No Name On The Bullet


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

No Name On The Bullet
"No Name On The Bullet's greatest strength is in its portrait of human nature."

There's a town, Lordsburg, "small enough to be comfortable, large enough to have a future". A man rides into town, in glorious Eastmancolor Cinemascope. A man with a reputation, death on a black horse.

His name, whispered across the town, is John Gant. The assumption is that he is in Lordsburg to kill someone. The question is, who?

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Gant is played by Audie Murphy, the receipient of every military bravery medal the United States Army could award, a slight man with an open face who carried with him an air of practical menace. It's a reputation, an air, well used in the film - in a confrontation with one fearful set of townsfolk the strings might swell with portent but it's those steepled hands that chill. Murphy's Gant is a man used to power, be it granted by coin or Colt. It's that power, the fear of it, that starts to tear the town apart.

That psychic toll, that palpable dread, one carried in the glances of background players and the twitchings of curtains and whispers becomes a pressing concern to the town's physician and Sheriff. Played by Charles Drake and Willis Bouchey, the two men find themselves dealing with Gant and the shadow he casts in different ways.

After the first death, Doc Canfield confronts Gant while he is in a reflective mood - in a scene that starts with tremendous use of mirrors and space, he muses on the difference between assassins and physicians. After the first death, the Sheriff confronts Gant with a gun in his hand - the outcome is bloodier.

As the film unfolds, conscience starts to take its toll. Some muse philisophical, sanguine, advocating for the greater good. Some take a different course, dutch courage no match for the iciness of the killer - "it'd be a shame to waste all that whisky", but there's a larger duel. "Physician..." says the killer, "everybody dies." The Doc disagrees, and the moral questions raised by their approach have consequences.

Written by Gene Coon with a story by Howard Amacker (his sole movie credit), and directed by Jack Arnold, the film represents an odd cross-section of the wider work of Gene and Jack. Gene's time on Star Trek (he's the father of the Klingons, the first author of the Prime Directive) and Jack's other science fiction work (Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Creature From The Black Lagoon and others) are matched here by an allegorical weight, but their careers were bound up in westerns, especially television. They had worked together before, with Orson Welles no less, on Man In The Shadow, but No Name On The Bullet is their strongest.

The tropes are there, saloons, sheriffs, slapped leather and shootouts, but there are subtleties at play. Herman Stein's orchestral score adds depth, but the film is in its performances. Some now feel a little dated, even wooden, but there's something in the speechifying that still works.

"We don't live on the moon out here" says Anne (Joan Evans), Judge Benson's daughter, but they are on the edge of the law. This is Western at a talkative, meditative, remove, a philosophic oater. "Judges interest me", says Gant. "They have the power of life and death. So do physicians", he continues, and there's portent, power, as he does so. At least as much in a seemingly throwaway moment, early in the film, one that has consequences later as much as a chess game, as much as a letter from home."Everything comes to an end", the only question is how. No Name On The Bullet's greatest strength is in its portrait of human nature. There's a saying that it's not the bullet with your name that should worry you, but those marked 'to whom it may concern'. That's Gant, as he comes to town, casting a long shadow.

Reviewed on: 05 Jul 2017
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A man rides into town, and everybody wonders who he's there to kill.

Director: Jack Arnold

Writer: Gene L Coon, Howard Amacker

Starring: Audie Murphy, Charles Drake, Joan Evans, Virginia Grey, Warren Stevens

Year: 1959

Runtime: 77 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US


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