1 January 2005 | jacksflicks
A Little Gem of a Western
Movies like No Name on the Bullet uncover the depth of talent in Hollywood. The roles are filled almost exclusively by familiar faces with unfamiliar names - R. G. Armstrong, Willis Bouchey, Edgar Stehli - with the result that one can concentrate on the story characters rather than being distracted by "star presence".
Without a top-heavy cast, the story itself also gains focus, and I think the story of No Name on the Bullet is fascinating. What happens when a notorious contract killer rides into town and...does absolutely nothing?
The one star of the movie, Audie Murphy, plays the gunman. I love Murphy, one of Hollywood's misspent talents. Does this also apply to the the character actors I refer to above? Not really.
Character players, though quite talented, rarely attain stardom - Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor and Claude Rains are notable exceptions - not through neglect or misuse but by some limitation of range or persona. Audie Murphy's talent was misspent because, though obvious, it was never developed, either by studios, who, myopically, only wanted to exploit his war hero status as a box office draw, or directors who, in Murphy's career, were usually "line directors," good for getting a movie in the can on time and on budget rather than for getting great performances out their players.
Which brings me to director Jack Arnold, who does a journeyman's job, but who I believe is the cause for what another reviewer wrongheadedly calls Murphy's shortcomings. Stilted lines and studied movement are the results of "hands-off" direction. This is OK for the character parts, where skilled players in simple roles don't need much direction, but not for lead roles. Watching Murphy I'm reminded of another sadly underdeveloped star, Alan Ladd, whose talents always shone under a great director, but who didn't get those directors consistently enough, in my opinion, to fulfill his promise. Coincidentally, both Murphy and Ladd died prematurely. Perhaps not coincidentally, both had drinking problems. I wonder if they might have been experiencing similar frustrations.
Since No Name on the Bullet contains complex secondary parts, it's fortunate, that the players cast for these parts are outstanding, so the characters are interesting. Unfortunately, the budget constraints force the runtime of the film to be far too short. The result is a number of unresolved character studies. I want to know more about the blacksmith, the ex-flame and the judge - and more about the gunfighter. I'd also like to see more denouement. The main plot ends too abruptly, as if the producers were saying, "That's all we can afford to give you, Folks." That said, I wouldn't call the ending dumb, again as the wrongheaded reviewer cited above asserts, just shortchanged.
Returning to my opening thesis, that watching a cast of talented character players carry a movie is a special treat, I highly recommend this little gem of a Western.