No Name on The Bullet (1959): America’s Hero Becomes a Villain

Nonameonthebullet.jpg“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 apprehensively.

Initially, it feels like a somewhat corny setup hinging on melodrama. Although Murphy’s by no means over-the-hill, and 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 shock waves 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.

3.5/5 Stars

Somewhere in the Night (1946): John Hodiak and Amnesia Noir

Somewhere_in_the_Night_-1946-PosterOf the plethora of returning G.I. films and film noirs, this one reflects their fears most overtly and for this very reason, it might be generally the most forgotten today. That and the assembly of a lower-tier cast. Most of these names have been lost to time.

The one name remaining fairly enduring and bright in the annals of cinema is Joseph L. Mankiewicz who while still early in his career, was carving out a name for himself as both a writer and a director, following a stint producing. Somewhere in the Night is an early showcase for his skills.

He brings us an amnesia plot from the POV of a wounded veteran who has no idea about his own past. The soldier’s wartime injuries made sure of that and while he cannot speak, his mind is alive — an opportune moment for Mankiewicz to call on some illuminating voice-over. If anything it tells us how little this man knows and sometimes that is enough.

George Taylor (John Hodiak) finally returns to New York trying to start afresh and piece his life back together. All he has to go on are a few stray belonging from his former life. Everything, from his previous residence at the Martin Hotel, to a letter, and $5,000 deposited in his bank account, seem to lead to someone named Larry Cravat.

For the audience, we’re up for the mystery but in Taylor’s case, his identity hangs in the very balance of this question. He has to know and so he hits the pavements poking around. Henry Morgan can always be counted on in a bit part, gruffly pointing the direction to a local watering hole, The Cellar.

There a reticent Whit Bissell stands behind the bar. His face suggests he has something to say, but there’s hesitance when Taylor starts peppering him with inquiries. The bar has ears and two thugs lurk nearby. Our man doesn’t wait around to get acquainted, fleeing the scene. Instead, he wanders into the first room that happens to be open, a pretty girl’s dressing room (Nancy Guild).

The meet-cute has been sprung upon us out of necessity. Full disclosure, her singing is alright and she fits the good girl persona, but her piano playing leaves something to be desired. One must also question how easily Nancy falls in love with her deceased best friend’s former beau (This is how they connect with one another). Regardless, in watching her affable turn, you wonder why Guild never got a bigger break.

Since a good girl is never found without her foil, by pure ‘chance’ another pretty girl wanders into Taylor. It’s literally the complete inverse of the prior scene except this dame meant to be there. We don’t know why yet. The events keep on stacking one on top of the other until he’s forcibly taken for a rendezvous where he is told to stop poking around.

The story stalls when it gets talky, though it might seem a necessary evil to lend some clarity to the myriad of events. Up to this point, we have no true frame of reference. Mel Phillips (Richard Conte) becomes one anchor, as Christy’s boss who looks ready to help in any way he can. Also, Lloyd Nolan turns up as a steady police detective with an inside scoop. It turns out at the center of this entire web is hot Nazi money priced at $2,000,000. Of course.

We have mysterious messages left on windshields, house calls involving a belligerent Sheldon Leonard, Double Indemnity references, and a very familiar face; along with another ominous character. Another man named Anzelmo checks all the boxes for sleaze with his foreign accent and dubious reputation but he is only a piece in this puzzle. If this is all very oblique it’s meant to be in staying the film’s own tendencies. 

By this point, our plot is either overwhelming or monotonous as Taylor meets a homely woman sharing in a cryptic conversation that proves also deeply sentimental. Again, it is these long-winded moments that are to the story’s detriment. While Larry Cravat remains an important trigger word, one Michael Conroy is also a person of interest.

Somewhere in The Night earns its title outright around this juncture. When a character wanders into a building at the dead of night and goes down a long, low-lit corridor in search of some unnameable thing, we know we have arrived in the heart of film noir territory. There is no doubt. It feels like one of the turning points in The Big Sleep when Marlowe, snooping around, winds up finding a dead body on a carpet. An analogous outcome happens here. 

There’s a meeting of the minds in one final powwow to collectively assemble all the primary players for the long-awaited reveal.  But the final act’s twist is so obvious, it makes all the labyrinthine whirly gig leading up feel somewhat empty. However, it is often said it’s not about the outcomes but the road along the way. Taken in this light, Somewhere in The Night has its moments of genuine intrigue.

It is easy to write off the cast for their relatively forgotten status. Even Lloyd Nolan has high billing (the man most well-known for playing a detective) for a relatively minor part. But I would argue Richard Conte is an unsung hero of film noir, while the picture does give allowance for some intriguing roles in support.

Hodiak is not the ideal to hold a movie together, but he is not in this alone. It also turns out the movies were right. Detectives do always keep their hats on. Just in case they’ve got to shoot someone — it helps keep their hand’s free — makes sense enough.

3./5 Stars

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954): Social Commentary in The Guise of Exploitation

Riotcellblockpost.jpgIf you’re like me you met Don Siegel because of Dirty Harry (1971) or maybe The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). But it was only after discovering the rest of his work — the likes of The Big Steal (1949), The Lineup (1958), or even this film, where you began to appreciate the consummate craftsman that he was.

