Home Video Hovel: My Name Is Nobody, by Dayne Linford
Considering the literally hundreds of spaghetti westerns made during the genre’s heyday, it’s rather shocking to reflect that it barely lasted a decade before the Western as a whole settled into a state of more permanent decline. Partially, this was due to the sheer volume of European westerns, released like the second markers on a clock, one after the other after the other, until the genre was simply too bloated to be taken seriously anymore. As always with these trends, the first mark of death was parody, being the release of the Terence Hill vehicle They Call Me Trinity, which was an instant success, soon spawning yet another wave of spaghetti westerns, this time mostly comedies, as opposed to the more serious fare inspired by Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and American westerns. So it was, seeing the success of Trinity, that Leone and his team decided to get ahead of the coming trend before it fully articulated itself, parodying their own films as only they could.
As was becoming his habit around this time, Leone chose to produce the film that would eventually become My Name is Nobody, leaving the direction to his friend, collaborator and fellow filmmaker, Tonino Valerii. Nobody stands out among the westerns of this period as a transitional piece for the genre, straddling the lines between the old classic Westerns of John Ford’s time, Leone’s own style of Western, and this new parody style. As such, the film revolves around the developing relationship between two leads – one the newly famous Terence Hill, adapting a role very similar to his work in Trinity, and the other Henry Fonda, in his last western, each standing for the Old and the New West, as well as for Old and New Cinema in the wake of game changers like Sergio Leone and Jean-Luc Godard.
Hill plays the titular Nobody, a long running joke along the lines of, “Nobody’s faster than him!” A playful soul, Nobody grew up idolizing Jack Beauregard, played by Fonda, who, now an old man, simply wants to leave America and live in peace. However, Nobody’s decided that Jack has to go out in style, and so begins to arrange a final, climactic showdown to perfectly cap Beauregard’s long career – a shootout between him, alone, and the Wild Bunch, a roving band of 150 horse-riding gunslingers.
This movie really is pure magic, a funny combination of the plot and character machinations of Leone’s more signature work, with the humor and absurdity with which Terence Hill was building a career. The twin stars of Hill and Fonda, as well as the melding of the overtly comedic and Leone’s operatic style, makes Nobody a film of juxtapositions, a film essentially about change. Set in 1899, it, like most great westerns, is a film about the dying of the West, and, made in 1973, it’s even more overtly a film about the death of one of the great film genres. Nobody stands as a true post-modern film, interrogating the experience of watching a movie very directly, going so far as having Nobody set himself up as an audience to Beauregard’s final days, but a conscious, equally watched audience member – as he says, “I like folks to see me.” What is the role of the audience in both the life and the death of these films? How complicit are they in the action taking place? What does it mean to watch these things?
Unlike other postmodern films, however, Nobody celebrates the act of watching, instead of condemning the audience for watching the movies the filmmaker himself makes. Leone, Fonda, Hill, and Valerii all loved film and the film-watching experience. For this film, the act of watching is not an act of sadism or voyeurism, it’s an act of inspiration, to achieve greatness unimagined previously. The metaphor is made concrete, if a little obvious – only through the encouragement, machinations and viewership of Nobody can Beauregard take his rightful place in the history books, a moment Valerii again makes concrete, freeze framing the scene like photography and then pulling back to show the photographs, which no one but the film camera is there to take, literally set in history books.
My Name is Nobody is not hard-hitting, difficult cinema, but it doesn’t need to be – it’s a comedy with a slight edge but mostly full of nostalgia and questions about the future of cinema as the audience is asked to take a more conscious hand in the act of viewing itself. Made directly in the middle of a massive sea change in world cinema, Nobody is a love letter to the Old West, Westerns, to cinema, and to the audience themselves, a celebration of an art form that was currently achieving its apogee of cultural importance, penetration, and expression.
RLJ’s recent release is the first Blu-ray edition of the film, and marketed as its 40th Anniversary. The movie looks excellent, sharp and clear consistently, without the hopefully-dying practice of rendering the film too much to eliminate lines or dust, therefore making everything look plastic. As a relatively obscure film, I suppose we should be grateful just to have it, but the lack of any special features is disappointing. Oh, well, it’s still an excellent film and I’m very happy to add it to my collection.