The Western is perhaps the only genre in cinema that is 100% American in its origin. Without going into detail concerning the obvious, i.e. the Western's inherent confinement to a specific time period and regionalized geographic location, it should be noted that most Westerns also possess another distinct characteristic -- the "tripartite division" between the peace loving, civilized 'townspeople', the evil, larger-than-life 'outlaw' and the frequently reluctant 'hero' who ultimately triumphs and restores law and order. What makes NO NAME ON THE BULLET an extremely interesting and entertaining motion picture is that in this case many of the townspeople are unworthy of protection and the hero is by no means a traditional one. Originally released in 1959, this film remains both insightful and relevant -- especially within the context of today's political climate
Audie Murphy plays John Gant, a hired killer who rides into Lordsburg, a tranquil, seemingly prosperous town in the old West. His reputation precedes him. Despite numerous attempts at trying to get Gant to reveal the name of the person he has been contracted to kill, the hired gun remains silent. Everyone knows he will eventually confront his prey, goading him to "draw first" so that he will kill in self defense, but for days on end Gant is content to simply hang around town and let the suspense build.
Tension mounts and one by one some of the more "upstanding" townspeople begin to panic due to previous indescretions. The banker, for example, commits suicide, convinced he's the one Gant was sent to kill. And that's only the beginning as mass guilt and paranoia quickly turn seemingly law-abiding citizens into a mob of vigilantes.
The hero is Dr. Luke Canfield (played by Charles Drake), a medical doctor who meets Gant within minutes of his arrival in town. Canfield tries to understand the mindset of this killer, and he initially serves as the voice of reason. When things apparently turn very personal, he decides to take a stand. Rather than give away the ending, let me simply say that the denouement is both surprising and inspired. As Gant says, "Everything comes to a finish."
Directed by Jack Arnold (who also directed CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON), this CinemaScope production, shot in glorious Technicolor, was released on DVD by Universal in 2004. Blessed with a terrific cast of supporting actors -- R. G. Armstrong, Willis Bouchey, Edgar Stehli to name but a few -- NO NAME ON THE BULLET is a truly fascinating, untraditional Western.
I earlier alluded to the fact that this film remains highly relevant today. Let me explain. In Lordsburg, everything on the surface appears to be benign. The town is growing, people are going about their everyday lives in a relatively carefree maner. Then, quite unexpectedly, danger arrives (in this case it is a "terrorist" in the form of a hired gunman) and the facade of comfort and harmony erodes rapidly. Many of those in power, both in terms of the town's politics and the town's business structure, overreact. They collectively succeed in getting the rank and file townfolk to unite behind their call for action, citing protection and safety for one and all as justification, but doing so primarily for their own hidden agendas and for their own personal, profitable motives. Yes, the good citizens of Lordsburg are duped and they prepare to go to war against what they perceive to be a common enemy. Luckily for them, this ruse lasts less than a day. As for us, in 2005, the clock continues to tick.