Sunday, February 27, 2022

No Name on the Bullet (1959)

No Name on the Bullet is a 1959 Audie Murphy western, and is generally considered to be one of his best movies.

John Gant (Audie Murphy) rides into a quiet little town and spreads fear and panic. How does he do this? By taking a room at the hotel, drinking countless cups of coffee and playing the odd game of chess.

What terrifies the townsfolk is not Gant’s behaviour but his reputation. He is reputed to have killed thirty men, and he’s killed them all for money. He is not a wanted man. He has never been convicted of a crime. He is always able to persuade his victims to fight, in front of witnesses, and all his killings have technically in self-defence.

Almost every man in town is convinced that Gant has come to kill them. Every man has at least one enemy.

Pretty soon there are a lot of frightened men doing crazy things and becoming severely paranoid. A paranoia that can even lead to a man killing himself. A man who never was Gant’s intended victim. It can lead frightened men to start killing each other. It can tempt normally sane men to consider vigilante justice. The town is being torn apart.

The sheriff has no clue what to do. He can’t order Gant to leave town. The man has committed no crime.

The town’s do-gooder doctor Luke (Charles Drake) feels that he has to do something to stop the madness but he has no idea how to do it.

The idea of a hired killer who taunts his victims into drawing first and then guns them down was far from original but it is used here in an original way, and having such a cold-blooded killer as the protagonist, played by a very popular star, was certainly daring.

Audie Murphy was a war hero who had a troubled life, having never fully recovered from his wartime experiences. It’s ironic that he become so revered as a war hero, given that his wartime military service to a certain extent wrecked his life. He’s not generally all that highly regarded as an actor and is usually dismissed as a guy who really wasn’t much good in anything but westerns. His performance here suggests that there was more to him than that. He may have had a limited range as an actor but he certainly knew how to project menace in an impressively subtle way. He really does make John Gant seem very very dangerous, but without doing anything overt. This is a guy who terrifies people by sitting around drinking coffee and playing chess.

What is really impressive is that Murphy manages to make us like Gant. We care what happens to him.

Gant justifies his work by arguing that all the men he killed deserved killing. If someone hires a killer to kill a man then that man has probably done something pretty bad, and society might well be better off without him. Gant has the psychology of a 20th century hitman rather than a Wild West gunfighter. He kills scientifically and goes to incredibly elaborate lengths to ensue than no innocent bystander gets hurt. Gant kills for money, not because he likes killing. It’s just a job.

Luke can’t help liking him as well.

The ending is rather clever. The film was of course constrained by the Production Code but it gives us an ending that is not quite the predictable Production Code ending that we expect. There’s a nice ouch of ambiguity.

There are a few speechifying moments and Luke gets a bit tiresome with his self-righteousness.

Gene L. Coon’s screenplay is however intelligent and fairly complex. It throws some moral and ethical dilemmas at us without suggesting that there are easy answers. Even Luke’s self-righteousness gets shaken a little.

Director Jack Arnold was renowned as a director of 1950s science fiction movies that were usually a cut above the usual run of such movies.

It often amuses me when people talk about how revolutionary the so-called revisionist westerns of the late 60s and 70s were. There’s really not a single revolutionary thing in those movies that isn’t to be found in the classic Hollywood westerns of the period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. If there was a clever twist that could be given to classic western themes then John Ford, Howards Hawks, Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher had almost certainly already thought of it. Moral ambiguity, flawed heroes, tortured heroes, ethical dilemmas, sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans, a questioning of the mythology of the Wild West - the old masters of the genre had given us all of these things.

And in No Name on the Bullet we get a genuine anti-hero.

Universal’s Region 1 DVD offers a very pleasing 16:9 enhanced transfer (the movie was shot in colour and in the Cinemascope aspect ratio).

I watched this movie based on a glowing recommendation at Riding the High Country.

No Name on the Bullet is an excellent grown-up western with an extraordinary charismatic performance by Audie Murphy. Highly recommended.


  1. Dfordoom, I think you hit the nail on the head in your fine write-up of NO NAME ON THE BULLET(filmed 1958, released 1959).

    I'll comment some more, if this one gets through.

    1. Reading the Riding the High Country blog is slowly but surely turning me into a fan of westerns.

      By the way I've been taking a break from Hitchcock but I'll be returning to him soon.

  2. Yeah, this is a perfect review of what is, although not a GREAT film, a wonderful movie. Definitely one I need to see again.

