Saturday, January 10, 2009
No Name on the Bullet
No Name on the Bullet is a tense, low-key chamber Western in which Audie Murphy plays John Gant, a hired gun who inspires fear and paranoia wherever he goes. Gant's method is well-known to sheriffs in every town: he rides in, checks into a local hotel, stakes out the scene, then picks a fight with his current target, the man he was hired to kill. Gant has left a trail of corpses across the West, but has never gotten on the wrong side of the law because he always manages to prod his victims into drawing first. Naturally, when Gant rides into a town, the fear begins building: everyone has enemies, so everyone in town imagines that the killer is here for them.
As a result, while Gant sits quietly in the bar, drinking cup after cup of coffee, chatting and playing chess with the doctor Luke Canfield (Charles Drake), the town begins to collapse around him. Gant's arrival lets loose previously restrained tensions and conspiracies, many of them centering around a group of bankers and miners who have been quietly betraying and cheating one another over the gold mines outside the town. With each of them suspecting the others of hiring Gant, violence breaks loose, as the town's citizens begin plotting against one another, everyone becoming suspicious and jumpy. Gant's presence in town peels back the friendly façade of this ordinary town, revealing the bankers and businessmen as scheming crooks, the secret past of a seemingly forgettable bank clerk who ran off with another man's wife, and other dark secrets lying hidden just beneath the surface. Murphy brings an eerily calm quality to this laidback killer, who sits at the film's center doing nothing as everything falls apart around him. He's an interesting figure, a killer who seems engaged with the moral issues involved in his profession, who debates the morality of murder with Canfield over chess. Gant insists that, even if he takes money for killing, he's only ever killed those who deserve it; and as his mere presence exposes the cruelty, pettiness, and greed in men who had previously seemed decent and respectable, it's hard to disagree with him.
Director Jack Arnold, best known for horror and sci-fi classics like The Creature From the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man, has an interesting touch for this widescreen Western as well. There's little in the film that delivers on the promise of its opening shots, in which Murphy rides across a Cinemascope vista, with the rolling hills behind him. Instead of wide open spaces, though, the bulk of the film is confined to claustrophobic interiors, as the townspeople scheme and worry in back rooms while Gant sits out in the open at his own table in the bar, everyone else leaving a wide berth around him. Arnold's style isn't showy, but his compositions are elegant and often striking, particularly whenever he uses the mirror behind the bar: these shots allow him to focus on a single figure at the bar while the mirror shows the action spread across the rest of the room.
On the whole, No Name on the Bullet is a fine, above-average Western, light on action but high on suspense. The film's emphasis is not on violence, or the inevitable revelation of Gant's target — which is all too obvious by the time the final act rolls around — but on the moral conflict between the killer and the healer, opposing forces whose roles might not be as clear-cut as they seem on the surface. Surprisingly, Gant is the film's moral compass, perhaps only by default, since Drake doesn't have nearly Murphy's quiet intensity in the only competition for the slot of the hero. When Gant turns away an entire eager lynch mob by calmly pointing out the people in the crowd who he'll kill before they get him, Murphy really sells it; it's obvious that he is not a man to mess with. He rides into town, and into the film, like an avenging angel, a portent of death, his purpose mysterious enough that almost everyone thinks he's coming for them. He is, metaphorically, death itself, and the regrets and fears that come along with death for anyone whose life has not always been what it should be.