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.
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.