Cox’s Orange Pippins: Spaghetti is a dish best served cold

Fiona was enthused about seeing THE BIG SILENCE, because as it’s a snowy western, she assumed the people would be less orange. The orangeyness of everyone in spaghetti westerns, their pores clogged with tangerine pancake makeup, really bothers her. She really liked this one.

Before that, we had quite a good time with THE PRICE OF POWER, an interesting, unusual and original spag western from 1969 — the first film, as Alex Cox points out, to directly tackle the Kennedy assassination — though there are all those weird foreshadowing films like SUDDENLY and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE — and then there’s Mr. Zapruder’s magnum opus, which really wins first place.

But Tonino (MY NAME IS NOBODY) Valerii’s film, written with Massimo Patrizi and gothic/giallo specialist Ernesto Gastaldi, really goes for it, in the oddest way. In order to make the story of actual president James Garfield’s actual assassination feel a bit more resonant, they jettison all the facts and transport the event to Dallas, represented by standing sets from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Van Johnson is imported to play the doomed prez, and the basic events we can all agree upon — sniper kills POTUS, patsy is arrested and assassinated, shadowy cabal of political/business interests pays the bills — are recycled all’Italiana, with many additional massacres featuring electronically amplified gun blasts (every gunshot has a ricochet PANG! even if there’s nothing around for the bullet to carom off of. And I generally liked the racial politics — there’s much talk of slavery and the slimy businessmen led by Fernando Rey are trying to undo the outcome of the Civil War. I loved the way the trauma of the actual hit-job causes the camera to come off its tripod and Zapruder around, panic-stricken. Valerii also throws in a lot of wacky diopter shots.

What, to me, stopped the film from really coming off, was the role of Giuliano Gemma, not because he’s absurdly handsome and has five hundred teeth, but because he wins, saves the day for democracy, and all is well. Alex Cox observes that “The necessary assumptions of the conspiracy film (almost-universal racism, total corruption of the police, double-dealing by the forces of authority) are already those of the spaghetti western, so there’s no conflict of interest.” But the Italian western mainly follows the required pattern of good guy versus bad guy, good guy wins. It’s just that usually, or in Leone anyhow, the good guy is less good. Even so, it’s impossible to imagine Leone ending a film with Volonte offing Eastwood (though he wanted to start OUATITWEST with all three of his stars from TGTBATUGLY being shot down by his new hero).

There are some stories, however, that don’t benefit from the popular and gratifying heroic triumph ending. Polanski noted that for the audience to care about CHINATOWN’s story of corruption, it shouldn’t end with the social problems being cleared up. They’re still with us, after all — capitalism, corruption and abuse — so suggesting that a lone private eye with a bisected nostril solved them in the 1930s would be dishonest.

This is where THE BIG SILENCE comes in. I’ve resisted Sergio Corbucci after being underwhelmed by the original DJANGO — the mud, the coffin and the sadism were all neat, but it was extremely poorly shot, and how dare anyone compare a poorly-shot film favourably to Leone?

THE BIG SILENCE is also photographically iffy, but at the same time has many splendid wide shots, thanks to the snowy Tyrolean locations. What uglifies Corbucci’s shooting is the messy, out-of-focus, misframed and herky-jerky closeups. Like Tinto Brass, Corbucci seems to position his cameras at random, stage the blocking without regard to what can be seen, and throw the whole mess together in a vaguely cine-verita manner. And one of his operators here is incompetent. What beautifies it is the costumes, actors, settings, and wide shots. And he has Morricone (with Riz Ortolani) providing a unique, wintry, romantic score.

The set-up is stark and simple: outside the aptly-named town of Snow Hill, a raggletaggle band of outlaws is starving, picked off by bounty hunters. A new sheriff (Frank Wolff) has been sent to impose order. A military man, he means well, but is of uncertain competence: on his way to town he’s robbed of his horse by the desperate outlaws, who eat it.

The movie’s sidelining of the “new sheriff in town” is amusing — our main characters are to be Loco (in the original language version, Tigrero), a preening, psychopathic bounty hunter played by Klaus Kinski, and Silence, a mute killer of bounty killers, played by a Mauser-wielding Jean-Louis Trintignant in what’s apparently his favourite role. Silence has no dialogue but he does have a traumatic flashbackstory, as was becoming de rigeur in Leone films.

There’s also Vonetta McGee, later borrowed by Alex Cox for REPO MAN, rather magnificent as a widow who hires Silence, paying him with her body, to kill Loco. And the usual corrupt manager of the general store. Spaghetti westerns are communistic in a low-key way, the business interests are usually the real bad guys.

