Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Man With No Name

There is a certain vein of twentieth-century stories and films that I find myself returning to over and over again. I've mentioned how watching Mad Max and The Road Warrior was something of an epiphany to me. I eventually discovered that its protagonist is but one incarnation of a stock figure of twentieth-century mythology: the Man With No Name. Other versions include Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op (most memorably in Red Harvest), Akira Kurasawa's nameless samurai (Yojimbo, Sanjuro), the protagonist of Sergio Leone's "Dollars Trilogy" (e.g., A Fistful of Dollars), Stephen King's Gunslinger, and the latter-day Batman of Christopher Nolan. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Hammett's Sam Spade also come to mind.

The same themes seem to crop up in each case. The backdrop is invariably post-apocalyptic, sometimes fully realized and sometimes not. There's the hellish, hopelessly corrupt mining town of Personville ("Poisonville"); chaotic, post-feudal Japan; the practically extinct border hamlet of San Miguel; the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback; the dark streets of Gotham where powerless city officials are overruled by grotesque mass-murderers. Raymond Chandler laid his finger on this common theme when, in a discussion of the pulp detective story, he wrote:
Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning how to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun.
This found its most striking expression in Robert Alderich's darkly ironic film noir Kiss Me Deadly, in which the protagonist moves through an incoherent ruined culture and achieves the goal of his quest in a mushroom cloud.

The Man With No Name is always an alienated loner. Usually he is a wandering stranger or outcast with no preexisting ties to the community; even when he is not, he has an alter ego to make himself one. His appearance speaks a close kinship to the common enemy and cynicism toward the goods of civilization, leading the "citizens" to distrust him. Thus Max wears the black leather of the vermin of the wasteland, not the white garments of the commune-dwellers he is called upon to protect. He regards the nascent community with scarcely concealed derision. The parallels between Batman and the Joker are touched on in Tim Burton's Batman and brought to the fore in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Or again, Sanjuro ends with the confrontation between the nameless samurai and his dark counterpart; they own their kinship but fight to the death, the protagonist killing his opponent in a shocking fountain of blood.

The Man With No Name is an agent of chaos, not an agent of order, and must depart as soon as his work is done—or even be driven out as unclean, as Batman is in The Dark Knight. His modus operandi is aptly described in Red Harvest:
"Plans are all right sometimes," I said. "And sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you're tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you see what you want when it comes to the top."
Whence this modern myth-cycle? What is its significance? I'll attempt to describe what I think about it in the next post.

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