all according to the law: the great silence (1968)


The Italian film industry during the mid-to-late 1960s was cranking out Westerns at a prodigious rate, a trend that started after the box office success of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964.  That movie was a gritty, ecstatically violent remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which was loosely based on Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel Red Harvest), and it made an international star out of relatively unknown actor Clint Eastwood.  Hundreds of so-called spaghetti Westerns flooded the market over the next few years.  Many of them are excellent–Django, The Big Gundown, A Bullet for the General, to name a few–and they rank among the greatest Westerns ever made, especially Leone’s subsequent contributions to the genre–For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West.  But none of them can match the darkness awaiting you in Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 classic, The Great Silence.

“I’m going to shoot every one of these people here,” a bounty hunter named Loco (Klaus Kinski) states near the end of the movie to Pauline (Vonetta McGee), before he does just that.  Pauline’s husband was killed by Loco and she hires a mute bounty hunter, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to avenge his death.  Although Silence is a lethal killer and exudes a sexy coolness that was de rigueur for any antihero worth their leather chaps in those days, he’s sauntered into the wrong movie.  He’s doomed.

Corbucci’s world is dominated by corruption–the Utah town where the story is set is ruled by bounty hunters and venal authorities.  The majority of the townspeople–men like Pauline’s husband–have been branded outlaws because they’ve had to resort to stealing food to survive, which is why so many bounty hunters have swarmed into the area… business is a-boomin’.

Silence is a man of violence.  He makes his living off the blood of others, but he avenges the poor and is anti-authoritarian, another strong plus for any proper gunslinger in the age of rock ‘n’ roll.  John Wayne–who during the same time always represented larger-than-life father figures and men of the establishment–was square.  Duke represented the hardhats and Nixon’s Silent Majority.  He was your dad.

Silence, on the other hand, was who young guys wanted to be and who everyone wanted to be with.  He was lean, sharp, and European.  Trintignant was French and decidedly cool.  Arguably even cooler than Eastwood’s Man with No Name character.

But not even Silence could get out of Corbucci’s movie alive.  Evil is not vanquished.  There’s not even room for an ambiguous finale, a stalemate where Silence and Loco are allowed to go their separate ways, each the hero in their own narratives.  Silence dies, Pauline dies, the townspeople all die, and Loco and his men ride off to destroy the lives of others for another day.  Loco even plucks Silence’s pistol from his cold dead broken hand and keeps it for himself.

It sounds like a movie you’d never want to see unless you were a complete masochist, right?  It’s certainly not for the timid, but The Great Silence is also a movie of frail beauty and melancholy, something that you can’t really say about a lot of spaghetti Westerns.  But it’s not a particularly beautiful looking movie, despite its striking snowbound, mountainous setting.  The typical dusty and dry Almeria locale seen in countless Italian Westerns is gone.  Corbucci filmed in the Dolomites instead, isolating his characters in ice and snow, effectively stripping the movie of duels in the sun and horse chases across cracked earth.  Even Ennio Morricone’s score is plaintive and haunting, removed from his usual operatic majesty.

Then there’s Kinski.  A fixture in spaghetti Westerns, Kinski shines darkly here like never before.  At least, I’ve never seen him in anything that rivals this black-hearted bastard of a character.  It’s simply one of his finest performances, though not one sans humor.  Kinski’s eyes flash with secret wisdom throughout and there’s a moment of modest brilliance when a character shoots off his hat at one point and Kinski flicks back his head, his hair whipping back away from his eyes, as if to show that it was no big thing.  Even under pressure, he was going to remain unscathed.  Fearless.  And that as an actor, no indignity was going to seep into him.  Vonetta McGee and Trintignant are marvelous, as is Frank Wolff (an American character actor who worked plenty in Italian features, usually as a bad guy) who plays the local sheriff, the only decent authority figure in the movie.

The Great Silence has a lot going for it, despite its unapologetic nihilism.  It lacks the stylistic finesse of Leone, but its ruthless butchery of Old West mythology and its critique of unbridled capitalism and authority is spot on.  Perhaps not the kind of movie you want to pop on for a night of escapist entertainment, though it’s certainly satisfying and one of the great spaghetti Westerns.

The video at the top is a little homage I put together.  Another one of my experiments.  Hope you enjoy it.


euro 2008: spanish bombs

But in no way did the gloriously imaginative Spanish side bomb like they have for generations.  This was creative football at its finest.

Congrats to you all, especially to the amazing midfield of Iniesta (my crafty fave), Xavi (another Barca lad), Silva (one of two brilliant Davids who play for Valencia), and Fabregas.  And then there’s Senna, player of the tournament in many ways.

Forgive me for posting football (soccer) related material on this site.  I keep that to my other blog:

But I just couldn’t help it in this instant.  Viva EspanaViva Furia Roja!  The 44 year “curse” has finally come to an end.  You are champions once again… and deservedly so.

may day in malaga

Malaga… I’m still only in Malaga….