The body count is high, as we’d expect. The blood is very red. The bad guys are very bad, and they have it mostly their own way. The typical baroque whimsicality of the genre’s violence is in evidence: rather than shooting his opponent, Kinski shoots the ice he’s standing on, dropping him into the freezing water. But, unusually, none of this is funny. The sadism is intense: even our hero has a tendency to shoot men’s thumbs off when they surrender (stops them from unsurrendering). There’s a really intense focus on INJURY TO THE HAND, which goes back to Django but becomes demented here. Paul Schrader attributed this motif to writers’ anxiety — hands are what you write with.

Cox points out that, though the film is terse and devoid of subplots, the author of the English dub, Lewis Ciannelli (son of actor Eduardo Ciannelli), has used the Utah setting to insert some stuff about the outlaws being victims of religious persecution, suggesting they’re Mormons. At least they’re treated more sympathetically than in THE BIG GUNDOWN… up to a point.

Introducing the film on Moviedrome back in the day, Cox remarked, “And the ending is the worst thing ever.” Meaning it as praise, you understand.

The movie’s ending is its most astonishing element. It stands comparison with CHINATOWN, and is even more startling in a way since there are, after all, plenty of noirs with tragic endings (but none quite like the one Polanski imposed on Robert Towne — Towne’s ending was a tragedy that solves the social problem — Polanski’s instead sets it in cement).

Corbucci came up with the story, penning the script with the usual football team of collaborators. His widow, says Cox, “told Katsumi Ishikuma that her husband had the deaths of Che Guevara and Malcolm X in mind.” Che’s murder happened right before the shoot. This gives the film its unusual seriousness, and what makes it more effective than THE PRICE OF POWER is Corbucci upends the genre conventions that would prevent the horror from staying with us.

THE PRICE OF POWER stars Erik the Viking; Dr. Randall ‘Red’ Adams; and Don Lope.

THE BIG SILENCE stars Marcello Clerici; Don Lope de Aguirre; Proximates the Tyrant; Father Pablo Ramirez; Chico; Fregonese the Tyrant; Principe di Verona; and Marlene.

16 Responses to “Cox’s Orange Pippins: Spaghetti is a dish best served cold”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    Italian film historian Roberto Curti has written a book on Tonino Valerii that I have to read so I’ll look up the section on the film. Although I’ve only seen the film once on its theatrical release, I would argue that Gemma does not save the day for democracy. Can we really trust the Warren Vanders CIA guy? I’m beginning to see more and more anticipations of the poliziotteschi films where the system usually mobilzes against the honest insider/outsider (Salerno’s cop in the early 70s poliziotteschi/Nero in DAY OF THE OWL) that mirrors the disillusionment with the Christian Democratic Party”s lone reign in power. The final image of a frustrated Nero in Damiamani’s CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN TO THE PROCURATOR OF THE REPUBLIC speaks volumnes

    On the Mormon aspect in SILENCE, remember the Mormons were responsible for “The Mountain Meadows Massacre” fictionalized as one of the episodes in Jack London’s THE STAR ROVER. Like other persecuted groups they became nasty towards outsiders.

  2. Good point about the survival of the corruption in TPOP… the movie doesn’t quite confirm it, but there’s room for doubt. I still think a totally bleak ending would’ve been stronger.

    Bruce Dern, of Utah, asked his grandpa, “How come none of those Mormons can look me in the eye?”

    “Every one of ’em sumbitches is hiding SOMETHING.”

    I haven’t seen any good politziotteschi films (and I forget which bad one I saw), that’s got to be the next genre on the list.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    DC, I’ve been looking at several poliziotteschi films at present. They range like any genre from the highly realized (CONFESSIONS OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION, DAY OF THE OWL (Damiani, Volonte, Josephson) to the really bad. Ricardo Curti’s ITALIAN CRIME FILMOGRAPHY is a very valuable guide.
    Also, I’ve looked up chapter 5 in Roberto’s 2016 book on Valerii and here is what he says about the ending (as well as one good footnote slamming Cox on inaccuracy). …THE PRICE OF POWER ends with the triumph of the raison d’Etat, personified by the head of the President’s security, McDonald – who, during the film, does not hesitate to pose as if he is cahoots with the conspirators…and plays a double-cross in order to avoid having compromising documents end up in the wrong hands and causing a scandal that would destroy the new President, whose corrupt past cannot interfere with the country’s greater good. Bill Walker’s utopian idealism crashes against this raison d’Etat and his thirst for justice is destined to remain unfulfilled.” (53)

    Finally, does not Vanders resemble a young version of Gerald Ford who served on the Warren Commission to produce “evidence” nobody in the USA seriously believes in today?

