a 50th anniversary one in the US and in the UK I suspect (because most of the extras are the same) that the invariably excellent Eureka are using the same 2K scan of the original negative on their UK release.

The Great Silence – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Little Drummer Girl

Charlie training with the Palestinians

Is the 1984 flop The Little Drummer Girl really a spy thriller, as it says on the tin, or an existential drama about a woman losing her mind because she believed in nothing to start with?

Diane Keaton stars in this adaptation of a semi-successful John Le Carré novel (attempts have been made to re-appraise it since the author’s death), playing an actress recruited by the Israeli secret service to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist network. Le Carré (real name David Cornwell) based “Charlie” on his half sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell, who around this time was suing a UK newspaper for suggesting her “bum is too big”. She won, on the grounds that it was a personal attack rather than fair comment. What she thought about the character of Charlie has not been recorded.

Read the Wikipedia entry if you want to understand what’s going on, because this adaptation’s lack of an authorial voice fails to make things clear. Charlie’s views on Palestine seem straight enough though – she’s against the oppression of a dispossessed people by the Zionists – which makes her rationale for accepting a gig offered by the Israeli secret-service mystifying. Instead of a solid reason, it’s suggested either that Charlie is driven by her actor’s vanity – this is a good role she’s been offered! Or driven by her desire for her darkly handsome handler, Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis). Neither seems really plausible. Both make her seem silly.

Charlie is a jobbing repertory actor touring draughty provincial theatres in the UK and yet dresses in that “Keaton style” of mannish clothes with a relaxed fit made popular by the film Annie Hall and costing way more than her character could afford. What we’re getting is Hollywood star Diane Keaton rather than struggling actress Charlie, which doesn’t help with a film that’s bewildering enough already. All that said, initially at least Charlie is a fairly known quantity. It’s only later that she gets harder to read and Keaton, perhaps floundering, starts to get shrill.

As the action moves from the UK to Palestine, where Charlie is trained in the ways of the “struggle”, doing the training, learning to disassemble rifles and make bombs, it becomes increasingly evident that The Little Drummer Girl does not work as a spy thriller. Who are the good guys? Is it the Palestinians and their struggle to regain their homeland, or the Israelis, who are also struggling – not to be pushed into the sea.

Le Carré is off his Cold War home beat, where his task was twofold: to suggest that a position that was straightforward to most people – we are the good guys and the Soviet Bloc are the bad guys – was a bit more nuanced than that. And to point out that spying isn’t glamorous. It’s not James Bond.

Klaus Kinski
Klaus Kinski as Charlie’s control

But when Le Carré makes similar points here about Middle East politics not being as cut-and-dried as the newspaper headlines and propagandists suggest, he’s likely to elicit the response, “Tell me something I don’t know”. (It does, though, explain how the notoriously cautious BBC felt able to remake this as a TV series in 2018 without fear of being attacked by either side – the show was as opaque as this film version and its star, the brilliant Florence Pugh, also got as stuck as Keaton does.)

There is no place in this story for George Smiley, though manipulative older Israeli spymaster Kurtz (Klaus Kinski) comes very close – and in his claims to be representing a more emollient branch of the Israel spy community, one that favours a two-state solution to the Palestine situation, we’re fairly sure Kurtz is just saying what Charlie wants to hear, but we can’t be sure. It’s the sort of game Smiley would play.

The film was the penultimate directorial effort by George Roy Hill, whose bizarre career went stratospheric with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 and The Sting in 1973 and then fell back to earth and stayed there. He brings a slick professionalism to proceedings, no frills, no grace notes, no idiosyncrasies, which was what he tended to do and got him critical blowback at times – in the age of the auteur director, George Roy Hill didn’t play that game. And thank god for that, here anyway, since the last thing this film needs is someone else adding curlicues.

Other little enjoyments include a few glimpses of early Bill Nighy, as one of Charlie’s fellow thespians cranking it out on stage. It’s all there – the pursed lips, the mournful fluting delivery – all pupating away nicely.

Gather ye rosebuds where ye may – The Little Drummer Girl has scant few to offer.

The Little Drummer Girl – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021