Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Forgotten Movies - Jack Arnold's NO NAME ON THE BULLET

I used to know someone who was downright obsessed with Audie Murphy. He was a fanzine writer who wrote about almost nothing but Murphy and 50s westerns - not very well, despite the passion - and his idol worship of Murphy, who I had never heard of before I met this guy, tainted my initial impression of this unique individual. He'd talk of Murphy like some genius talent we should all bow down to, while Murphy's films were spoken of like they were they were Kurosawa's, and it got to be embarrassing after a point. But I eventually did learn a lot about Murphy (he claimed to be working on a book about Murphy which, no surprise, never materialized): That he was the most decorated solider of WWII and that he stumbled onto acting not long after that (Cagney apparently saw star potential in him and suggested he give acting a try), eventually becoming a star. He specialized in westerns and war pictures with his most famous being John Houston's film version of THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE and then TO HELL AND BACK, where Murphy played himself, based on his autobiography. NO NAME ON THE BULLET happened to be the name of this person's fanzine, so when I finally found out that there was, in fact, an Audie Murphy movie by that title, I was under no real hurry to seek it out. But as the years went by - and as I dropped any contact with this person - I'd read a bit more about Murphy, and especially his westerns, and I took an interest. And now having seen NO NAME ON THE BULLET, I have to say that Mr. Murphy's overzealous fan was at least right about one thing: This is a pretty damn good movie, and Murphy's the best thing about it.

One thing about NO NAME ON THE BULLET I personally find to be interesting is that it comes from the tail end of the 50s western revival (1959, specifically), when the genre had evolved throughout the decade to become smarter, more mature, even darker at times. It was this decade that brought us the best the genre ever had to offer, like WINCHESTER '73, THE SEARCHERS, THE TALL T, 3:10 TO YUMA and GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, and NO NAME ON THE BULLET was a picture that took the genre as seriously as they did, even though it was, on the outside, a mere Universal programmer. Well throughout the decade, Universal made numerous quickie westerns (and some classics, too, like the Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart pictures), and NO NAME ON THE BULLET was meant to be nothing more than that, teaming Murphy with top Universal contract director Jack Arnold (best known for his sci-fi films like IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE). But in what seems to be a fine example of pure luck or the stars alligning, Arnold and Murphy got their hands on a solid script from Gene L. Coon (later a regular writer on STAR TREK) and made a quickie western that has stood the test of time pretty well. The thing that makes NO NAME ON THE BULLET works so well is that it's got a hook, and if you've got a hook, then you're always off to a solid start in my book. Premise finds notorious professional gun Murphy riding into a small town that suddenly grows paranoid over his appearance. It's known that Murphy is there to kill someone, but just who is it? Those with something to hide are suddenly running scared, while those who suspect others of hiring Murphy, call out their enemies. Murphy, meanwhile, just sits out all the paranoia, befriending doctor Charles Drake, and waiting for the right time to make his kill, which he always does by getting the other person to draw first. That, my dear readers, is what I call a good hook.

What sets NO NAME ON THE BULLET apart, aside from said hook, are two things. First, Arnold keeps things small and efficient. Even though he's shooting in Cinemascope (as was pretty much the norm at the time), he's basically got a small cast of capable players (including the always-welcome R.G. Armstrong), not a lot of locations (Universal lot, mainly) and little in the way of unnecessary plotting. NO NAME ON THE BULLET is only 77 minutes long, but it's a tight 77 minutes, with little to none wasted material or ideas. Within all of this, Coon's script is able to bring up some parallels to 50s paranoia (McCarthyism and the Red Scare) while smartly sticking within western genre conventions of the time. And it's also got a good villain, which makes for that second plus, Murphy's lead performance. This was the only villain Murphy ever played, and it's a solid piece of work all-around, especially in how his character spends a lot of time just sitting back and watching others trip all over themselves to discover what he's after. By doing that, Murphy convincingly comes across as the intimidating and cruel man this character is supposed to be, and he stays very much in character throughout (he never tries to show a softer side) to help put this one over the top as a quality picture. What's interesting is trying to figure out if this guy is truly smarter than everyone else, or simply just good at killing and drawing out his prey. He's a legitimately dangerous character, and by using someone like Murphy - who always possessed a simple, down-home Texas charm - Arnold is able to add an element of dread that casting someone who specialized in villians might not have brought to the film. Needless to say, this is very effective casting, and it pretty much makes the movie.

Unlike a lot of The Forgotten Movies, NO NAME ON THE BULLET is available on DVD in a relatively satisfying presentation from Universal. It's widescreen and contains a trailer, but it doesn't cost too much and what matters here is the movie, not any fancy add-ons. It's a quick, easy watch, and you get a pretty satisfying 77 minutes out if it.


Ed Howard said...

Nice writeup. By coincidence, I watched and reviewed this film recently too, and I agree that it's a fine, unshowy Western programmer, with a great premise that's use to subtly build tension and explore moral questions. It's somewhat similar to High Noon in using a slow-boiling suspense plot as a way of exploring the characters in a small Western town.

Headquarters 10 said...

Well, I guess it's not so forgotten, after all. Thanks for the nice words, Ed!

blackfeatherfarm said...

Not forgotten at all, I just watched it today, right after I watched Seven Ways From Sundown. Meet someone else who loves Audie Murphy to no end. I watch his movies regularly, and am frustrated they are not all available on dvd. I am having to watch old vhs tapes for many of them. I hope they will all be available eventually, as I want to collect every one of them. I found your blog searching for his dvds. I'm glad you ended up giving his movies a chance. I would watch him over so-called "A" westerns any day of the week. Audie was the real deal, could really ride, a natural quick draw and a crack shot. But then I guess you are tired of hearing all that !
I agree, nice writeup, thanks for doing it. I don't want him to be forgotten.