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I wouldn’t say “nobody in the US believes today”, a number of people do accept that Oswald did in fact act alone and that the JFK conspiracy theory is based more on airy assumptions of wish fulfillments than hard facts either way. Noam Chomsky has always accepted the Warren Commission after all, as have others on the left. Like JFK supposedly being a sufficient threat to be taken out seems glaringly at odds with all the facts of his career, personal and public, leading up to the assassination.

    Conspiracy theory historically has always been a right-wing thing, left-wing versions are rare, though among them JFK is at the top.

  5. I was kind of kidding there… but there are reasonably well documented accounts of JFK determining to break up the CIA, withdraw from Viet Nam, and so forth… though they might just have been things he said to charm his listeners.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    Quite a number of conspiracy books do cite hard facts. Here is one of them that takes a new line. This one is written by a journalist with respect for facts.

    Also, I would not categorize Mark Lane’s early RUSH TO JUDGMENT as based more on airy assumptions of wish fulfillments rather than hard facts either way”. If you accept the official “magic bullet” theory then you’re crazy. Also, the last poll revealed that people regarded it as a conspiracy and di not accept the manufactured lone gunman theory.Time to do some detailed research with citations to prove your point.

  7. I find the magic bullet easier to buy (crazy stuff happens) than the “assassin” being assassinated, one lone nut killed by another.

    McBride invesitigates! Another preposterously expensive book recommendation, Prof. Williams, but I’m very much drawn to it!

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    Unfortunately, most books now are expensive. McBride has been researching the assassination for decades and this represents his one unique approach.

    Now surely, the one “lone nut” or patsy (better term) would have to be assassinated by “Murder Incorporated”/the CIA) to silence him. What about all the “witnesses” who died under mysterious circumstances within a year or so of the assassination? Oliver Stone suggests Colonel Edward G. Lansdale as being responsible but it is more likely Allan Dulles, fired form the CIA, after tthe disastrous Bay of Pigs

  9. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    As Thomas Pynchon said, “If there is something religious if you will, about paranoia. There’s also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a situation most people can’t bear for too long.” The JFK conspiracy presumes that JFK was the protagonist of reality, and that other equally complex people with their internal lives of neuroses could not possibly intersect and clash with his. Because in a story that kind of stuff is overkill but there’s no reason to presume that life operates as a story and that there’s any protagonist to reality.

    JFK was POTUS and before that he was a rich kid with a military career and a tenure in senate and in private he was a skirt chaser (and considering the testimony by some secretaries he had an affair with, likely a dodger of a proto-#MeToo harassment lawsuit if we’re being real) so naturally his life is going to be connected to a larger net of people than the average person. So the degree of coincidences with JFK is far more than common than a normal person. So that explains the weird anomalies around him.

    Anyway, I’ve got no loyalty to the Warren Commission (though I do think SCOTUS Earl Warren did a great deal more good on the Chief Justice chair than JFK ever did, but I digress) just as I’ve got no loyalty to JFK. I just haven’t seen enough evidence for the JFK conspiracy theory, and I think the explanation for JFK’s death is the ease by which Oswald got a gun from the mail, and that his death is down to America’s gun laws. The story of Oswald this white would-be Marxist who defected to the Soviet Union then defected back, makes way more sense as a narrative about the endless number of second chances available to white Americans.

  10. The deaths of all the witnesses always seemed a bit like “the mummy’s curse” — perhaps because I haven’t really studied it. Could be coincidence, unless the individual circumstances are truly suspicious and the witnesses were genuinely dangerous. So that’s something I should read up on.

    I have no problem swallowing a lone nut offing the prez — as David E has pointed out, it was an easy shot from the book depot. But another lone nut shooting the first is a bizarre coincidence and seems very convenient for anyone interested in suppressing investigation.

    Joseph McBride’s book apparently finds an insane number of connections between the death of Officer Tippit and Jack Ruby, who chronologically hadn’t entered the narrative at the time of Tippit’s death, so THAT’s very interesting. Ruby seems to have known everyone at the crime scene. This isn’t a case of JFK being connected to many many people, but two seemingly unconnected figures in the case.

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    DC. Good. A lot of reading needs to be done on this subject and it is easy to separate the well-documented books from the fantasy versions. I don’t know if you have ever visited the Book Depository but I have and can inform you that Oswald needed to be a much better marksman (which documents prove he was not) with a better weapon to have succeeded. Also I saw a slogan painted on the Grassy Knoll stating, “If you have just been to the Book Depository and not also stood by the Grassy Knoll then you are ignoring the facts”. Or words to that effect.

