NO NAME ON THE BULLET
We've seen his great science fiction; we've seen his great satirical thriller; now comes, at the end of the decade of his most abundant success, Jack Arnold's great philosophical Western.
Directed by Jack Arnold
Written by Gene L. Coon and Howard Amacker
With Audie Murphy (John Gant), Charles Drake (Dr. Luke Canfield), Joan Evans (Anne Benson), Willis Bouchey (Sheriff Buck Hastings), and Edgar Stehli (Judge Benson)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Revenge of the Creature. We'll get to This Island Earth, secretly directed by Arnold in 1955, and Tarantula, his next credited picture, soon. For now, we need to talk about Jack Arnold and his participation in the American genre, the Western, because I'm just so damned pleased with it, I couldn't wait.
Let's be accurate and correct, however. No Name on the Bullet wasn't Arnold's first Western; in fact, counting Outside the Law, a neo-Western noir, it was his fourth. I cannot say, at this time, whether it was his best or his worst, but if Outside the Law, Red Sundown or The Man in the Shadow were available in any form that wouldn't force me to gamble a significant amount of money on a copy—significant enough that finding a new Flash Gordon could hardly justify it—I'd be ecstatic to be able to make the comparisons. (That's the same reason The Creature Walks Among Us is, unfortunately, not presently on our schedule. It's not a Jack Arnold movie, but it is a Gill-Man movie, and if you've done two you might as well do three—unless it would cost you 25 bucks.)
The loss of films to the public in anything like an accessible form is, I think, nearly as bad as the physical loss of films to entropy. We can only take solace that at least in the former case, the possibility of resurrection remains. Criterion, Kino Lorber, even Universal itself—is anyone listening? Probably not. We are caught in a nightmare world, between the twin evils of snobs and slobs, where the ordinary man has little say.
Pictured: how I feel pretty much all the time when it comes to defending my taste.
No Name isn't my first Western, either, but it is a genre for which I have unforgivably shallow knowledge and near-zero expertise. I can reference as far back as Stagecoach and I have seen the most recent (and I'm sure the most hopelessly-mutated) big Western to have graced our screens, The Lone Ranger. Yet if I claimed to have seen anything more than a scientifically-invalid representative sampling of everything in between, I'd be a liar. And John Gant doesn't respect a liar.
I have seen enough Westerns to know the type represented by this black-clad stranger who comes into town, with a name very much on his bullet, but one known only to him. He is the invisibly-fast, impossibly-accurate gunman, played variously as hero, villain, and antihero—and, here, as a force of nature itself.
"So, how would yew go about killin' that-there God in yew, pardner?"
I don't know for a fact that Arnold, Gene Coon, or Howard Amacker had already seen 1957's The Seventh Seal when they made No Name; maybe one of them had just visited some churches in Uppland, like Ingmar Bergman himself did, and while the Swede conceived a dour, agnostic passion play around a game of chess, we Americans saw something else in the idea, certainly a little more commercial, perhaps a little more fun. But make no mistake: the man known as John Gant is, until the final, lumpy moments of plot-mechanical climax, as literal a representation of Death as you can get without a black robe.
Thus does Death arrive in Desert Rock, his reputation far preceding him. Gant is not just a fearsome gun, but an assassin, infamous for killing twenty men, or more. Yet before the law he is an innocent, free to kill again and again; like Death himself, he has never truly murdered. Gant is the hired killer who kills only in self-defense. He goads his prey with his words and gaze and the implacability of his mere presence, until, when they attempt to remove him, he strikes back.
The folk of Desert Rock wonder whom Gant claims now. Their fearful suspicions become obsessions. Guilt courses through the population, and we become privy to the hidden crimes of men. A banker, rather than face Gant's pistol, turns his gun upon himself; a group of miners, cheated by their financial backers, takes matters into their own hands, descending en masse upon the men they believe have hired Gant to kill them; a wheelchair-bound old judge with his own secrets ponders that the only way to ever stop Gant is to walk into his bullet.
Meanwhile, Gant merely waits, observing, contemplating, judging. He makes the acquaintance of a man he considers much like himself, only on the wrong side—inevitably, a doctor of medicine. This is Luke—the Physician, Gant calls him, in reference to the apostle. The avatar of death meets the soldier for life on the chessboard of existence. Gant speaks freely of his work, with a cool but unmistakeable pride: he too is a healer, he says; he cures bad men of existence; he cures humanity of moral infections.
"He's dead, Jim."
This simply must be Gene Coon, on whom I can speak with some familiarity (Amacker's only credit is this here picture, and might as well be a phantom himself).
Coon's one of those screenwriters who's become, to a certain segment of the nerd population, a household name; he is, after all, arguably the single most important writer the original Star Trek had, after Gene Roddenberry himself, and the fact is only arguable because D.C. Fontana exists. Coon's Trek includes the bizarre expressionist space Western "Spectre of the Gun," the race war tale "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," and the champion episodes "Space Seed," "A Taste of Armageddon," "Arena," and "Devil in the Dark," the last being the most wonderfully Star Trek thing ever made (it's the one with the Horta). His work on the program demonstrates an inexhaustible capacity for blindingly obvious symbolism. Contrary to the lit majors, such accessible allegory is oftenest the best kind of symbolism, when it is pursued with care and, if not subtlety, then a certain sobriety that keeps it from tipping into blunt, unintentional comedy. Not all of Coon's work possessed that quality, but No Name does.