The film makes a creative choice to set up its narrative with real-life newsreel footage of prison riots across America and this is no facsimile; it feels like the real deal. This decision begins with the initial impetus of producer Walter Wang to make a picture authentic to the plight of prisoners. Showing the inside and the inherent issues with such mass incarceration. Why would he have such a stake in telling these stories in a picture like Riot in Cell Block 11 or I Want to Live (1958)?

It’s because he actually spent a spell in prison himself after shooting his wife’s lover. That is a whole different story, but it gives us some context for the aims of this project.

Compared to Brute Force (1947) or Caged (1950), for instance, this is not simply a story of brutality at the hands of some maniacal prison guard like Hume Cronyn or Hope Emerson. Those narratives are assuredly entertaining. But for something that looks similarly exploitative, this picture decides on a more nuanced approach in a generally successful attempt at open-ended social commentary.

The warden (Emile Meyer), for instance, is a no-nonsense man but far from a tyrannical monster; he has a grim view of the prison system, knowing they are not always able to offer the best rehabilitation. He constantly strives for discipline while also harboring a certain level of sympathy for those deserving of it. He is a first-hand witness to the short-sighted effects of negligence in our justice system.

It turns out that before the days of Johnny Cash, Folsom State Prison was used as the shooting location for this film. Siegel even had the ingenuity to cast real-life prisoners as extras. I’m not sure how the logistics worked out, but the film undoubtedly benefits surrounding the already believable tough guys like Neville Brand and hulking Leo Gordon with a host of others.

The usual suspects include a skulking Alvy Moore (pre-Green Acres) and “The Colonel” who is the most learned of the inmates and helps to give them some credibility. The lives of prison guards, including Whit Bissell and Paul Frees, reflect how close the jailers get to their charges. That’s a dangerous arena and especially with the guy’s in solitary.

Without this overcrowded, undermanned system, there would be no Riot in Cell Block 11. As it is, four guards are easily overpowered and held hostage to be used as leverage against the authorities.  There’s a giddy jubilance to their trashing of the cell block that’s nearly comical, even as the stakes are far more harrowing. It proves far more than a game, with lives on either side of the wire at stake.

James V. Dunn (Brand) takes the lead, daring all others to join him and his band of cronies. Crazy Mike Carnie (Gordon) is the one who frightens everyone into line. But it is The Colonel (Robert Osterloh) who is called upon to organize their grievances to be presented. He provides a voice of reason and rationality we would be lacking otherwise.

The warden is put in an agonizing position, walking the tightrope between the prisoner demands and the outsiders coming in, including the pitiless commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen), going all the way up to the governor. Likewise, worried spouses call his office about their husbands’ well-being as journalists (including William Schallert) look to stir up the story around the riot.

At its cores is this ideological war of treating prisoners firmly but with inherent dignity and then caging them up with the most merciless of standards to keep them in line. To show clemenscy is seen as a sign of weakness.

Inside and outside the bars, you see people with grievances and problems like any person. It humanizes everyone, in a sense, going beyond mere exploitative drama. It somehow wears a fairly convincing cloak of authenticity while still remaining pulse-pounding stuff. Because I’ve seen prison riots captured on film before but to my knowledge, there’s never been anything so enveloping and tumultuous on all fronts.

Keeping with Wang’s agenda, the film does not pull any punches as it slinks back into the status quo. There is tragedy, there is victory, and finally, there is a feeling of powerlessness in the face of bureaucracy. It’s as if a man’s word stands for nothing. It’s as if this whole ordeal was entirely pointless.  The finale is as eye-opening as it is pessimistic. But movies have a license to do that. It makes them a lot more lifelike.

4/5 Stars

Brute Force (1947)

BruteForceImage873Potentially one of the weaker Jules Dassin films noir, Brute Force is still a worthwhile film exploring the dynamics of a prison during the 1940s. The inspiration comes from the rebellion at Alcatraz in 1946 and this film was shocking at the time for the amount of violence it portrayed. It stars Burt Lancaster as the glowering leader of a group of prisoners in block K17. His main antagonist and the villain of the entire yard is the authoritarian Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn in an especially icy role).

The story follows the inmates as they make due with prison life and bide their time waiting for parole. However, Joe Collins, who is fresh off a spell of solitary confinement, seems bent on escape. The prison warden is an older fellow struggling to keep tempers from boiling over. The likable but often inebriated doctor (Art Smith) can see the writing on the wall. Things are reaching the end of the line if Munsey continues to hike up his tactics that are making the men resent him more and more every day. It’s positively a powder keg and it’s not going to be a pretty sight if the pressures get to be too much.

The entirety of the film takes place within the confines of the prison except for a couple flashbacks as four men recall the women they left outside in the real world. They are played by Anita Colby, Ella Raines, Yvonne De Carlo and Ann Blyth respectively, reflecting the hope, memories, and loved ones who are pulling at these men and ultimately led them to get into trouble. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but you might even be able to call them the femme fatales in an otherwise very male-centric film.

One man hangs himself afterward from Munsey and another gets it for causing problems for Joe. Neither of these men is looking to stand down anytime soon as Joe cautiously begins enacting plans of escape with another prisoner named Gallagher (Charles Bickford). Munsey continues to hound prisoners for information while halting all privileges.

Ultimately, the finale turns into the most electrifying moment of the film, while simultaneously Munsey is made the new warden and Collins puts his plan in action. Guards are waiting for him and his crew, but Gallagher has plans of his own in the compound. It leads to a handful of explosions, endless mayhem, and more than a few deaths. This is what happens when you use brute force.

4/5 Stars