No Name on the Bullet (1959)

No Name on the Bullet is a philosophical western. Oh, there’s shooting and such, but it’s minimal and only when pretty goldang necessary. And that’s what makes this such a fascinating, vastly underrated movie.

Audie Murphy plays John Gant, a hired gun who moseys into the old-time frontier town of Lordsburg. When he gives his name to the innkeeper, played by Charles Watts (not the Rolling Stones drummer), the innkeeper runs out in an almost comical display of fretting and panic. John Gant’s here, don’t you see? Don’t you know who John Gant is?

And most of the people in the small town do know his name, although they’ve never met Mr. Gant. Seems the legend is that Gant goes into a town to kill someone on the orders of… well, someone else. Gant’s MO is to goad his victim into a fight and then shoot him down, thus preventing anyone from arresting him as a murderer. Self-defense, you see. And now here he is, in Lordsburg.

Well, that kind of sets people a-hopping. As it turns out, there’s already some conflict bubbling right below the surface, with bankers and miners and ranchers squabbling about things that Important Men squabble about. What they’re bickering over isn’t germane, though; the upshot is that because some resent others and vice-versa, they accuse one another of hiring Gant to come in and knock the other off, which may or may not be true.

About the only guy in town who’s never heard of Gant before is the kindly doctor, Doc Canfield (Charles Drake). Doc takes to Gant, seeing him as a smart, well-mannered, even cultured man – he even plays chess with him. And as Gant bides his time in town, chatting amiably – but guardedly – with Doc, his mere presence allows the simmering conflicts to burst out into the open. A man kills himself, and all eyes fall on Gant as the cause.

As I noted, just about all of the conflict in the movie is gunplay free, so this isn’t your typical western. Gant doesn’t even wear black, which keeps with his moral ambiguity. Is he truly the demon that the townspeople think he is? Does he kill in cold blood? Is he here to kill anyone, or is he just passing through? No one knows, and Gant’s not forthcoming with information.

Murphy, who was the most decorated combat soldier in World War II, is fantastic, offering a subtle performance that apparently was atypical of his work (he appeared in nearly 50 films from 1948 to 1969, mostly westerns). Indeed, No Name on the Bullet is a pretty atypical western of its own accord, prompting the viewer to ruminate instead of just vegetate. This isn’t a shoot-’em-up thriller, but Murphy’s nuanced performance (supported amiably and ably by Drake) along with a tight script make this a hidden classic.



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