Picture of the Week
This is a new series that we are inaugurating on a continuing basis here at Cinema Station… Now there are other movie blogs that already feature a recommended Movie of the Week so what makes us different? Or are we just imitating something that has already been done? Hopefully not. We’re going to be different because the titles we select will not be from the generally accepted canon of worthwhile or critically acclaimed films. In other words our selections will not have any discernible pedigree of any kind. They are the runts of the litter, the orphans, the rude children that just won’t behave or conform, the mavericks and the outlaws. So they will mostly be small, offbeat and often low budget works that caught our fancy or captivated our attention for one reason or another. A different way of putting it is to say that these are films that got made, released but somehow slipped through the cracks somewhere along the way and now reside in the dark abyss of obscurity. But it doesn’t have to be that way forever. At least not here in the universe of Cinema Station. So hang with us, maybe you’ll find a gem or two among them.
No Name on the Bullet (1959)
This is a modest little Audie Murphy (1924-1971) western that came out in 1959. Murphy was, as you might know, and still is America’s greatest war hero. During the Second World War this baby faced young man from Texas became this country’s most decorated soldier and won every major medal we give for valor, including the coveted Medal of Honor. Some 32 medals in all…After the war he was summoned to Hollywood where he remained for a quarter of a century acting and mostly starring in a series of low budget westerns for Universal studios. Generally the films were modest in their intentions and pleased the undemanding western fans of the time. Murphy was a good, low key actor who brought off the histrionic demands of the scripts with a pleasingly convincing demeanor. They were films generally long on action with just enough plot to make the action plausible. Altogether, Murphy made 49 features of which 33 were westerns. No Name on the Bullet came somewhere in the middle and slipped through in the mix of what had become known as “an Audie Murphy western”. This was almost a separate genre unto itself. Or more properly, a sub genre of the western. But what distinguishes this film and gives it its special place in my esteem, is the story. Murphy, for the first time in his career plays the villain, or a sort of villain. He plays a character named John Gant, a known assassin who rides into a town, goads some individual into a gunfight and kills that person all nice and legal, then moves on. In this film he is or can be viewed as some sort of Avenging Angel because the people he kills are always deserving their fate because of some crime they committed and thought they had managed to escape the consequences. On screen we never see Gant kill anyone deliberately. And even when goaded he always manages to avoid a deadly confrontation. So he is not a psychopathic killer by any stretch of the imagination. In fact his outlook and manner, as played by Murphy, is almost philosophical. “You did a bad thing once and now the fates have caught up with you, so accept it.”
Gant rides in to a town called Lordsburg and almost immediately many of the town’s “distinguished” citizens begin to wonder and worry if it’s them he’s after. Each, it becomes obvious, is guilty of some mendacious act in their past. Or sometimes it’s even worse. Their imaginations begin to go wild and they try to figure ways of getting Gant to leave town or maybe even kill him. This is a script riddled with all kinds of disturbing sub-textual elements addressing the hypocrisy of so called “respectable lives” then and even now. This is why I like this film because it moves beyond the usual western set-ups and tropes to ask questions that have some universal resonances. I think that this same story, with its Kafkaesque subtext about universal guilt, in the hands of say one of the classic French filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville or Robert Bresson would have been turned into a film about which academic theses would’ve been written over the decades. But it is obvious that this Jack Arnold directed picture with a story and screenplay by Gene L. Coon and Howard Amacker had no such ambitions in mind. It is an efficiently made, quiet little western that satisfyingly substitutes action for character revelation with an ending that has a touch of the “morality tale” about it.
The supporting cast is filled with many of Hollywood’s best but unheralded character actors who went through whole careers giving excellent performances virtually every time out that were for the most part unrecognized and taken for granted. I’m talking about Charles Drake, Virginia Grey, R. G. Armstrong, Whit Bissell, Jerry Paris (who transitioned into directing), Karl Swenson and the recently deceased Warren Stevens. No Name on the Bullet is one of those little gems from the Studio System’s second unit setup that just slipped right on through. Give it a try, see if you don’t agree.
A side note.
The title No Name on the Bullet was also used as the name of a quite good biography of Audie Murphy by Don Graham published by Viking Press in 1989.