In fact, though written eight years prior to Coon's contributions to Roddenberry's phenomenon, No Name plays in so many respects like an episode of Trek. It is a talky film, intellectual enough, packed with opposing ideas about the meaning and value of life and those that live it, yet never failing to be suspenseful, violent, and fun. The thing about good Westerns—and nearly every one I've ever seen has been at least good—is that, even so, they're still almost always too long (hello, Sergio Leone). But No Name is as trim and compact as Audie Murphy himself, at 77 eventful minutes.
Murphy, in contrast to Coon, is a name I know but a man whose work I don't—excepting distant, possibly-imagined childhood memories of The Red Badge of Courage, I'm a stranger to his films. His screen reputation is that of a white hat, a heroic, sometimes reluctant gunslinger; in real life, he was a killing machine, specifically a machine for killing Germans, but one that broke down shortly after the war, for in those days we didn't know that decorations for valor didn't heal the psychic wounds combat can inflict. The result was that, despite some professional success, in private he became a violent drunk who scared his co-stars and almost murdered a man in a bar fight. As an actor, he was and is usually considered entirely but merely adequate.
If so, No Name might well be Murphy's finest turn: here he is absolutely perfect. Death takes the form of Murphy's boyish beauty, a thin, almost fragile figure, belying his power; he is flawless and ageless and cruel. The deep, unknowable darkness that seems to have driven the real Murphy is in his eyes; but there is also a gentility that is evident in Gant in every word he speaks, from his heady discussions with his opposite number on the side of life, to his fearless but reasoned confrontation with a lynch mob. Gant is educated enough to have philosophy; and he has been taught by the misery of life to face death without a blink, with barely a change in the tone of his voice. More than anything else is the the superhuman self-control Murphy evokes for Gant, with a tightly constrained physical performance, his demeanor one only a murderous angel of God could ever possess. Every movement Murphy makes has terrible purpose.
And awful portent.
We learn much of Desert Rock's inhabitants, without No Name ever feeling vignettish, for focus does always return to Gant and his Physician. As I witnessed Desert Rock slowly boil over with paranoia and human weakness while Luke impotently preaches peace, I came to suspect I was watching a nearly perfect film, a Western with not a little bit of a Hitchcockian thriller in it, and given power by the dialectic between two archetypal, almost mythic characters. Arnold is competent, often elegant, offering an imprisoning vision of the West as it was lived indoors: I've seen it described as a chamber Western, two words that would almost never go together, but no two words could put the matter more succinctly. Indoors as well as out, Arnold's direction is as psychologically detached and focused as Gant himself, tensed, rigid, ready to deal swift, efficient, decisive violence. Arnold's was always a quieter authorship, and I think this explains why his work outside of science fiction has been ignored by critics. The striking fact is that there is so much of the spirit of his science fiction in this dark Western. Coon's screenplay was brought to life by the perfect man for the job.
The poster promises "the strangest killer who ever stalked the West!", and perhaps this is true, perhaps not. But this Western's hero must be stranger still: he is no gunman—he doesn't even own a pistol. He's a man of knowledge, a paragon of moral decency, a thoughtful man, a nonviolent man, a science hero. By Arnold's careful design, Charles Drake channels his nemesis in It Came From Outer Space, placing no less than Richard Carlson's own humane persona into a setting ill-befitting his type. You can see in Gant the respect he says he holds for Luke, even as he gently mocks him, but also the scarcest measures of envy and resentment, too. This desert hell is still Gant's world, but Luke represents a future where Gant's savage beliefs can no longer hold. That's what makes No Name not just an exciting Western B-picture by a contract director, but a great Jack Arnold movie, too.
Now, if Arnold's visuals are subverted often enough that you notice—by a cinematographer who despite an Oscar nomination doesn't seem entirely comfortable with an anamorphic lens—well, it's such a minor issue I feel guilty raising it (and perhaps my technical knowledge simply fails me, as it sometimes does). If there also might be a few—and answerable—logical problems with the script, these aren't much of anything either.
No, it's that the film implies a promise: that it would explode in a final twist that, while perhaps the most obvious thing it could do, would have been in flawless consonance with its nearly nihilistic themes. But this is not quite the case.
"Don't worry about it, Physician. Everything comes to a finish."
The only imperfection to mar this finish is the last, lethal unfolding of its plot. It becomes a more mundane thing, lesser than what was seemingly offered, lesser than what came before, and it threatens to reduce Gant from metaphysical specter to thug. It is only in Murphy's triumph that it cannot; and even this lesser ending must retain an enormous impact, the spearpoint of a film that cannot be relieved of its unstoppable momentum.
In the final shots, and final words, No Name regains everything it had possessed before: the idealism tinged with cynicism and regret—those conflicting emotions that Jack Arnold put into so many of his pictures. No Name on the Bullet makes me want to watch more Westerns; but more than anything, it makes me want to watch No Name on the Bullet again.