Not every hero or villain needs a name. In fact, there’s that great saying: “A rose by another name would smell as sweet.” In this case, not all of the characters smell sweet or are particularly pretty, but there’s some debate over what to call them. Here are 10 “man with no name” movies!
[NOTE: This list, like so many others, does contain a few potential spoilers, so don’t say we didn’t warn you!]
Man with no name #1: Frankenstein (1931)
James Whale brought a famous “man with no name” (Boris Karloff) onto the screen in 1931, although many often call the Monster itself Frankenstein. Some might see that as poetic justice, in the sense that someone may be identified with what they create. While each man’s conception of the Monster will be different, it’s impossible to deny that, in this story, this particular meandering monster wouldn’t exist had it not been for Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive).
Frankenstein is the story of Victor Frankenstein’s mad experiment on a deceased (and therefore unwilling) body, or perhaps a patchwork of different bodies, taking us on a journey that would be enough to send many to madness (or so Edward Van Sloan famously warns us at the film’s beginning). The story should also remind the viewer of the treacherous nature of the “man of science.” Is he prepared for what can happen if he lets the imagination run wild? Is the world? Surrender to the method and the madness makes sense!
In 1931, director James Whale, along with a team of screenplay writers, took Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to another level on film, conveying plenty of suspense, creating an iconic character and story that could only be matched by the best horror films, to this day. Sure, Whale’s film never quite mirrors the original story’s narrative, but his directorial style still gives the story a powerful sense of immediacy. When Whale brought the story for the screen, he chose to focus on Victor Frankenstein’s creation as a nameless, unintelligent creation, as well as the action on the screen. The director consciously avoids the monster as a more intelligent being (in the original novel, the creature was far more articulate).
Man with no name #2: The Great Dictator (1940)
Written, directed, and produced by star Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator became somewhat of an embarrassment to the man. He felt that, had he known the true horrors of the nazi concentration camps, he never would have made this film. In it, an unnamed Jewish war hero and barber (Chaplin) is hounded by Nazi-like soldiers commanded by Hitler-esque dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin). Fortunately for the barber character, he looks exactly like Hynkel, so the dictator ends up being arrested in his place, whereas the barber is mistaken for the dictator.
So, is this satirical comedy-drama offensive in light of the actual atrocities committed by Hitler’s regime? That’s obviously a matter of opinion. The massacre of Jews known as Kristallnacht had already taken place before 1940, and the character of Hynkel doesn’t quite portray the horrors of that period (now widely viewed as a precursor to the Holocaust). Nevertheless, The Great Dictator does make clear that dictator Hynkel now holds the lives of all of the ghetto residents in the palm of his hand, including that of the barber and his love interest, Hannah (Paulette Goddard).
Though it is an obvious send-up of all-too-real events surrounding the Holocaust, it is not one-sidedly so. Chaplin includes slapstick moments throughout the film in which a wounded world is nevertheless depicted. In fact, there is no mistaking that Chaplin’s character is on the brink of being arrested (implying, especially in retrospect, that he could have become a concentration camp victim). Once out in the streets, we also see how easily life can go from normal to terrifying, all based on the whims of a dictator and his advisors. In other words, this film has an overwhelming amount of sympathy for victims of totalitarianism and frequently urges us to not be simple bystanders who let such things happen.
Of course, it’s also no mistake that Chaplin’s barber is a war hero and Jew, which itself would have been regarded as defiant due to the obvious anti-Jewish hatred at the time. (which, unfortunately, never totally went away) There are also times where Chaplin obviously takes aim at Germans, going from having Hynkel speak English to him speaking incoherent gibberish, as a way to make fun of Hitler’s fiery speeches, which would sometimes sound harsher in the German language.
So, even though the film never screams in terror about Hitler’s atrocities, it still has that defiant edge. Also, the narrative is somehow not blatantly biased in favor of the Allied cause, as its intent seems to be more timeless, universally against all brutal governments. So, by the film’s end, it is hard not to feel concerned for the humanity of everyone involved.
The comic characters Chaplin portrays are impeccably done. As the barber, we see a flawed man who is nevertheless heroic, suggesting he is actually greater than a dictator due to his ability to have impact without desiring dictatorial powers. As Hynkel, we see that dictators aren’t exactly the physically imposing images of manliness they portray (and also, let’s not omit how that borders on fetishism). So, ultimately, this film is not incapacitated by actual history. In fact, the film’s final speech elevates it into something greater than a war comedy, as it’s considered among the greatest on-screen speeches in cinematic history.
Men with no name #3: Seven Samurai (1954)
After bad fortune with the bandits, farmer villagers enlist the aid of, you guessed it, seven samurai warriors to fend off another attack. Though it’s no great secret who the seven samurai warriors are (their names are revealed), we never learn the names of many characters in Seven Samurai.” The bandit chief (Shinpei Takagi) is simply known as that, for example.
The film’s director, Akira Kurosawa, is among those great filmmakers who symbolize their countries — in this case Japan. Also, if Seven Samurai has any flaws, it seems even the harshest critics would hesitate to point them out. Really, part of the secret for that type of career is simple: Be one of the innovators, or one of the first to do something! Being such an influential film, it’s certainly not that no one ever followed in Kurosawa’s footsteps (you can construct your own list of detectible influential “tropes” if you so desire).
Seven Samurai is also there as a fresh reminder of why banditry is so bad. It’s not like bandits are into talking them into leaving their land. They use violence, of course. And, because violence begets violence, villagers may desire to meet with the samurai, and defend the land. If the bandits will agree to a truce, maybe some lives could be spared and some be allowed to return home. However, does that sound like something a bandit gang would do? Of course not! Anyway, the film stars Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, and Daisuke Katō.
Man with no name #4: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Money’s the root of all evil and nothing glimmers quite like gold. Both seem true enough in Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Obviously, this movie furthered the career of Clint Eastwood, even if he basically played a nameless drifter. Known for his tough-as-nails demeanor, the drifter is “the Good” guy, whereas his frenemy partner, Tuco (Eli Wallach), is “the Ugly.” “The Bad” one is called Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and is borderline nameless himself.
Though Eastwood’s performance works well in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he did not have a perfect relationship with the director. In fact, Sergio Leone once made a major critique of the man behind “The Man with no Name,” saying “Eastwood moves like a sleepwalker between explosions and hails of bullets, and he is always the same — a block of marble. Bobby [Robert De Niro] first of all is an actor, Clint, first of all, is a star. Bobby suffers, Clint yawns.”
Nevertheless, the film is led by Eastwood’s character, whose search for gold has him traveling on an epic quest, culminating in the iconic shootout in which Angel Eyes. Leone’s film emphasizes that, sometimes, life’s either kill or be killed, and not all of the slain are found and identified. Notably, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly doesn’t have a bunch of different adaptations, although sequels have been proposed and shot down. It lives on through its impact.
Also, regarding the tension between Eastwood and Leone, it resulted in Eastwood rejecting the role of “Harmonica” in another iconic western called Once Upon a Time in the West, with the role ultimately going to Charles Bronson (Bronson’s portrayal there no doubt furthered his action film career, with future films like Death Wish surely outshining Bruce Willis in Death Wish‘s 2018 remake). Anyway, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is refreshing for another reason: The killing here isn’t so much out of revenge but for greed. It’s not like Eastwood’s character’s family was murdered by drug dealers. Greed is just as powerful a motive, and the character’s greed helped make a box office success.
Man with no name #5: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West envisions an old West where business is run by cutthroats like Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), always ready to get on the other side of the law to make a buck. Then again, isn’t Morton just taking a page from reality, where business is brimming with criminal methods? Co-writers Leone, Dario Argento, and Bernardo Bertolucci could have made Morton a powerful cattle baron, but he’s a somewhat more typical railroad tycoon instead.
Nevertheless, Morton’s railroad construction plans are threatened. A man named Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) refuses to relinquish the property he bought, knowing he could cash in by monopolizing the water supply of Sweetwater. Mr. Morton sends a vile hire gunman, Frank (Henry Fonda) over to intimidate him, but Frank instead massacres Mr. McBain and his 3 children (Enzo Santaniello, Stefano Imparato, and Simonetta Santaniello)! This, of course, puts Brett’s newly widowed wife, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), in a tough situation after she inherits the land that got her family killed.
