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No Name on the Bullet

15 Dec

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I’ve been watching a lot of short, stripped down movies lately, and enjoying them very much. Apart from the pacing, I’m also fond of the tighter storytelling techniques that shorter running times necessitate. These movies impose a discipline on both writers and directors that often seems to stimulate creativity and artistry rather than restrict them. In a way, the elimination of flab tends to focus the minds of those behind the cameras and, when there is a natural talent present, result in a more vibrant picture. Jack Arnold’s No Name on the Bullet (1959) is a low budget sprinter of a movie that provides its lead with maybe his very best role, tells the audience an absorbing tale, and offers plenty of food for thought.

The story is one of fear – a fear ostensibly sparked by an outside force but, in reality, having its true origin within a community and, more specifically, within the hearts and collective conscience of the residents. When a sombre stranger rides into town the effect on the locals is both remarkable and rapid. What starts out as a kind of smouldering dread soon deepens into panic and, later, outright terror. You see, the stranger in the midst of these fearful townsfolk is one John Gant (Audie Murphy), a hired assassin whose notoriety has taken on near mythical proportions. He is known to get his man without fail, and with sufficient cunning to ensure that no criminal charges can be brought against him. Without doubt, this is a fearsome reputation in itself, but what provokes the atmosphere of unbearable tension is the mystery surrounding the identity of Gant’s intended target. As the shadow of the gunman casts a dark pall over the town the locals’ fevered imaginations take possession of them and, one by one, their dark pasts and guilty secrets start to emerge. The growing sense of terror, and their apparent inability to rid themselves of Gant’s presence, eventually turns the residents upon each other, and the body count rises accordingly. Amid all the mayhem and psychological torment Gant sits inscrutable and unperturbed, while the viewer is left wondering not only who the next victim will be but also whether or not this grim angel of death is the hero or the villain of the piece.

Picking targets - Audie Murphy in No Name on the Bullet.

Jack Arnold is best known for his 50s sci-fi work and he brings the paranoia that was such a strong element of the era and genre to the western in No Name on the Bullet. The film is a set-bound affair, confined for the majority of its running time to the centre of the small town. Obviously, budgetary constraints played a significant part in the decision to shoot it thus, but it ends up being one of the strong points. While most westerns benefit from location shooting and evocative landscapes, the fact that the action here rarely leaves the streets of the backlot serves to enhance the feeling of the residents being trapped by fate. If Arnold’s direction creates the pressure cooker atmosphere the man with his hand firmly clamped on the lid is Audie Murphy. At one point, one of the characters tells him he speaks more like a preacher than a gunman. And that’s indeed the impression he conveys throughout; his expression remains dour and judgmental, and even his clothes have a puritan-like severity. Moreover, it’s entirely in keeping with the notion that Gant is the embodiment of retribution, a seemingly indestructible instrument of justice. Murphy’s baby face features and soft voice, as he sits endlessly sipping coffee and surveying everyone and everything like some malign deity, accentuate the character’s menace – even more so when one considers the real man’s war record. In a way, Gant represents a higher law, the local variety being weak (wounded and ineffectual) when faced with a crisis, eliciting the deeply harboured guilty feelings of all and dispensing punishment to the deserving. Normally, an overt absence of character development would be viewed as a minus, but having Gant remain essentially a cipher feels somehow appropriate – other characters speculate about his past but Gant himself reveals nothing. Murphy’s low key performance is both subtle and powerful, arguably his greatest. By way of conclusion, and I guess this constitutes a mild spoiler, it’s worth noting that this allegedly deadly killer never actually takes a life at any point.

Universal’s UK DVD of No Name on the Bullet is a very basic affair without any extras whatsoever, unless you count the array of language and subtitle options. However, and this is what matters most anyway, the image is excellent. The film has a strong anamorphic scope transfer with honestly negligible print damage on view. For me, the movie is a wonderful example of what a talented director and star can achieve on a budget. All in all, a memorable film with the guts and integrity to avoid any artificially happy ending, and I strongly recommend it.

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13 Comments

Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Audie Murphy, Jack Arnold, Westerns

 

13 responses to “No Name on the Bullet

  1. le0pard13

    December 15, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Welcome to WordPress, Colin! I’m happy to see we’ll be on the same blogging platform, my friend. I’ll update my blogroll right now. Best.

     
    • Livius

      December 16, 2011 at 8:39 am

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Michael, and for your continued support.
      I’d been toying with the idea of a move for some time and now, as the year draws to a close, seemed like the perfect opportunity.

       
  2. chrisk

    December 16, 2011 at 1:34 am

    This new site looks appealing and classy.
    Keep up the good work.
    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

     
    • Livius

      December 16, 2011 at 8:43 am

      Thank you Chris, I’m pleased you like the new look.
      And best wishes for the season to you too.

      Colin

       
  3. Judy

    December 17, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Congratulations on your new site, Colin. It looks great – I like the colour scheme, which fits in perfectly with your emphasis on Westerns. I’ll change my blogroll right away!

     
    • Livius

      December 17, 2011 at 12:56 pm

      Thanks Judy. I was hoping to match up appearance and content as far as possible – nice to get it confirmed though.

       
  4. cavershamragu

    December 18, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Congrats on the new WordPress look and on the continuing excellence of the site. I went out and bought this one right away and plan to enjoy it with my Dad over the Christmas hols.

    Cheers,
    Sergio

     
  5. Colin

    December 19, 2011 at 8:46 am

    Cheers for that Sergio. I hope you and your Dad enjoy the movie, and the holidays too.

    By the way, you have a really fine site going there too. I recommend people check it out.

     
  6. Toby

    December 22, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    I cannot be objective about this film. Read an interview with Joe Dante eons ago where he mentioned this film. Though I grew up with stacks of 50s Westerns around the house, I’d never seen it. Finally connecting with it cemented my obsession with 50s Westerns.

    Like Escort West, which is being discussed over at my place, this is a supreme example of what can be done within the confines of a low-budget cowboy picture. Audie’s perfect — downright creepy. The dialogue is terrific. The way things are revealed over the course of the film is masterfully sorted out. Gene L. Coon was at the top of his game here with an great comment on human nature.

    Truth is, I can’t find fault with this picture at all. Same goes with your post on it. I agree with every point you make.

    I really dig the new leatherette look. WordPress has been good to me the last couple years.

     
    • Colin

      December 23, 2011 at 8:32 am

      Thanks Toby. Like I said, I found myself watching quite a few low budget affairs recently and, while I always enjoyed them generally, seeing so many in a short space of time brought home to me just how effective they can be. I agree there are no real weaknesses in this movie, and Murphy is magnetic in the lead.
      I’ll be finishing up work this afternoon and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to kick back for a bit and catch up on some movies. Escort West is near the top of the list to view over the coming days.

      Glad you like the new look too. Even though I’ve only had things up and running for a matter of days I’m very pleased with it so far. I feel the old site had run its course and I’m excited about the possibilities that this move to WordPress offers.

       
  7. Mike Sutton

    January 2, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Good to see your excellent blog finding its own home.

     
    • Colin

      January 2, 2012 at 4:26 pm

      Thanks Mike. I’m settling in nicely here.

       

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