Audie as killer
Jack Arnold (no relation to Jeff, sadly) was a director known for work of the caliber of It Came From Outer Space or The Incredible Shrinking Man and was hardly a Western specialist. He only did six, all B ones. In this film (his 'biggest' Western) he directs Audie Murphy, who was famous and popular though rarely in a top-drawer film. It was written by Gene Coon (4 Western movies, a lot of TV shows). The picture was done on a modest Universal budget. All this meant that the Western was destined to be at best passable. In fact No Name on the Bullet could have been much worse, and it turned out to be one of Audie's better Westerns.
The tension builds well. A famous hired killer, John Gant (Murphy) comes to Lordsburg. Menacing and sinister, a gunslinging angel of death, Gant throws the population into panic. For whom has he come? They all have guilty consciences; they all have enemies.
They are suspicious. Who is the victim?
Audie does ‘sinister’ quite well. He is quiet, cultured and polite but, you sense, he is ruthless too. It’s quite an interesting part because he simply has to do nothing, sitting quietly in the center of the town, and of the film, while hell breaks loose around him. Audie may have heeded Glenn Ford's advice when he said, "My idea of good acting is doing nothing well." And Arnold brought to bear his creepy-sinister skills from B sci-fi flicks.
He sits. Drinks coffee. Waits.
Gant befriends the town doctor (Charles Drake), whom he always calls Physician (his name is Luke). As the town falls apart and the sheriff (Willis Bouchey) is powerless to stop it, the doc and his dad, the blacksmith (RG Armstrong, excellent as always) stand up for decency and normality. One by one, the townsmen crack: the banker (Whit Bissell), the saloon owner (Simon Scott), the freighter (Karl Swenson), the judge (Edgar Stehli).
Chess with Doc. They discuss the morality of killing.
In 1959 McCarthy and paranoia were fresh in people’s minds and No Name is quite a thoughtful study in crowd hysteria.
It’s a ‘town’ Western, with few location shots. The nicely photographed opening widescreen arrival of the gunman raises expectations which are not met. These Westerns can be quite good, if well-constructed. The small, claustrophobic town can heighten the tension. High Noon is the classic example, of course. But this is no High Noon. Of course, if the studios already have a Western town set, it’s quite a lot cheaper…
Widescreen vista doesn't last
I won’t tell you the ending, although I will say I saw it coming somewhat and so will you.
Audie’s last words are, “Everything comes to a finish.” Yup.
No Name on the Bullet is near the top of the list of Audie Murphy Westerns. Recommended.