Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
A lone rider emerges out of the empty landscape dressed in a black hat and grey shirt,
on his way, as we soon discover, to the small town of Lordsburg. His name is John Gant
(Audie Murphy), notorious killer for hire, who specialises in goading his victims to
the draw before finishing his job on the grounds of self-defence. But whom, exactly,
if any, has he come for this time? As he waits, and watches, the citizens of his latest
malign stopover examine themselves and their past, frantically wondering in turn if they
may be the object of Gant's fatal visit. While the cool, cultured gunfighter plays chess
with the local doctor, philosophising over the miniature society he so perturbs, the time
for speculation draws inevitably to an end...
No Name On The Bullet is probably Audie Murphy's finest western and, after his biopic To Hell And Back (1955), arguably his best film over all. Murphy was the last of the great run of B western stars. In real life the most decorated American soldier of World War II, back in civvy street, he led to a modest career, mostly in westerns, which lasted through 20 years and almost 50 films before being cut short in a plane crash. By all accounts a man without any self-pretension, he was too often given second-rate oaters in which to appear by his studio - and played often to very average effect, as he freely admitted that acting was a profession to which he felt no great regard. But here, as directed by Jack Arnold, a skilful B-movie talent whose earlier credits included such fantasy classics as Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) as well as the cult exploitation vehicle High School Confidential (1958), Murphy rose above the norm of his career in a film both original and thought provoking.
No Name On The Bullet is notable too as it features a basic idea - that of the prevaricating killer - a Hamlet-like delay in action which appears rarely in the western genre that's more given over to explosive gunplay and short fuses. Other films which share a similar theme, like The Forty-Niners, or De Toth's better known The Bounty Hunter (both 1954), in which a community is also alarmed by an outsider's search for those hiding in its midst, typically involve hesitations caused by the uncertain process of investigation. It's a process naturally made all the more significant by the contemporary activities of Senator Joe McCarthy. In No Name On The Bullet too, there's an investigation of sorts to be seen, but this time not to expose hidden culprits, as Gant already knows who he been hired to kill. Rather it's an investigation by him, and us, of those who for the most part 'think' they are guilty and, naturally, have plenty to hide. Rather like that of the stranger in High Plains Drifter (1973) Gant's arrival in Lordsburg is a moral catalyst upsetting the whole balance of the community, distorting regular behaviour. He may be an assassin but, as the doctor is well aware, Gant also personifies the guilty conscience, strongly enough to provoke panic and even suicide among the outwardly respectable as they contemplate their own cowardice and failings.
This unusual introspection of No Name On The Bullet is helped immeasurably by Murphy's characteristic baby-faced imperturbability. Both in real life, and in drama he looked nothing like the war hero/ killer he was - one reason in this fictional context why the town doctor Canfield (Charles Drake) admits to an early liking to a man who seems so honest and cultured, but never the less one who's killed "20 or 30 men." Murphy's smooth outward appearance instead obliges us to focus on the internal issues at stake for, just as Gant predicts at the start: "if you watch respected citizens then you may see something." As Canfield comes to realise, Gant's presence brings a new danger to public health, "a disease I'm not equipped to cure." In discussions with the physician, Gant admits to his dreadful profession, but finds a parallel between them. "I cure things too," he blithely asserts, and "the most interesting diseases aren't always physical."
Gene L. Coon's writing (he later contributed several memorable Star Trek scripts in an extended career writing for the small screen) is notable in that it excels as a slow moving essay on paranoia while never less than being entertaining. Gant and Canfield are evenly matched as moral adversaries while, as critic Phil Hardy has noted, it is the gunman's victims who in turn make the film so memorable: a splendidly nervous Whit Bissell as the banker Thad Pierce, who commits suicide when he fails to buy off his presumed death; the drunken Lou Fraden (Warren Stevens) who thinks Gant has been sent by the husband of his runaway mistress; or the wheelchair bound Judge (Edgar Stehli), who vows to let Gant shoot him without defence, a last desperate act against the killer's regular strategy of provocation.
Also down on the cast list is soon to be Peckinpah regular R.G. Armstrong, who would appear so memorably a few years later in Ride The High Country. To this worthwhile and enjoyable ensemble playing, so often a pleasure of westerns of this period, we can add the star. Cast against type for once Murphy is splendid - so much so, in fact, that one regrets the many weaker vehicles in which he appeared through his career. Add to this the relatively open ended conclusion of the film, which gives it something of a modern feel, and its all well worth seeing.
The region 2 DVD offers little in the way of extras, not even a trailer, but the strength of this film and natural attractions to western fans means that it can still be recommended.