Monday, August 6, 2012

Reeling Backward: "My Name is Nobody" (1973)

By 1973, spaghetti Westerns had descended into comedy, and sometimes even self-parody. There was always an element of laughs and leers in the kitschy Italian/American fusion, but by the time "My Name is Nobody" rolled around, the clown princes with six-shooters were riding tall in the saddle.

The plot of this comedy Western, produced and partially directed by Sergio Leone, is quite spare. An aging gunman, Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda), wants to make one last big score before hanging up his spurs and retiring to Europe. Sullivan (Jean Martin), the front man for a failed gold mine, has a history with Beauregard and is looking to rub him out with the help of his partners, the 150-man-strong Wild Bunch, who launder their stolen gold through him.

(As near as I can figure, all the Wild Bunch -- an obvious nod to Sam Peckinpah, who also has his name on a tombstone -- do nothing but ride around en masse with dynamite in their gaudy studded saddlebags, which eventually proves their undoing.)

The X factor in all this is Nobody, as he dubs himself, a goofy young admirer of Beauregard who wants to take his place -- but only after seeing his hero go out in a blaze of glory. Terence Hill, an Italian who adopted an American-sounding name as a publicity stunt, plays Nobody.

Hill has an offbeat but undeniable screen presence. With his perfect bone structure, lagoon-blue eyes and cleft chin, he's almost too pretty to convincingly play a Western protagonist. But he sells the idea of a roving prankster, who's honed his own skills with a revolver (and other forms of combat) to a surpassing edge. He's like a reverse Don Quixote, whose mission is just while his methods are comical ... but deadly.

The "Nobody" moniker is employed for some pretty obvious jokes -- the most notable being for Beauregard's epitaph, after they stage a fake duel in which the old gunslinger is "killed" so he can slip off for his quiet retirement, his reputation assured. "Nobody was faster on the draw," it reads.

Director Tonino Valerii was a Leone protege, an assistant director who soon stepped behind the camera himself. Leone actually directed the opening and closing gunfights himself, according to legend.

It's an interesting and entertaining film, if somewhat baffling. The motivations of Nobody are never really clear. He just sort of sidles around, acting innocent and making strange non sequitur comments, in almost a Buster Keaton-esque fashion. Then it comes time to demonstrate his awesome speed and accuracy.

The stunts and gags used in the movie's many fights are as impressive as they are impossible. For instance, that Nobody could down several large glasses of whiskey, flip the empty mugs over his shoulder and shoot them before they hit the ground. (What would that blood-alcohol level be? Like 3.0?) Or that he can reach into an opposing gunfighter's holsters, pull out his weapons and slap them in the head with them before the man can reach them himself.

Beauregard displays similar skills, despite the suggestion that his vision is failing. (He wears glasses in several scenes, and one shot of Nobody from his viewpoint is deliberately blurry.) At one point, Beauregard shoots Nobody's hat of his head four times in a row -- each time, passing through the exact same hole. I can't imagine what sort of robotic-type calculations would be necessary to make a bullet pass through the exact same millimeters of a hat atop the head of a moving man at about 50 feet. But if one actually could do that, then what makes the hat fly off?

The showdown with the Wild Bunch carries no narrative or emotional weight, since it happens for no reason at all. Beauregard has no beef with the Bunch, other than their association with Sullivan. But Beauregard chooses to take a payoff in gold dust rather than risk raising the ire of the Bunch. Only Nobody's misplaced hero worship, plus the sheer challenge of one man taking on 150, convinces Beauregard to try. Of course, all he has to do is shoot those bags of dynamite to make the whole gang -- or at least a goodly percentage of them -- go kablooey.

(Also, since no one is around except Nobody, Beauregard and the Wild Bunch, who exactly is it that's going to relate this tale for the history books? One doubts the gang would freely share the story of how they were defeated by one near-sighted old man. And Nobody's grasp on coherent facts is somewhat in doubt.)

"My Name is Nobody" is notable for being one of those manly movies in which no significant female characters exist. A woman cook gives Nobody a skillet of beans and bacon, but other than that no female has any lines of dialogue, or are even glimpsed until that final showdown in the street.

The last thing I'd like to talk about for this film is the musical score by Ennio Morricone, a longtime Leone collaborator and one of my personal favorites. It's a bouncy, comic theme with his usual mix of orchestral instruments and non-traditional noisemakers -- including what sounds like drops of water run through a synthesizer. He also borrows strains from Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" for the Wild Bunch sequences, with the notes bent and flattened to make it a mocking tribute.

It's silly, touching and exciting simultaneously -- much like the film it serves to enhance.

3 stars out of four

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