“We might be the only two honest men in town.” – Audie Murphy as John Gant
Audie Murphy had the added reputation of being a hero in real life, and so it hardly hurt him in his efforts to portray valorous protagonists on the big screen. However, despite being a fairly humble effort, No Name on The Bullet deserves some acknowledgment for giving Murphy the chance to be on the other side of the spectrum.
He’s introduced in the picture with foreboding music. It’s the only character cue we need to go with his dark clothes. He’s no good guy. Soon he’s taken a room at the local hotel and his very presence has gotten the whole town buzzing with apprehension.
Initially, it feels like a somewhat corny setup hinging on overt melodrama. Although Murphy’s by no means over the hill, and even though I’ve only seen him in a couple films, he was never really a compelling lead.
Early on, his youthfulness aided him as did the mystique of his extraordinary war record. If anything, he is a living testament to courage not being solely predicated on imposing physical prowess. Whereas the westerns of old certainly were, and he does not meet one’s typical impression of a gunslinger. His part as John Gant, though menacing and curt, hardly can be considered intriguing at first glance. He feels like a walking trope.
But as he settles in, everything gets more and more engrossing. In fact, the movie’s increasingly deceptive because his part gets better and better the more involved the townsfolk become.
The implications are that his very name strikes fear in every man because he is a notorious assassin who has killed upwards of 20 or 30 men in the past. However, he’s never met a conviction of any kind because he always goads his targets into fighting back. The question remains: Who is he after? The subsequent punchline seems obvious. Someone is going to be dead by the time he leaves town.
The local Sheriff (Willis Bouchey) is a decent man who nevertheless feels helpless. If Gant doesn’t do anything, there’s no law against sticking around town. All he and his deputy can do is keep an eye on the fort.
It’s this unsettling, restless stalemate of the narrative conceit that proves to be the movie’s bedrock. There is also an innate reminder No Name on The Bullet functions very much as a morality play. In terms of story, Gant is the stimulus in the town causing the dark predilections to come to the surface or, more comically, the scurrying rats who want to confess their shading dealings.
Because his mere presence sends shockwaves through the community. The tension comes with not knowing who he is actually after. I even momentarily thought (like The Gunfighter) maybe he’s simply looking for a respite. Not so…
Despite the antagonism, Gant does find one benevolent soul (Charles Drake) who doesn’t hold his reputation or vocation against him, at least not initially. It’s easy since a certain amount of ignorance proves blissful.
Their mutual respect within the picture is informed by the real-life relationship between Murphy and Drake. Murphy considered the other man his best friend and used his pull to get Drake in many of his movies so they could work together. It’s not altogether magical, but there’s no denying it helps their rapport.
Luke Canfield (Drake) is son of the blacksmith while simultaneously filling in as the local doctor. He is pledged to be married to the perky daughter (Joan Evans) of one of his ailing patients. There is little doubt he has a stake in keeping the peace. Even as they come to understand each other, there’s a sense that he and Gant remain diametrically opposed. Still, the gunman suggests they aren’t actually all that different.
They commence a literal chess match that becomes a pretense for the town’s many issues. They trade personal philosophies, with everything that happens around them informing their views of humanity. In the wake of their meeting, the real games begin.
With the sheriff’s powers in question, the invalid judge proposes two alternatives: either vigilante justice — the western standard of mob rule — or let Gant kill his man. Then, everything would be settled.
Though hesitant, Canfield finally resolves to get at the head of the mob to try and ensure no further bloodshed will take place. As town physician, this is his main prerogative. As a trained killer with a job to do, Gant has other ideas, even if he’s not looking to take the other man down with him. They appear to be two immovable forces at a kind of impasse.
The final twist is a lovely bit of, shall we say, poetic justice. The story is served best by an open ending because this is not a distillation of reality; it is a western parable of good vs evil, human corruption, and ultimately, some form of instinctual integrity.
Thinking about it in retrospect, it really is a fine stroke of inspiration to turn America’s greatest WII hero into a villain. It sends a distinct message to your audience: We must look inside ourselves and consider our own character.
Do we stand up to scrutiny? Are the heroes we prop up all that different than our villains or do we often choose to see what we want to? For that matter, are we very far removed from those that we conveniently categorize as villains?
Now 14 years after the end of WWII, you might say America was in a place to start coming to terms with its specters. The 50s were still an age of innocence, but we were on the cusp of something far bleaker. No Name on The Bullet is a portent for a future generation of westerns. Those bearing the mark of a far muddier morality.