NO NAME ON THE BULLET is a thoughtful, interesting, small-scale 1959 western, a tad overrated perhaps because its star, Audie Murphy, was generally underrated. Here he plays against type, as a bad guy. He’s very good, and as the story calls for it, rather unsettling, a preternaturally calm threat, not so much a traditional quick-gun as just a cool and calculating assassin. Watch his eyes: he ain’t kiddin’. *
After Murphy coolly disdains to bother plugging him, disgusted Virginia Grey tells her gutless braggart husband Warren Stevens that’s because he “must hate us even more than I thought. He’s going to let us stay together.” Corrosive sentiments like that run beneath the placid exterior of the town that the infamous ‘John Gant’ (Murphy) puts in a blame-shifting tizzy when the citizens, both upright and shady, can’t figure which one of them he came looking for. When the burg’s reasonable doctor (Charles Drake) debates the blasé killer (the sheriff has already bagged it) about his profession, Gant/Murphy flips back to the physician: “They’re going to die anyway. Best you can do is drag out their worthless lives. Why bother?
Other than the standard B-western nonsense, like people being ‘nicked’ with a .45 (‘never mind this gaping hole in my shoulder, just get me some whiskey and a bandage’), it’s proficiently directed by Jack Arnold, decently written by Gene L. Coon. The teamwork brought it in to corral 88th place for the year, grossing $2,710,000, covering its trim budget. 77 minutes, with Joan Evans, Willis Bouchley, R.G. Armstrong (playing Drake’s father—the two actors were the same age), Karl Swenson, Whit Bissell, Charles Watts and an out-of-place Jerry Paris.
* Character actor Morgan Woodward, no slouch when it came to projecting intimidation (‘Boss Godfrey, ‘the man with no eyes’ in Cool Hand Luke) observed that Murphy’s “eyes almost seemed to dance. They had a deadly gleam, a deadly wild look. I would not have wanted to cross him.” For five years after his 1955 hit To Hell And Back, Murphy’s vehicles upped their budget, quality and range but after 1960’s The Unforgiven (for John Huston, one of his best performances), things turned downward and stayed there. This one is worth a gander, mostly due to Murphy, and the current critical take on it also makes hay with the tidbits that director Arnold is best known for his spate of 50s sci-fi favorites, that writer Coon was later partially responsible for Star Trek and that Don Graham’s well-done biography of Murphy made a smart selection for its title by using the one from this movie.