    Certain witnesses (some of whom mysteriously expired later) saw someone there that day and heard shots coming from that direction. Allan Dulles was one of the key figures behind OPERATION PAPERCLIP that allowed Nazis, with the exception of high profile figures such as Heinrich escape from punishment. (Dulles has a meeting with one of Himmler’s aides in Schwitzerland in 1943). His brother John Foster wanted peace with the Nazis. See I.F. Stone on THE KOREAN WAR , Tom Bower, THE PAPERCLIP CONSPIRACY: THE HUNT FOR THE NAZI SCIENTISTS (1987) and other works

    Also, there is something suspicious about the fact that Oswald was allowed back into the USA after defecting and this has nothing to do with today’s obsessional critical race theory that has nothing to do with the JFK assassination. Just leave that kind of stupidity to Nikole Hannah-Jones! I also find the references to Me Too and gun control laws totally irrelevant and a troll-type distraction from the main picture here. Could it not have been that JFK realized the enormity of the Office after narrowly averting WW3 with the Cuban Missile Crisis and became a threat to the Pentagon warmongers such as Curtis LeMay and others who wanted military escalation? LBJ gave them that and Biden has provoked Russia into what may end up as WW3. Now that’s a relevant parallel for you.Perhaps JFK grew into the job like Charles Durning’s President in Aldrich’s TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING and paid the price.

  12. There are accounts of things JFK was saying before his death that absolutely support the reading of him as a newly-inspired character determined to make major positive changes.

  13. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    DC: Or maybe it was insincere warblings without substance of the kind politicians everywhere say multiple times. Eisenhower warned about the Military-Industrial Complex on the way out but he was the guy who greenlit ARPA/DARPA. JFK heightened America’s involvement in Vietnam, he became a candidate on a moderate Cold War liberal platform, his family was friends with Joseph McCarthy and JFK absented himself from the censure vote against McCarthy on account of family loyalty to McCarthy (and also personal cowardice). JFK passed the Cuban Embargo and escalated the Cuban Missile Crisis to WW3.

    Tony. I visited Dealey Plaza and the Book Depository myself and there’s a clear line of sight from the window to the X on the road marking the limousine entry. The so-called “magic bullet” thing has been conclusively debunked based on a misunderstanding of the Governor’s seating position ahead of Kennedy. I mean when Oliver Stone made JFK and did that scene showing the guy using the same rifle to prove that Oswald couldn’t have made those shots, the actual scene timed did prove the guy made those shots in that timeframe, and the smoke on the grassy knoll that people saw didn’t emanate from the rifles people believed, so Stone had to use a smoke machine. Let’s not get into Stone’s homophobic slander of Clay Shaw, which even doubters of the Warren Commission at the time denounced during Garrison’s trial.

    JFK was friends with McCarthy so if we are going to go guilt-by-association, ie Dulles’ scummy past implying his responsibility for the assassination, shouldn’t that disqualify him too? As for whether JFK realized the enormity of the office? Why though? What evidence is there that JFK alone, of all the rich kids elected to high office somehow realized the enormity that previously didn’t arise to earlier officeholders. Why does JFK get to be the protagonist of reality?

    And you know considering that LBJ passed the Great Society and Civil Rights Movement when in office, if new evidence turns out that he did greenlight the whacking of JFK to get the power to do that…should we consider the death of JFK such a bad thing then? Where’s the evidence that any of that would happen under JFK’s watch? LBJ inherited Vietnam from Kennedy and was left holding the bag when it fell apart.

  14. Well, LBJ escalated Vietnam MASSIVELY. So IF (I know, a big if, but he said it) JFK was going to withdraw, he could have become a much more positive leader, given his pretty good track record on civil rights and again, his stated intentions. But I don’t think we can really be sure what he might have been about to do: so if that’s uncertain, the (highly suspicious) facts of the case must be what we consider.

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    SR. Evidence does exist that JFK was considering withdrawing troops from Viet Nam, a process reversed when LBJ took power.

    Also, are you seriously implying that if LBJ greenlighted the assassination then his Great Society legislation excused it? This is very sick reasoning on your part as well as the contradiction that Nixon did more for Civil Rights when he was in office. The Great Society failed because money went into the Viet Nam War. Today, Covid relief, huge gas increases assistance towards heating in winter and probably starvation for millions of Americans take second place to sending missiles to Ukraine and aiding the SS inspired Azov Batallion. In both cases, we see the disastrous results of US “regime change”. As DC says, the “facts of the case must be what we consider” and there is a lot of documentation out there to read.

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