08 September 2011

SERGIO LEONE: SCENES FROM MY NAME IS NOBODY (1973) AND A GENIUS, TWO PARTNERS, AND A DUPE (1975)

Following the 1971 release of Duck, You Sucker, Sergio Leone became fixated on the idea of adapting Harry Grey's mobster novel The Hoods into an epic movie about organised crime in the United States, a dream that finally emerged after 13 long years as Once Upon a Time in America. The challenges of getting that project off the ground consumed his career, but he managed to keep himself occupied during that long interregnum by turning himself into a producer and idea man. He also directed a small number of scenes for the first two films of his career as a producer, and it is to these that we shall now briefly turn.

By the middle of the 1970s, the spaghetti Western had largely flared out, as fads are wont to do; the poliziotteschi (cop movies), and gialli (violent murder-mysteries) had largely replaced what had till then been the dominant mode of Italian genre filmmaking, alongside the Eurospy movies. As is also wont to happen, the last phase of this genre's life found it devouring and travestying itself, in a string of comic Westerns typified by They Call Me Trinity, which codified the new rules much as Sergio Leone's own A Fistful of Dollars had done for the "pure" spaghetti Westerns.

Having by this point completely bought into his own legend as the Father of the Italian Western - and I can't say he didn't deserve it - Leone was less than pleased at the bastardisation of the genre that he'd popularised, and dedicated himself to the creation of his own version of a comic Western, one that was more serious and refined than the clowning about prevalent in the copycats. But he was really for serious this time not interested in directing any more Westerns, and officially contributed only the "idea" of My Name Is Nobody, handing off directing duties to his protégé Tonino Valerii and having his former collaborator Fulvio Morsella and Western specialist Ernesto Gastaldi whip up the screenplay. Unofficially, Leone produced the film as well, and directed a handful of scenes, and we can presume from the evidence of the movie that he wasn't above instructing Valerii as to the best way to direct the rest of it.

My Name Is Nobody is a confounding movie, largely successful with some gaping flaws, and deeply experimental in a way that verges on upsetting: even Duck, You Sucker feels more classical in every inch of its being. It's not hard to see the movie as Leone's attempt to kill off the Western once and for all: it collides the classical Hollywood Western, in the form of Henry Fonda, with the Italian comic Western, in the form of Terence Hill (who was to the form as Steve Reeves was to the peplum, having played Trinity in the film that got it all started), and colliding the both of these with the exaggerated style and operatic violence of the spaghetti Westerns of Leone's career. Add in the few glances at the neo-Westerns of America at the time - there's a particular crude swipe at Sam Peckinpah, possibly as payback for that man's disinterest in directing Duck, You Sucker - and My Name Is Nobody reveals itself as, effectively, Leone's attempt to make a Definitive Statement on All Things Western.

Why he then elected not to direct is something I can't say, unless it's simply that he was so tired of working in the same idiom over and over again that he simply couldn't be bothered. It is the case, however, that the scenes he is widely believed to have helmed himself are characteristic, if not tremendously imaginative. Just about everybody agrees he's responsible, primarily or solely, for the opening sequence, a send-up of the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West so bone-dry it hardly qualifies as parody, and a climactic face-off between Fonda's Jack Beauregard and a screaming wall of 150 bandits - the Wild Bunch, which isn't even the bitch swipe at Peckinpah I had in mind - that uses the widescreen frame with the magisterial grace of the very best of Leone - for me, it's easily the best part of the film, followed by a haunting graveyard scene that is also frequently assumed to be the work of Leone. On the other hand, Leone is sometimes credited with the so-called "urinal scene", which I'd prefer not to describe: it is put together with undeniable skill, but it's skill in service of a criminally unfunny piss joke.

That, right there, is what stops My Name Is Nobody from working right: the humor. I understand it was generic convention, and parts of it even work: Ennio Morricone's score, parodying his own soaring motifs and screeching melodies, is at times completely hilarious (his warped introduction of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" is the funniest gag in the movie), and Terence Hill's wide, boyish face is well-suited to comic exaggeration, though I suspect, not having seen either of the Trinity films nor indeed any other comic spaghetti Western prior to this, that I'd get sick of his mugging sooner rather than later.

