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Monday, May 25, 2015

Recent Watches: My Name is Nobody (1974)

From 1964 until sometimes in the mid-seventies, the spaghetti western dominated Italian cinema. During that decade, the genre went through some interesting mutations. As the cinematic trend started to peter out, the westerns became more farcical. The movie that started this trend was “They Call Me Trinity,” a goofy take on the western starring Terence Hill. That movie would make Hill an immediate star and he would headline plenty of similar films, many of them buddy flicks with Bud Spencer. Just as Sergio Leone put his stamp on the Zapata western subgenre, he also had to have his say about the comedy-western. “My Name is Nobody,” which paired Hill with Leone’s “Once Upon in the West” star Henry Fonda, was not truly made by the Italian master. He came up with the concept and contributed some uncredited direction. Yet the movie, in its own silly way, is a reaction to the director’s own film, the ones that launched the genre in the first place.

Jack Beauregard is a legend of the Wild West, a gun fighter that has made himself a name with his lightening-fast trigger finger. His reputation precedes him and many newcomers want to test themselves against the master. While seeking the man responsible for his friend’s death, Beauregard comes upon an eccentric gunslinger of equal quickness that goes by Nobody. Slowly, Beauregard and Nobody take a liking to each other. The two’s adventure puts them in the path of the Wild Bunch, a hundred strong league of riders coming their way.

One of the main joys of "My Name is Nobody" is the contrasting personae of Henry Fonda and Terence Hill. Fonda is an iconic, classical hero of the western genre. He carries that weight to the role of Beauregard, a similarly legendary figure. He’s serious but not grim, good-hearted though silent and strong. Hill, meanwhile, wears a goofy grin throughout the entire film. He is continuously good-natured, always laid-back and casual. He thinks nothing of danger and treats the entire idea of shoot-outs as a game. Fonda’s serious demeanor and Hill’s goofball charm provide plenty of entertainment. Fonda is antagonistic towards Nobody at first, shooting holes in his hat. Yet Hill always has complete respect for Beauregard, admiring the man. The contrast in attitudes is the most entertaining aspect of “My Name is Nobody.”

Well, one of the most entertaining aspects of “My Name is Nobody.” The film is a full-blown farce. Its comedy is loud, fast-paced, and very silly. An early scene has Hill casually disposing of a ticking bomb. When entering a town that’s having a carnival, he’s confronted by a man on stilts. After shooting the stilts apart, the man turns out to be a squeaky-voiced midget. Nobody tends to defend himself with sped-up slapstick comedy. He slaps attackers away, grabbing their pistols out of their holsters. Later on, a rotating mannequin in the middle of the town is similarly used to fend off some baddies. The film speeds up during these moments, turning “My Name is Nobody” into a live action cartoon. Hill’s toothy grin keeps it silly and fun. His way with absurd dialogue and rambling, nonsensical metaphors are also worth a laugh or two.

Being so focused on humor, “My Name is Nobody” does not feature a lot of fancy shoot-outs. The movie makes the action that it has count though. A stand-off between Beauregard and Nobody explodes into the town, the two gunning down or defeating a horde of attackers. The final act of the film features a huge set-piece. Beauregard faces off against the Wild Bunch, a hundred riders crossing the desert. With his pin-point accurate firing, he explodes bombs on the rider’s horses, tossing the bad guys to their deaths. It’s an extended, exciting sequence that goes on nicely. It would come off as too much in a straight-laced western but in a comedy like this, the over-the-top action adds pleasantly to the material.

Tonino Valerii actually directed the film but Sergio Leone’s influence is obvious. There’s a few lingering close-up on actor’s face or wide-screen shots of men riding the desert. Ennio Morricone’s score quotes his music from “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Morricone’s main score is clownish, silly, but obviously his work. However, the main influence Leone had on the film is its themes. Despite the light-hearted material, “My Name is Nobody” still concerns the end of the west. Fonda’s Beauregard is a symbol of the old west, the time of shoot-outs and white hat heroes. Hill’s Nobody represents the future, a whimsical hero for a changing world. In the final minutes, the two create a scheme to allow Fonda to retire gracefully. His voice-over explicitly high-lights the movie’s theme, of the west evolving into a bigger, crowded, safer place. (In addition to providing a relatively valid explanation for one of Nobody's earlier, rambling anecdotes.) For bonus points, the movie references Sam Peckinpah, both by name and by calling the villains the Wild Bunch.

“My Name is Nobody” was another hit for rising star Terence Hill. The movie was popular enough to even receive a sort-of sequel, called “A Genius, Two Friends and an Idiot.” Leone did some uncredited work on that one too. The two Nobody films would be the last westerns Sergio worked on, near the end of the genre’s life-span. A sunny, easy-to-watch comedy that leaves the viewer with a smile, “My Name is Nobody” is an easy recommendation for viewers looking for a different type of spaghetti westerns. [7/10]

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