Wednesday, March 10, 2010

No Name On The Bullet (1959)

A gunman named John Gant (Audie Murphy) comes into the quiet town of Lordsburg. Gant is a very reserved and earnest chap, doesn't talk much, observes a lot. Gant is also a professional killer with a peculiar modus operandi. His method is well known - and would not work quite as well if it wasn't. He comes into a town, checks into a hotel, watches and waits and makes his potential victims so nervous that they are just bound to pick a fight with him, putting him into the position to shoot them in "self defence" and merrily go on his way.

The killer's arrival causes panic in the peaceful town, and soon everyone who thinks there might be a reason for Gant to come for him is on edge. It turns out that the peaceful little town isn't as peaceful as it seems, and that a lot of its citizens have good reason to be afraid, be it the man who ran away with another man's wife and learned to hate her, as she did him, or the businessmen squabbling over a mine. All too soon, there is the first suicide, and shoot-outs between citizens will not be far behind. All the while, Gant hasn't even fired a single bullet.

The killer obviously enjoys this part of his job very much. He's keeping to a strict codex of not killing those people for whose death he wasn't paid and he is convinced that he's doing the world a favour killing those for whose deaths he was, a never explained sense of biblical justice hangs about him and his techniques. Righteous people have no need to fear Gant, after all.

Seemingly the only man who doesn't fear Gant at all is the local physician Dr. Luke Canfield (Charles Drake). The doctor is an idealist willing to put his head on the line for the things he believes in, as driven a healer as Gant is a killer. This makes the doctor Gant's opposite as well as his mirror image, and both he and Gant know it and feel a certain attraction to each other.

It is only a question of time until it will come to a confrontation between the two men.

It is a well-known fact that B-grade Western in the 40s and 50s could get away with much more daring scripts than their high budget counterparts, but it is also true that most of them had to take much of what they had said back for their final reels so as not to shake the status quo up too much. Somebody must have forgotten to send the memo about the final reel to No Name On The Bullet's director Jack Arnold (yes, the former monster film specialist) or its scriptwriter Gene L. Coon (yes, the future Star Trek writer), leading to a film that is as thematically unified as one could wish for. It is not that the film's ending is utterly pessimistic or cynical - the bad are being punished and the good live on, after all - but it is far away from the kneejerk "and everything is alright again" ending that mars many a movie of the era.

Not being a Spaghetti Western, the film clearly takes Canfield's side in the conflict with Gant, yet it does so sharing the empathy and the need to understand Canfield shows for everyone around him. On another level, the film seems to be as much about theology (or possibly moral philosophy) as about a killer coming to a frontier town. Here, the film puts Canfield's New Testament morals above Gant's Old Testament ones without ever pretending not to understand the lure of the latter.

No Name on the Bullet is also part of the sub-genre of the psychological B-Western. As such, it is more interested in observing (very much like Gant must have done a hundred times before) how men cope with their feelings of guilt when coming under pressure from an outside force. The conclusion the film comes to - people break - isn't exactly pretty, and, again surprising in its honesty for a movie made in 1959, in the USA, the film doesn't judge its characters for that.

No Name On The Bullet is exceedingly economically filmed. Arnold only has 73 minutes to tell his story, give enough depth to half a dozen characters, set up the Canfield/Gant conflict and put a handful of shoot-outs or near shoot-outs on screen, so there's no time for him to be flashy or to demonstrate what a good director he is. Instead, he does what truly good director does, puts his ego out of the way and tries to do justice to an excellent script. This approach leaves much work for his actors, and all of them use their chances to build on the audience's knowledge of stock characters and make them something more.

I was especially impressed by Audie Murphy, an actor who isn't exactly known for giving his characters much depth, but who here brings Gant to life as a man at once relishing the role he plays in life with a hardly controlled sadist glee yet who is also able to be compassionate, in his own way even kind.


No comments: