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Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Man With No Name (originally published 10/96)

Every now and then, the man with no name rides into town. He sows the seeds of chaos, then rides away again, leaving behind a changed narrative landscape. With the release of writer/director Walter Hill's "Last Man Standing," the nameless one is back again. The main character, played by Bruce Willis, masks his namelessness with the fig leaf of a generic name (John Smith), but there can be little doubt of his iconic pedigree.

To trace the roots of this character, we must begin with a novel that was never directly translated to the screen. The stories of Dashiell Hammett provided the inspiration for a number of classic American detective films, but his first novel, "Red Harvest," was never adapted by Hollywood. It features an anonymous main character, the narrator of the novel, whom Hammett refers to only as "the Continental Op," because he is an operative for the Continental Detective Agency.

The town that the Op rides into is a nasty little city in the Northwest called Personville, although it is better known to the locals as "Poisonville." The town is run by rival gangs of mobsters, whom the local officials are forced to tolerate. The three principal gang leaders are a bootlegger, a loan shark, and a gambler. The Op learns the dirty secrets of each in turn and uses them to set the criminals at one another's throats. In the end, all three ringleaders have been murdered, each a victim of the violent subculture on which they had thrived for so long.

In creating his anonymous gumshoe character, Hammett was doing more than spinning cynical tales about urban corruption. He was also reacting against the detective story tradition of colorful detectives with fascinating names like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. The Continental Op isn't in this line of work for the stimulation of solving abstruse riddles based on enigmatic clues. He's doing a job to draw a paycheck, and seeing far too much of the seamy side of life in the process.

The detective story would never be quite the same after Hammett's novels and the similarly revisionist fiction of Raymond Chandler. In fact, the influence of this particular story reached all the way to the Japanese cinema, and from there to Italy, and now back to the United States. To trace the development of this story on screen, look for the following two films on home video.

"Yojimbo" (1961). Japanese director Akira Kurosawa translated "Red Harvest" into a Japanese setting with Toshiro Mifune starring as a masterless samurai who happens upon a village torn by civil strife. As in Hammett's Personville, powerful factions are lined up against each other. In this case, the silk merchants are on one side of the conflict and the sake merchants are on the other. Like the Continental Op, the samurai is a nameless figure, referred to only as "the bodyguard" ("yojimbo"), who deliberately sets about upsetting the town's precarious balance of power. He hires himself out as a henchman for first one side and then the other. When the tensions between the two groups erupt into fighting in the streets as a result of his provocations, he perches atop a fire tower and sits back to enjoy the show.

Like Hammett, Kurosawa was reacting against a long-standing narrative tradition. He replaces the hero of the traditional Japanese swordfighting films with a shifty character who uses underhanded means to achieve essentially selfish ends. Also, he tells the story in a comic fashion, inviting us to sit back and laugh at the townspeople just as the samurai does.

"A Fistful of Dollars" (1964). This momentous little Italian production simultaneously launched the careers of director Sergio Leone and star Clint Eastwood, as well as kicking off a cycle of Italian "Spaghetti Westerns." The story is lifted more or less directly from "Yojimbo," except for the setting, which is changed to a Mexican village near the Mexican-American border. Eastwood is a man with -- that's right -- no name who rides into town and interposes himself between feuding families. He plays both sides against the middle and rides away unscathed after they destroy each other. And, like detective fiction after Hammett and samurai films after Kurosawa, Westerns were never to be quite the same again.

Now, with "Last Man Standing," the man with no name has come full circle, back to his roots in American gangster fiction. I can't help wondering what kind of narrative landscape he will leave behind him this time.

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