    I worked out who he was really there to kill pretty quickly, but that didn't spoil anything. And the ending really is very clever.

    Definitely very recommended.

    1. It's a great example of staying technically within the Production Code but still providing a totally satisfying ending.

  3. Dfordoom, I'm glad I got through, because you never know about technology.

    I first viewed NO NAME ON THE BULLET on the WREC Channel 3 Memphis EARLY MOVIE in 1968. I thought it was a really good movie then and I still do today.

    The movie is tense with good acting, especially Audie Murphy. Murphy is a good natural actor and I think most of his movies are enjoyable. I like HELL BENT FOR LEATHER(filmed 1959, released 1960), POSSE FROM HELL(filmed 1960, released 1961, directed by Alfred Hitchcock's longtime associate Herbert Coleman), THE UNFORGIVEN(filmed 1959, released 1960), and others.

    I agree that the so-called revolutionary Westerns of the late 1960's and '70's weren't revolutionary, whatsoever. They did it all in the Post World War II era(1946-1962). Take a look at JUBAL(filmed 1955, released 1956) sometime, if you haven't already.

    1. I'll add JUBAL to my shopping list.

      In the era of the New American Cinema (1967 to late 70s) there was a bit of an attitude that classic Hollywood was something that had to be reacted against. In particular it became fashionable to despise everything from the 1950s, to see 1950s movies as boring and conventional. In actual fact Hollywood film-making in the 50s was remarkably rich and varied and even experimental.

  4. This is probably my favorite Audie Murphy Western.

    I love how he turns expectations of what a professional gunfighter and hired killer is supposed to do on its head. When Gant rides into town, everybody expects him to start killing people right away. Instead he does nothing. Like a spider he just sits and waits. He barely lifts a finger. It's the townspeople's conscience that makes cowards of them all and their facade of respectability crumbles. He just watches mayhem unfold.

    Gant seems to personify a higher abstract justice, just as Clint Eastwood did in High Plains Drifter. Eastwood must have seen this movie before he made Drifter.

    1. Margot, that's a very interesting point about HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (the only revisionist western that I truly love). In both cases the protagonist could be interpreted as being the personification of the town's collective guilt, or as the Devil, or possibly as an avenging angel. The great thing about both movies is that we're not told how to interpret the movie. We have to figure out for ourselves what we think it all means.

  5. I'd like to second Walter's recommendation of JUBAL, a wonderfully realized western tragedy. He's right about HELL BENT FOR LEATHER too, fine effort from George Sherman and another good part for Felicia Farr.

    1. JUBAL and HELL BENT FOR LEATHER are both quite cheap on DVD so I'll add them to my shopping list.

      At the moment the Umbrella DVD of another Audie Murphy western, THE QUICK GUN, is ridiculously cheap. Do you recommend that one?

    2. Dfordoom, in my opinion THE QUICK GUN(filmed 1963, released 1964) is a routine, but watchable Western Movie, although, I would stick with the Westerns that Audie made at Universal-International Pictures. Also, THE UNFORGIVEN, which was released through United Artists. I think SEVEN WAYS FROM SUNDOWN(1960) is worth viewing, not only for Audie, but Barry Sullivan is very good.

      My personal favorite Western actor from this era is Randolph Scott. I highly recommend THE TALL T(filmed 1956, released 1957), which is taken from an original story by Elmore Leonard, with screenplay by Burt Kennedy, and directed by Budd Boetticher. FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER(1954) with Rory Calhoun and Colleen Miller is very well worth viewing. There are so many good ones.

    3. Walter, I've seen a couple of the westerns Randolph Scott did with Budd Boetticher and they were excellent. I'm definitely Italy interested in seeing more of his westerns. 7 MEN FROM NOW is superb.

    4. I love all Audie movies and also any book written about him. Some better than others. I lie his movie Gunsmoke, Ride A Crooked Trail, & Six Black Horses as it also had Dan Duryea, who always gave a lift to Audie's movies. Dan co-starred in 1 or 2 others. My fave is his autobiographical movie To Hell And Back im which he stars as himself. It caused him some emotional difficulties due to reliving his war experiences.

    5. I'm trying to track down a copy of GUNSMOKE. It's an Audie Murphy movie I definitely want to see.

      And yeah, you certainly can't go far wrong with a movie that has Dan Duryea in it.