There are worse fates, of course, but I still wasn’t supposed to be spending two days in this port city. We left lovely Granada on Wednesday and arrived by bus in Malaga late in the afternoon. The plan was to get into the mountains on Thursday and settle into our new digs…. But the buses don’t run on May Day! I should have known, but my track of time of late has been flexible at best.

Days go on and on… they don’t end…. But suddenly there is a change.

It was early afternoon. Too early for lunch, I was chatting with a friend of mine when I heard music floating up to my open hotel window… and someone shouting through a bullhorn. Was that The Internationale? Oh yes, comrades. May Day was here!

My companion and I fled our comfortable abode and hit the streets. Standing there across from the cathedral, we were bystanders. But not for long. Unable to resist the pull of the march, we joined in and marched through the old town, transforming a disappointing day (I really wanted to get into the country) into a beautiful, memorable one. Malaga… you won my heart.

Workers of the world, unite! Indeed.

memory tombs: spain and me, part one

There are numerous ways in which a person can fall in love with a country. For some it is the culture and traditions that spark the imagination. For others it may be the history, politics, or football team of a particular region that demands devotion from the newly seduced. The exoticism of food, sex, and literature can also coax one into the undertow of romance.

Film has always swayed me the hardest. Somewhere embedded within the images, there is a truth flickering within the persuasive lie. The Italian Spaghetti Westerns probably did more to seduce me to Spain than anything else, especially to the region of Andalucia (where I am currently residing). Bunuel, of course. But it has been the horror film that I’ve been thinking the most about here in Granada. Perhaps that’s because the weather has been so dreadful of late.

Hope you enjoy the following clips. They are from Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971), The Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman (1971), Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), and Rec (2007) respectively.

boris spassky in granada

He no longer resembled the serious, nervous young Russian champ that had stealthily destroyed players with his expert, sometimes crushing middlegame. No longer, I suspect, did he secretly keep the White Queen in his pocket as he had as a child. In post-World War Two Soviet Union, Boris Spassky was trained to use his keen intelligence and stealthy courage to become one of the finest young chess players the country had ever produced, often playing five hours a day and trained by a procession of chess masters. He was a Grandmaster at the age of eighteen and fighting fit for a series of clashes over the next two decades that made him yet another standard-bearer of Soviet might.

Then he met Bobby Fischer.

Spassky and the late great highly controversial American chess superstar, still the only American to win the World Chess Championship, battled one another five times throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, then most notably during the 1972 World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik, Iceland, where they played twenty-one grueling games. The two month long tournament between the reigning champion Spassky and Fischer was billed as the “match of the century” and heightened with surrealism, aggravation, political intrusions by the U.S. and Soviet governments, rumors of mind control weapons being used on both players, and on and on and on. The mild-mannered Spassky and the outlandish, petulant though brilliant Fischer did manage to play chess amidst the carnival, with Spassky eventually resigning in heartbreaking fashion. I say heartbreaking, because although Fischer was without question one of the finest modern practitioners of the game, his persistent melodramatics and expertise at psychic warfare did as much to break Spassky down as did his skills on the board.

The events surrounding thst spectacular match-up are chronicled in Dave Edmonds and John Eidinow’s fabulous book, Bobby Fischer Goes to War, published in 2004. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. We’re talking desert island/favorite read here. It’s that good. Not surprisingly, the subject of Spassky v Fischer is headed for the silver screen as well. There’s not a lot written about the project yet, but it appears that Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) is set to helm it. I always thought P.T. Anderson would be a fantastic director for the job, with his strong visual sense, penchant for naturalism that could swerve into the realm of the absurd or surreal at any moment, and his attraction to brilliant misfits and tragic eccentrics. With Kubrick (who was an avid chess player in his own right) dead, Anderson would be perfect.

Spassky, mentally and physically drained, would continue to play competitive chess (he became the 1973 Soviet Chess Champion), though in later years the game would never possess him as it had pre-1972. Fischer, on the other hand, distanced himself from chess despite a boom in the game in the months after the Reykjavik tournament, especially in the U.S., and did not play a competitive match for the next twenty years until he played a rematch against his old rival Spassky in Yugoslavia. The unsanctioned “Revenge Match of the 20th Century” ended with Fischer beating Spassky again. Spassky returned to France, where he’s been living since the mid-1970s, and Fischer became an outlaw for the rest of his life after defying the U.N. embargo on playing the match and the subsequent U.S. arrest warrant.

Two weeks ago, as part of the Hay Festival Alhambra which lasted from April 3-6 and held at the magnificent Moorish fortress here in Granada, Spain, Spassky made a rare appearance. Playing a group of twenty players or so simultaneously, the great Russian expat jovially (though his White Queen was still shockingly violent at times) greeted the small crowd in attendance and then set to systematically beating all of his opponents. Except for one. That honored gentleman is featured in some of the pictures that I took, seen below. He’s the player in the green horizontal striped sweater having a nervous breakdown. Spassky beat his first opponent at the thirty minute mark. His second about a half-hour later and then the rest after he himself was beaten at the ninety minute mark. Watching a three hour chess exhibition may sound like slow death for some, but it was a superb and strange way to spend my third night in Granada. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

You can read more about Spassky’s appearance here, at my partner in mischief’s blog.