Fortunately, a mysterious man nicknamed Harmonica (Charles Bronson) yearns to exact an equally mysterious vengeance on Frank, so he is there to protect Jill and her desert homestead. As you might expect, this Spaghetti Western offers its characters little chance to leave alive and supplies plenty of skillful tension. We never learn Harmonica’s true name, but we do know Frank likes to murder in cold blood. Jill and the Sweetwater Ranch just happen to be in the crossfire. The vengeful man may be missing a name, but Harmonica works just fine. After all, the creepy harmonica lines he plays are part of what makes this film memorable.
Men with no name #6: Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is all about some men with no names, with most of them known by their aliases: Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker), and Mr. Brown (Tarantino). Why the secrecy? Well, they’re all criminals planning a diamond heist. That being said, the movie isn’t so much about the heist itself but what occurs before it, the aftermath, and the characters.
In fact, one of the film’s most memorable scenes actually involves a little debate about whether waitstaff should be tipped. Mr. Pink argues against it, everyone else seems to be adamantly for it. It’s one of those classic scenes where you conclude, “Hey, even criminals can have standards and expectations!” So, in classic Tarantino style, the characters come out looking perhaps more human and three-dimensional, due to how they relate to environments we’re familiar with. Who hasn’t thought about how much we should tip someone, or maybe wondered why it’s standard to tip a waitress but not a bag boy. The diner scene is quite possibly one of Tarantino’s best, which isn’t an insult to him but a compliment to the scene itself.
Other than Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), these characters tend to be lowkey about their identities. Mr. Orange is a newcomer to the criminal world, and for a reason: He’s actually an undercover cop (Not much of a spoiler. Not only is the movie old but this detail is revealed fairly early in the film). Obviously, for Orange to get involved with the heist, he had to prove himself to the other criminals and their boss. However, when another officer (Kirk Baltz) is taken hostage, his loyalties are put to the test.
During one key scene, Mr. Blonde, who seems capable of anything, tortures the kidnapped cop, like a true Mafia enforcer, or maybe a plain old sadistic killer. If you’ve ever angered Mr. Blonde, you’d best not be in a room alone with him. You may become one of his pressing matters to attend to, and with no place to hide. It is a well-known scene I’m referring to, and with a kickin’ soundtrack!
Man with no name #7: Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)
Action-packed, Ernest Dickerson’s Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight begins with a mysterious character called The Collector (Billy Zane) pursuing Frank Brayker (William Sadler). The Collector intends to get a holy “key” artifact from Brayker, which he could use to take over the world, or the universe, or whatever. Along the way, he kills plenty of folks, while turning some into new demon specimens for his collection. Brayker flees from his pursuers but is initially suspected of being a criminal, especially since he lacks a lawman costume or other “good guy” duds to wear.
Basically, The Collector is this film’s Dracula, complete with a few seduction scenes. In fact, the aforementioned key he seeks contains the blood of Jesus Christ, along with all of its other former protectors. The big difference, however, is that he’s technically (probably) not a vampire, and there is no Dracula’s Castle. Most of the film occurs inside a boarding house.
By the film’s end, it becomes clear that The Collector reincarnates upon death, so he is also played by actor Mark David Kennerly (credited as “Other Collector”). This movie is somewhat unique because, as stated earlier, it has some vampiric implications but without truly being a vampire movie. With the key, we get close to a bloody crucifix, scenario, but not quite. Currently, there are no clear plans for the Collector to return in a follow-up. The film also stars Jada Pinkett, Brenda Bakke, C. C. H. Pounder, Dick Miller, and Thomas Haden Church (oh, and John Kassir as voice of the Cryptkeeper).
Man with no name #8: Fight Club (1999)
In David Fincher’s Fight Club, the man with no name is actually the Narrator (Edward Norton), who is one mixed-up guy. Jaded with life and “the system,” the Narrator has a convoluted yet, apparently, brilliant plan. Rather than consult a therapist, a Pastor, or a self-help book to address his alienation, mental hangups, and standard fear of getting old and dying, he starts a club where grown men meet up and beat the hell out of each other. As you might expect, yes, it is called a Fight Club.
