Wednesday, September 23, 2009

No Name on the Bullet (1959)

This is a pretty good little Western that I'd love to see remade (or remake myself, in comic form). The title and premise are fantastic. Very simple, but ripe with promise. A known assassin-for-hire, John Gant (played by real life war hero Audie Murphy), arrives in town and checks into the hotel. Everyone has heard of him, but no one knows who he's there to kill. His method is also known: he provokes his target into a fight and then kills him in "self-defense," so he gets away with it legally. Gant plays it cool for several days, allowing the more tightly-wound members of the town to self-destruct under their own hidden guilt. He befriends the town doctor named Luke (Gant reflects on the Biblical reference to the apostle/physician) before Luke learns who he is.

The build-up is handled pretty well. The seedier residents immediately begin to panic and conspire against each other and Gant. None of them are particularly memorable characters, but they ratchet up the tension and provide a few great scenes when they each face Gant. The most memorable is when a tall, skinny, wife-stealing gambler gets drunk and confronts the seated assassin. Gant calmly prods him, even placing his palms flat on the table. "All right. If you think you can do it, go ahead and try. My hands are on the table. I couldn't possibly outdraw you. So go ahead and shoot."

Another stand-out scene features Gant facing down a large posse determined to kill him or drive him out of town. "There are many of you. Yes, you could kill me. If you're willing enough. But it's only fair to tell you that I'll kill you, Stricker. And you, Dutch Henry. The physician. His father. And there might even be time for you, storekeeper." The scene has been played out many times since then, most memorably for me in Tombstone, and while I don't know if No Name on the Bullet was the first to use this scene, it's certainly one of the most potent uses. (Warlock had a similar scene, and is also from 1959, by chance.)

Save for Murphy (and maybe Edgar Stehli as Judge Benson), the performances are mostly adequate. They do the job, they're certainly not bad, but they're nothing special, either. I'd like to see some stronger character actors filling the supporting roles in a remake, and a more interesting actor playing Luke. (The most interesting parts with Luke are always Gant's reaction to him rather than Luke himself.) Murphy as Gant captivated me, however. I don't think all of that was because of his talent, however. While he certainly plays his role well, with a Death-like calm and serenity, I had recently devoured his Wikipedia entry and was in awe knowing that this baby-faced actor was one of the most decorated soldiers in history*. It was hard to divorce the man from the part while watching him.

The dichotomy between the killer and the healer is perhaps a little too obvious, but it works here. Some of the dialogue from Luke is a little on-the-nose, and I longed for a more interestingly written character, but Gant's dialogue is pretty good. He has some really good lines and only a few clunkers. (Anytime he makes medical jokes to Luke, like "that's your prescription doc... fill it," I groaned.)

With a length of just 77 minutes, this is a decent Western with a few exceptional elements that are worth your time.

*Seriously, read it. It's fascinating. That guy kicked a lot of Nazi asses. They even made a movie about it; Audie played himself. That one is coming soon in the queue.


Nobody said...

Wow, this sounds like a great premise! I love the idea of everyone in town flipping out thinking it might be them.

I liked the sound of Audie Murphy until you said he starred as himself in his own autobiopic. That would make me uneasy during the film, and worse, probably ruin the suspension of disbelief by being such a distraction.

Nobody said...

P.S. I now see that his wiki page claims he was reluctant to play himself... but he still did it.

I guess a contemporary analogy is Ben Sliney playing himself in United 93 -- but that is not quite a self-aggrandizing role since the movie is about how no one really knew what was going on.

Ryan said...

Re: Audie playing himself - I'd have had the same reaction had I not read about his humility and reluctance first. Did you read how he wanted his headstone to look like every other soldier's?

Justin said...

geez-- i just read the wiki page about him. it sounds like the stuff of hollywood. up on top of a tank, single-handedly holding off the germans... yowza.