- Directed by Jack Arnold
- February 1959
When a famous hired killer arrives in town, the prominent citizens become frightened as they all have enemies capable of employing his services.
No Name on the Bullet is a modestly budgeted film filled with familiar faces that you will be unable to name save maybe Audie Murphy. And that is a strength here. Rather than watching John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart on screen, you are watching the individual characters move through this portion of their lives. The familiarity yet anonymity of the actors allows you to identify with them and their performances. With talented people like Charles Drake, Warren Stevens, Joan Evans, Whit Bissell, and R. G. Armstrong among others we have a very good cast of faces you know but cannot name.
Audie Murphy leads the cast (though gets less screentime) as hard-edged hired gun John Gant sent out to kill people. The twist in his motus operandi is that he does it all within the law. Every one of his kills (which in the context of the movie are believed to be around 30) were done completely legally. How? He goads his intended target into a confrontation. While that works at the point in which the movie takes place how did he do it in the beginning? Seriously. It’s not important to the movie but it is a question I was left with upon hearing how he went about his work.
More often than not in the movie Murphy pulls off the cold and tough attitude his character is supposed to have. He’s even toned but not monotone and keeps as cool of a demeanor as he possibly can. He makes the character dangerous and a threat to whoever his target is actually. Gant is kind of charming and maybe even in his own way honorable. You are left thinking that his method of picking a fight is his way to keep his conscience clear in his chosen profession.
Regardless it is a nice twist on the hired killer idea that sets much in motion in the story. Fear and paranoia builds among the townsfolk as one after another let their dread of revenge against them build and quite possibly do Gant’s work for him.
Much of the audience’s understanding of Gant comes from young doctor Luke Canfield (Charles Drake) who only recently returned to the area and is unaware of Gant. He is standing in for us and we in large part experience things through him.
Jack Arnold is better known for films like It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula, and The Incredible Shrinking Man which all tended to offer something more in comparison to other genre work of the time. No Name on the Bullet ranks with those in quality. It is a sophisticated and character driven film with a unique premise that is expertly crafted from start to finish. Gant does nothing in a blunt way from the start. A well-placed word or look. Arnold builds Gant up with deft direction.
No Name on the Bullet is well crafted and the movie itself is well helmed by a director better known for science fiction than Westerns. The issues are minor and come from some unimportant historical knowledge rather than anything about the story or the characters. I will not bring them up here as it reveals more about the useless trivia in my brain than it does anything in the story.
Gant gets enough to be a character but you don’t know too much about him beyond the run of the film. It makes him mysterious and much more dangerous feeling. It’s just what people believe they know about him. It makes him into this larger than life and more threatening than threatening character.
Much of what occurs is because of what happens in the mind. This is a slow burn of tension as we the viewer try to figure out the target and wait for the narrative payoff. I found the reveal of the intended victim rather surprising. Even though they had gone through just about every possible member of the cast, the one that they picked was a bit of a twist. From a creative killer to an actual surprise this movie is extremely well done.
No Name on the Bullet is a great Western thriller. There is an interesting premise and an interesting killer and it is much more in the head than it is on the screen. I think this is something that everyone can enjoy though it will definitely appeal more to Western fans than anyone else.