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Joseph Leib

The Western

Professor Kern


From the 1930's onto the 1950's, the dominant populist genre was the Western. A genre

primarily concerned with the foundation of modern America, it often highlighted black-and-white,

good vs. evil morality, and presented audiences with exciting versions of American myths such as the

shootout at OK Corral. Often pumped out quickly and cheaply, they quickly became formulaic, often

relying on similar story beats and archetypes, especially with concern to the film's sense of morality.

Michael Coyne posited that My Darling Clementine and Duel in the Sun established a moral framework

for the Western in this era. In 1959, however, just before the end of the classical Western era, Universal

filmmaker Jack Arnold would deliver a seemingly standard, “bottom-bill” Western, but one that reveals

a particular, and much darker, moral framework of it's own. Titled No Name on the Bullet, Arnold

delivered a dark, suspenseful look at morality and the evil of seemingly good men.

In the early 1950's, Universal Studios drafted a contract with Jack Arnold, a young filmmaker,

to produce films on assignment. Mainly, he worked on science fiction and horror films, in the vein of

Universal's old monster movies from years prior. However, while it was his science fiction films that

gained him notoriety, he also produced a series of western “programmers”; small, B-movie westerns

meant to share a bill with larger, more elegant productions. Arnold produced many westerns from the

mid-50's until his death but certainly the most interesting of them all was No Name on the Bullet,

produced in 1959. It was conceived as another starring vehicle for Audie Murphy, a former WWII hero-

turned-actor, known for starring in many classical B-westerns. However, No Name on the Bullet

marked a departure for Murphy, as he was known primarily for playing the cheerful, baby-faced hero.

Bullet, then, cast Murphy as John Gant, a renowned contract killer who upsets the status quo in a quiet

Western town. Murphy plays Gant calculated and cold; almost robotic in his motions and rituals. Gant,

a shootout to break out in the middle of town. It is not the immorality of his behavior that makes the film troubling.though quiet. preferring not to drink whiskey or gamble like the other men. His target is eventually revealed to be the judge. He goads them into drawing first. coward. worried that Gant's target could be any of them. questioning Gant's arrival in their town: “What does he want here?”. Luke. whom Gant seems to admire. When the sheriff asks Gant why he didn't kill him. only to be asked “What does Gant want anywhere?” Death is Gant's business. as the sheriff draws on him. business is good. Gant. Gant answers “I wasn't paid to!” R. the judge dies of consumption before Gant can draw on him. However. The only other character who can stand beside Gant is the town physician. but instead to drink coffee and play chess. begin to panic. However. Philip Loy notes that “None of it seems to bother Murphy. crook. and another man to run himself out of town. one man asks. Gant at first seems represents the film's “evil”. Over the course of the film. it is the amorality of Murphy's character. while we only hear talk about Gant's crimes. Dana Reemes. in her career overview of Arnold's work. or sinner in some form. and he will never draw on his target first. and tells him that the wound he created would make it easy for those who would like to kill Gant. Interestingly. Gant refuses aid from Luke. When Gant comes to take the life of the judge. He does not like to “work for nothing” (as he threatens in the film). and it is in self-defense. quickly heads into more subversive territory. the film. leaving him unable to shoot. and law and order falls. almost every major character will come to light as a thief. The whole town becomes up in arms. however.” Gant is not driven by murderous intent. who at first seems truly good. Gant's presence causes one man to commit suicide. is almost immediately a disruptive force. Luke hurls a hammer at Gant and breaks his arm. and cuts them down when he is legally able. but is revealed to be a former crook. makes the . even Luke is not without fault. and judging from his reputation. Everybody's hidden secrets come to light. He does not even indluge in any vices. as written by Star Trek scribe Gene Coons. the foreboding threat to the town's safety. but by his own ethically dubious moral code. only fires one bullet during this time. guilty of some conspiracy in government. The townspeople. Gant is the one character whose morals never truly come into question.

