Sergio Leone didn’t singlehandedly create the spaghetti Western, but it’s impossible to imagine it taking the shape it did without his 1964 film A Fistful Of Dollars, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo that re-created the American Western as a stylish, operatic action spectacle. Yet a strong streak of respect always ran alongside a streak of irreverence in Leone’s films, which engaged in their own kind of mythmaking as they imagined the West as a vast, dirty, violent crucible for the American spirit. However imitated, Leone offered a singular vision that grew darker with each successive Western he made, a cycle that culminated in the politically charged Duck You Sucker in 1971.
Sort of. A funny thing happened to the spaghetti Western after Leone got the ball rolling: Others picked it up and took it places Leone never imagined. Some of Leone’s acolytes and imitators emphasized his films’ humor, others ratcheted up the violence, in the process creating whole subgenres and mini movements. With Duck, You Sucker, Leone even joined one of them, the Zapata Western, by using the background of the Mexican Revolution to reflect the political upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s. And with My Name Is Nobody—for which he originated the story and served as uncredited executive producer, and in some scenes, director—he joined another, contributing a film to the wave of comedic spaghetti Westerns that had started to dominate the genre, signaling its imminent demise.
By 1973, parodies and piss-takes of spaghetti Westerns outnumbered proper entries. The subgenre was ushered in in part by the lighthearted 1970 film My Name Is Trinity, starring actor Terence Hill and his frequent comedy team co-star Bud Spencer. The Italian-born Hill was a big enough star at the time to get billing alongside Henry Fonda in 1973’s My Name Is Nobody, which casts Hill as a man known only as “Nobody,” an unkempt-seeming simpleton whose hidden talents include a remarkable ability with a gun and a talent for concocting and seeing through master plans. Specifically, he wants to see his childhood idol, the aging gunfighter Jack Beauregard (Fonda), go out in style by taking on a gang of 150 outlaws known as The Wild Bunch. Beauregard has other plans, but can’t seem to escape from his disciple, who dogs him at every turn and alternately pushes him into and bails him out of trouble.
On that skeletal plot hangs an excuse for a series of sometimes-humorous, sometimes-tense action setpieces, starting with a nearly wordless opening scene in which Beauregard attempts to get a shave, only to discover his would-be barber and some lurking sidekicks are gunmen out to make a name for themselves by killing him. Fonda’s look suggests a lack of surprise at the ambush, and he takes a businesslike approach to dispatching them, but there’s also a sense of exhaustion beneath it all.
The opening plays like a Leone film, and Leone later admitted to directing it and a few other scenes himself. But the film as a whole seems more like the work of a talented Leone student with a flair for physical comedy, which credited director Tonino Valerii was. In many scenes, Hill’s Nobody—whose boyish enthusiasm stands in contrast to Beauregard’s weariness, and masks his canniness with navigating the West—outwits his foes not through violence, but through slapstick humiliation, including a memorable trip through a carnival haunted house.
While it all feels like a step down from the grandeur of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, that’s part of the point, and part of the charm. While the film doesn’t fully seem like a Howard Hawks-standing-over-the-shoulders-of-Christian Nyby act of ventriloquism, Leone’s sensibility remains very much a presence in the film. Though in essence a well-executed goof, it’s pervaded by a sense that Leone’s generation might have mined the West for all they could, and it might be time to move on. Beauregard’s closing monologue essentially says as much. And My Name Is Nobody was also Fonda’s last Western, which just feels like another meta, end-of-an-era touch in a film littered with them. These range from subtle (it’s set in 1899, and as the action moves eastward, it starts to look less and less like the 19th century) to the obvious (the name of Fonda’s Wild Bunch opponents, or the graveyard that’s home to a man named “Sam Peckinpah”). As a film, it’s ramshackle, with none of the narrative drive of Leone’s best work. But it’s held together by Fonda and Hill’s terrific odd-couple teaming, remarkable action scenes, and one of Ennio Morricone’s best, strangest scores. The spaghetti Western went places Leone likely never foresaw, but it never left him behind, and he left it having the last laugh.
A fistful of nothin’. But it’s worth noting the film’s picture quality, which is a pretty good transfer of an decidedly imperfect print, with visible specks and scratches. Nothing that distracting, but if anyone’s looking for a movie to restore, this one could use some work.