If Hollywood could turn athletes Johnny Weissmuller, Sonja Henie, and Esther Williams into movie stars, then why not WWII hero Audie Murphy? Which is exactly what happened. Good-looking Murphy, the war’s most decorated soldier, had a solid run as a screen actor, primarily in westerns, primarily in the 1950s (though he worked less noticeably throughout the 1960s). He occasionally appeared in a prestige picture, such as John Huston’s gorgeous rendering of The Red Badge of Courage (1951) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s underrated and impressive adaptation of The Quiet American (1958), but most of his movies were less lofty affairs, though it must be said that he turned into a better actor than the usual non-actor turned into a movie star. He even starred as himself in his very own biopic, To Hell and Back (1955), and it was not bad at all.
No Name on the Bullet is a barely remembered but worthwhile movie, one of seemingly countless ’50s westerns of high quality. The plot is fresh and instantly gripping: Murphy, a famed hired assassin, arrives in Lordsburg but won’t reveal who it is he’s come to kill. The town stews, building in fear and paranoia and guilt, the point being that everyone seems to have done something that makes him feel he may be the assassin’s target. (It is rather sadistic of Audie not to kill his intended victim on arrival.) In a black hat, on a black horse, the usually good-guy Murphy is a dark angel.
Despite vibrant color and handsome use of the wide screen, the filmmaking is rarely up to the material’s potential, with direction by Jack Arnold that too often feels square. The climax is a gunfight, naturally, but not one you’re expecting. Though provoked by Murphy’s presence, it has nothing to do with the reason he’s in town, which makes it especially chilling. And the ending is both surprising and fitting. True, director Anthony Mann might have made a classic out of this script and its inherent subtexts, but even with its occasional ordinariness, and the fact that it’s a bit too easy to guess the identity of Murphy’s intended victim, No Name on the Bullet is a real goodie, a psychologically penetrating portrait of people snapping under the pressure of feeling that the name on the bullet may be theirs.
Murphy may not have been enough of an actor to bring out any shadings in his man of mystery, but by 1959 he was an effortless presence in the genre, someone who seemed to belong there. He would have turned 88 this week (on June 20th), having died at 46 in a 1971 private-plane crash, a most unfortunate early death for someone who had survived the horrors of a world war. There were no Oscars to go with his war medals, but Murphy made at least a handful of fine films that should keep him in the memory of movie fans as well as those who follow our military history.