Arnold makes great use of his CinemaScope frame. It is the first major standoff in the film. only with the legal and monetary value in it. now I've got one big public health problem and I'm looking at it. “I'm a healer. while Luke plays the knight.” This knowledge comes into play during their dialogue. He is unconcerned with the morality of killing a man. I've devoted my life to it. we cut to Gant and Luke. The major. The banker takes aim. The banker looms large in the forefront of the frame. saying “They cast brief but suspicious glances at each other between chess moves. sweaty and terrified. Gant plays the part of Death. In the background is Gant.claim that “Gant himself is innocent. almost a metaphysical force that catalyzes the evil inherent in others. back to the wall and peering out the window.. and it reveals the way each character views human life and morality.. here to do his job and take a life. saying.” It's here Gant reveals his cynical worldview. haunting the frame.” Gant. while a figure of death. but decides not to shoot. His attachment to dogmatic morality results in injustice and death. sitting at the chess board. Gant asks Luke why he chooses to heal people. The game is then interrupted by a gunshot. The final irony is that the healer deliberately commits an injury that will result in the death of an innocent man. Undoubtedly a reference to Bergman's Seventh Seal. the chess match takes on a larger symbolic quality. After a few short dialogue scenes. telling Luke the the real sickness in men “is seldom physical”. He is the only completely honest and integrated being in the story. The film takes a damning stance on the mob mentality and frontier justice. The sequence begins with the banker. When told that it's his fault. hoping he can best Death and get him to leave. it is the first time Luke is facing Gant with the knowledge that he is a killer. He operates within the law. Best you can do is drag out their worthless lives. saying that “they're gonna die anyway. standout sequence in the film is a tense chess match between Gant and Luke. Gant simply . Why bother?” Luke answers him. or the Grim Reaper himself. is not a figure of evil. the town banker has shot himself. Critic Bob Herzeberg notes the importance of the scene. while Gant's presence in the background makes him seem like a ghost. if not within the boundaries of human ethics.

giving the drunk ample opportunity to shoot. served it's purpose as a bottom-bill western. Gant. tautly directed western with large philosophical questions on it's mind. His chess moves reflect his thinking. Arnold rarely keeps the two in frame together. As Dana Reemes writes.replies that it's better to be a hitman. After Gant goads him one more time. but jittery and surrounded by bar patrons. It's a tense. but taking it would be deadly. Much like the king retreats to the safety of the rook's position. Gant retreats to the safety of the law. Stumbling. “No Name on the Bullet was released February 1959. leaving Gant's back as the central focus of the frame. who “prolongs the lives of those who would 'rob and lie again' (Herzberg)”. the “mob justice” scene is repeated nearly . Arnold then closes in on the drunk's face. with fans such as cult auteur Joe Dante and Death Wish filmmaker Michael Winner (as Herzberg notes in his book. who kills the man who robs and stops his crime spree. the film is more than just a curious historical footnote and namesake for Audie Murphy's biography. he highlights the power dynamic of the scene without getting in the way.” However. at the same time as he verbally defends himself. In the next shot. slurring invectives. Gant castles his king. Arnold frames the drunk large and central. rather than a doctor. calm and still. nearly as large and central as the drunk in the previous shot. The drunk has the advantage. however. Its no surprise that this film would be rediscovered and become a cult film. giving ample room for the drunk to escape into the background and out the saloon door. reflected in the way Arnold gives him the higher frame advantage while keeping Gant isolated and equal. At one point. drinking coffee. he lurches toward Gant. Arnold frames Gant alone. Arnold's direction is subtle and unobtrusive. Another tense sequence occurs shortly after. beating Gant to the draw. Gant lays his hands down on the table. He cuts back and forth as they trade glances like they trade chess pieces. while Gant's back sits at the forefront. Arnold returns to the original setup. sitting in the bar. and was promptly forgotten. he gets drunk enough to challenge Gant to a duel. Fearing Gant was sent from his lover's ex-husband. is approached by a man in the town. showing the fear latent in his expression. letting each man's words speak for themselves. while keeping him surrounded.

strange anti-heroes to come in the Western genre with Leone and Peckinpah. given the title. Works Cited . but none would come close to matching the existential dread and philosophical bite found in No Name on the Bullet. It establishes a deeply cynical moral framework for itself that would anticipate the violent. who does largely the same). a character who murders “evil” men under a perverse abuse of the law. thoughtful approach to race).verbatim in Winner's own Lawman. Arnold would go on to make more Westerns that bucked trends (his Fred Williamson vehicle Boss Nigger is especially entertaining and notable for it's surprisingly. and Charles Bronson's character in Death Wish. and it's not hard to see the connection between Gant.

Dana M. Directed by Jack Arnold. Loy. 2004. Print. Westerns in a Changing America. Bob. Hang 'em High: Law and Disorder in Western Films and Literature. Print. NC: McFarland. R. NC: McFarland. Reemes. 1988.Herzberg. Jefferson. Philip.p.: McFarland. 1955-2000. N. 2013. . Jefferson. Print.