Though the Narrator is certainly the main character in the book, he is intended to be an “everyman” character, interchangeable with someone else. Rather than coming across as being purely sociopathic or psychopathic himself, it’s implied that, in contemporary society, people are basically engineered to fit into conventional roles. After all, isn’t this precisely what scam artists take advantage of? One might latch onto the identity of a dead husband, temporarily, and drain the inheritance from his estate, for example. People are seemingly interchangeable, easily expendable, of temporary value, and the Narrator’s pal, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), seems hellbent on bringing the whole scam crashing down. The problem is, Tyler becomes a source of too much excitement and makes his presence too well-known in the Narrator’s life. To be rid of him is like having a kidney removed.
Fight Club is also a bit of a love story, albeit unconventional (okay, twisted). The Narrator has an offbeat relationship with Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). He sort of falls in love with her, but he by no means takes on a “husband” identity. In fact, it’s around this time that the narrator starts a new life of mischief. The Narrator ends up seeing Tyler and Fight Club as almost an overbearing and childless family, and he is unable to maintain the other identity (or identities) he has created for himself. Though Fight Club is often presented as a subversive movie, it actually doesn’t portray rebellion in a positive light. Tyler lives in a dilapidated building, no better than a garage, and ultimately realizes he is mentally ill which is linked to his rebelliousness. It’s not exactly a suggestion that rebels are acting on sound principles, but they’re merely crazy and disturbed. In any case, Fight Club is a mixed-bag movie with strengths and weaknesses (even though it’s not as bad as some suggest, often for some standard, overly-politicized reasons).
Man with no name #9: Hero (2002)
In Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Jet Li plays a nameless character literally named “Nameless,” thus making it questionable whether he’s truly nameless or not. Is he a guard or an assassin who should be kept at a great distance from the King (Chen Daoming)? That is another pertinent question, as Nameless initially claims to be protecting him. However, shortly after his arrival to greet the King, different possibilities are explored.
This is a complicated movie to critique. As it progresses, it distinguishes certain assassins from mindless, for-hire miscreants or bandits. As Nameless enters the Qin capital city, we don’t quite know who or what he is trying to protect, or if he’ll follow through on any sort of dutiful commitments he has made, to himself or others.
Also, even though the story has strong conformist elements, essentially promoting the unity concept of an expansive kingdom, it’s also true that assassinations (for-profit or revenge) are terminally iffy things. When a nation wakes up to find that the ruler is dead, it will feel as though something is missing, and there are not always parades in the streets honoring the murder of some statesman (though, let’s face it, that can happen as well).
Also, if assassins are animated by revenge, it can be as if they have been corrupted by a spell. If angry enough, one might be incapable of distinguishing between humans and animals. So Hero seems to be about trying to locate a center, or a calm perspective, perhaps to find and save inner and outer peace. History is not depicted very accurately in this movie, and the message is entirely debatable, but Hero is potentially thought-provoking, which elevates it above come empty-headed, sword-fighting martial arts movie.
Man with no name #10: The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight examines how one powerful figure can come along and really F things up. Rather than being inspired to emulate the heroism of Batman (Christian Bale), the mysterious Joker (Heath Ledger) takes the opportunity to wreak havoc as revenge on the caped crusader. Then again, we don’t really know him, and that could be wrong. Does he really care that much about The Dark Knight, as he turns people against each other, seemingly for fun? He murders at will and corrupts the mind of DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and at times seems excited to match wits with his arch-nemesis, implying that the two are of the same kind. The Joker intends to kill his arch-enemy but develops a grudging respect for him.
Batman and the Joker fight, with Batman emerging victorious (though not killing the Joker), although Gotham suffers a few fatal attacks in the process. Many themes in the film carry through time to the present, and the underlying story suggests that countless people are corrupt, or could potentially find their place in an asylum. Gotham suffers due to a string of bomb attacks, and the Joker likes to rig it so ordinary, unsuspecting people are his unwitting accomplices, playing them off against each other, until one side attacks and kills the other. The Joker is a true psychopath, who would only entertain breaking down and begging forgiveness for the past as a strategic matter. In this film, the Joker’s a bomb maker and bad enough but reminds us that society itself is a ticking time bomb, if we lose our basic sense of humanity and common ground.
Certainly, there are more “Man With No Name” movies, so which ones could be added to a sequel list? Also, what do you think of these Man With No Name movies? Let us know in the comments!