Tuesday, July 26, 2005

No Name on the Bullet

Longtime readers of this blog know my affinity for the psychological Western, so I was intrigued by last night's offering on TCM, No Name on the Bullet, starring Audie Murphy in a very eerie performance as hired gun John Gant.

As the story opens, Gant's arrived in an average Western town to carry out a contract killing, but nobody knows who his target is. As the tension mounts, paranoia sets in. Gant quietly forces everyone to face their own pasts, the misdeeds in their own lives that may have caused someone to hire Gant to settle the score. One man cracks under the strain and kills himself. Another, emboldened by drink and the taunts of the woman he stole from another man, calls Gant out - only to be revealed as the coward he is. People start accusing each other of having been the one to hire Gant, and imagine themselves as the intended victim. Gant sits back as it unfolds, musing philosophically on the guilt that each one of us has to live with.

It's hard to imagine that Sergio Leone, director of the "Man With No Name" series of Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, wasn't influenced by this film. It's quite easy to imagine Eastwood in the John Gant role, the gunfighter who in reality might be an avenging angel (although, as Judie pointed out, Murphy had about three times the number of lines Eastwood would have had). The movie's biblical symbolism is apparent - the town doctor who tries to bring reason to all involved is a physician named Luke, and Judge Benson, the resident elder statesman, dons the robes of Caiaphas the high priest in suggesting that the townspeople find the man Gant's been sent to kill and offer him up to Gant - better that one man should die than the entire town. Even for the western, a genre known for its adaptability to moral allegory, the signs in this one were pronounced.

Above all is the performance of Audie Murphy as Gant, the man with ice water running through his veins, who views his trade through the eyes of a philosopher. The innocent have nothing to fear - as a hired gun, he only kills for the money (as he puts it, he doesn't like to waste his craft). And who among us are truly innocent, Gant asks. Have we not all something to hide? It's not only Gant's words, but the unsettling calm with which Murphy delivers them, that creates the power in the role. For Murphy, the most decorated soldier in World War II, winner of 33 awards and decorations including the Congressional Medal of Honor, the role fit him to a T. His acts of heroism, paraphrasing one observer, were not those committed in anger or fear, but were those of the calm, detached man who was able to clearly see what was happening and what needed to be done. Murphy's friends, according to TCM host Robert Osborne, saw Gant as the perfect Murphy role.

On its own merits No Name on the Bullet is worth watching - had it been slightly better acted it could have become a classic (much as its predecessor on TCM's schedule, Bad Day at Black Rock). As a precursor to Eastwood's spaghetti westerns, and with its biblical overtones of good and evil and universal guilt, it becomes fascinating.

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