A killer’s game: No Name on the Bullet (Jack Arnold, 1959)

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The extent to which Audie Murphy gets derided for his acting is, I think, a little unfair. An actor doesn’t need to be able to adopt two dozen different accents or transform their appearance or even be particularly versatile to be effective in a film. As for the fact that Murphy was only taller than his onscreen love interests through artificial means… Perhaps it says more about ideas of gender (in the 50s, if not now) than anything else that the most decorated American soldier in WWII had to stand on a box to look manly.

Murphy had a fast draw and strong horse-riding skills, and worked well in the three westerns I’ve seen him in thus far. He has a great rapport with Dan Duryea in Ride Clear of Diablo, which is a hugely enjoyable movie. Though it pains me to say it, he’s better than Duryea in Night Passage – he has a good amount of swagger and gets to be the only character to make any negative comments about James Stewart’s accordion. And in No Name on the Bullet, he plays against type and makes John Gant one of the film’s best attributes. It helps that No Name on the Bullet has a clever premise, but as the only name actor in the film, Murphy keeps his character intriguing to watch.

Gant is a notorious assassin for hire, and when he rides into the small town of Lordsburg, the locals assume he’s there for one of them. As Gant points out more than once, everyone has enemies, and this is proven out as the townsfolk react to his passivity by turning on him, themselves, and each other. The only man who doesn’t fear Gant is Luke Canfield (Charles Drake), the local doctor. He’s a good-hearted optimist, and as he tries to get to know Gant, their worldviews clash.

No Name on the Bullet is directed without imagination by Jack Arnold, which brings the characters to the forefront. The film’s twists and turns stay interesting, and the moral conflict between Gant and Canfield steadily comes to a boil. Drake is the only actor other than Murphy who I recognise here (his character is memorably shown up by (who else?) Dan Duryea in Winchester ’73), and he ably plays Canfield as a man who has his convictions tested in ways he never expected. His affable manner stands in contrast to Gant’s cold, inexpressive demeanour, with Murphy avoiding any temptation to overplay his character in the slightest.

The film is strongly fatalist, but not in an oppressive way. It could feasibly have been blacker, but it is enough, perhaps, that Gant is at times made more disturbing by the sole fact that he’s being portrayed by Audie Murphy. This plays somewhat into the film’s theme of concealed darkness. So, Murphy’s not a great actor, and he’s short – but No Name on the Bullet is a good little film, and Murphy’s performance is no laughing matter.

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