Bounty hunter Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is riding through the snowy mountains of Utah when he becomes aware of an ambush lying in wait for him up ahead. He allows his horse to draw closer to the would-be assassins then suddenly whips out his distinctive pistol and shoots them dead; one man survives and begs for mercy, but the only mercy the crackshot Silence shows is to shoot off his thumbs to prevent him killing anyone else. The men lying in wait were bounty hunters themselves, preying on the peaceful citizens branded outlaws hiding out in the mountains around the town of Snow Hill to take advantage of the not-yet-arranged pardon that is supposed to have been set in motion. The leader of the bounty killers is Loco (Klaus Kinski) and he will soon be meeting Silence when they find themselves on opposite sides...
If there was ever a film to settle a chill in your bones, it would be The Great Silence, also known as The Big Silence and originally Il Grand Silenzio, which was created by Django director Sergio Corbucci with help in the scripting from, among others, his fellow director brother Bruno Corbucci. It is an unusual Spaghetti Western in that it doesn't take place on some sun baked plains, but an entirely snowbound landscape which accurately reflects the drama's bleak and icy quality. Legend has it that Trintignant didn't want to learn any lines for the role, so his character never speaks a word, a flashback showing him having his vocal chords cut as a child by the unscrupulous sheriff who murdered his parents (we never see the act, but we can imply what has happened when we see the scar on the adult Silence's neck).
A widow of one of Loco's victims, Pauline (a doe-eyed Vonetta McGee in her debut, according to the opening credits), wants revenge on her husband's killer and hires Silence to do it. She says Silence is so called because of the silence of death that follows him, but I'd say it's probably more to do with the fact that he doesn't say anything; still, it builds up the doomladen atmosphere. Which is more than Trintignant does, to be honest, as he remains pretty two-dimensional throughout - the strong and silent type is all very well, and he has a novel gimmick, but the cold seems to have frozen the charisma out of him. Luckily, elsewhere the other actors make up for it with Kinski clearly relishing playing a despicable bad guy who doesn't get his comeuppance and the equally excellent Frank Wolff as the friendly sheriff providing a measure of lightness that naturally doesn't last.
We see all three of them sharing the stagecoach into town near the start, with Loco transporting a dead body he hopes to make money on in the luggage rack, and ordering the driver to stop so he can pick up other bodies he has buried in the snow to keep them fresh. He doesn't get his hands on Pauline's husband as she swiftly inters the body, but aims to be paid all the same, but will his greed be his undoing? Meanwhile Silence and Pauline's relationship grows closer and they predictably end up as lovers - will their romance survive the approaching tide of violence? The locations feel so isolated that there's a genuine sense of lawlessness encroaching on the good guys, with the way the storyline plays out utterly unforgiving. Spaghetti Westerns weren't exactly known for their cheerful demeanours, but in The Great Silence the finale is nothing less than grim, with the supposed hero revealed to be sorely inadequate; it's an ending which stays with you long after the film is over. Superb music by Ennio Morricone.