Mainly, though, the film is caught up in far too much idiot slapstick that calls to mind bad kung fu movies of the same era (though bad kung fu, I have found, is very often more enjoyable even than good kung fu, and perhaps it's not fair of me to disparage its name), and the most tepid sort of scatological humor. A scene with Hill playing a shooting game in a bar features some of the most aggravating "funny drunk" business I have seen in ages (Leone at one point claimed to have directed this scene, and if so, between this and the urinal bit, we might have to conclude that he didn't know jack shit about comedy, not that this is a surprise). And so on, et cetera. It jars horribly with the "serious" parts of the movie, regardless of who directed them - Valerii's attempts to ape Leone don't work very well, but when he's following his own muse the result is a loose, comfortable character-driven film about an unnamed young buck gunslinger hero-worshipping a tired old warrior who just wants the fading West to hurry up and die so he can get some rest. The more laid-back Valerii moments contrast fascinatingly with the self-consciously "big" Leone moments, and if My Name Is Nobody feels at times to be at war with itself, the mess that results is captivating - hardly a definitive statement on the Western or anything else, though as a commentary and deconstruction of the Sergio Leone brand name, it certainly deserves to be better-known than has been the case.


* * * * *

Like most Terence Hill vehicles in the early to mid '70s, My Name Is Nobody made a huge amount of money, leading Sergio Leone to come up with the idea for another Hill vehicle, A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe, which while not technically a sequel was advertised to encourage confusion in that direction. Once again, Leone even directed the opening scene of the movie while handing the rest off to Damiano Damiani, director of the important 1966 Western A Bullet for the General. Unlike My Name Is Nobody, however, Leone did not apparently view this project as anything but a cash grab, and while debates spring up in spaghetti Western fandom about where exactly the authorship of the earlier film lies, it seems quite clear that his contributions to this one were minimal.

Once again, the film is a broad, slapsticky comedy, and once again, Leone's contribution is a serious, intense scene that promises a gnarled web of intrigue and corruption: we learn of a sum of $300,000 and a shady gold mine and in the violent climax of this, a poor patsy is assassinated to keep his mouth shut - the shot of a volley of arrows being released in perfect unison is far and away the most indelible image in the feature, and all the proof we need that Leone, even when he wasn't trying very hard, had a natural instinct for what to do with the camera. Otherwise, though, the scene is awfully simple, and it could just as easily be a copy of Leone as the actual thing, a sign perhaps of how much the director/producer didn't care about the project.

After all, if he'd cared, surely he'd have bothered to have an opening scene that gelled with the rest of the feature whatsoever. While My Name Is Nobody managed to generate thematic resonance from the conflict between Leone's solemn, dark scenes and Tonino Valerii's wacky scenes, A Genius, Two Partners, and a Dupe is saddled with an opening scene that, while impressive on its own, is such a tonal shift from the rest of the movie that it feels like something of a failure.

The film itself is pretty wacky, all right, involving a complex but wholly insubstantial plot involving conman Joe Thanks (Hill) and his quest to steal that $300,000 from the racist Indian hunter Major Cabot (Patrick McGoohan). In this quest, Joe enlists the help of his blustering friend Steam Engine Bill (Robert Charlebois), a mixed-race fellow who loudly pronounces that there's not a drop of native blood in his body every chance he gets, and Bill's girlfriend Lucy (Miou-Miou, a French model and actress who was briefly quite popular in Continental films in the '70s). The two men have a friendly rivalry over the woman; for the most part, though, Joe is content to prove how much cleverer he is than Cabot and everyone else who crosses his bath, typically doing so in a goofy, comic way.

I'll say this much: the film is breathtakingly shallow, but it's funnier than My Name Is Nobody, relying more on verbal barbs and less on potty humor - not that potty humor is banished, just that it is much reduced. And certainly as comedy goes, this is profoundly unsophisticated. Just as an example, Klaus Kinski makes a cameo appearance that he is visibly not happy with, and his final line in this cameo is "Aieee! My balls!" I will leave it to the reader's imagination as to how this transpires.

Still and all, it's a breezy way to spend two hours: Hill is altogether affable, McGoohan does fantastic work as a vicious straight man to the Three Stooges-esque buffoonery around him, and Miou-Miou's screen presence is admirable, though she is saddled in the English dub with a horribly squeaky cartoon voice. It's a fairly disposable way for Leone to end his association in any capacity with the Western genre, but if you don't think of it that way, but as a trifling lark, it's not half bad, particularly given how threadbare the idea of even a slapstick Western had become by 1975.

No comments: