Saturday, April 25, 2020

"No Name on the Bullet" (1959) -- Initial Thoughts

I'm still trying to figure out what I think about this movie.  I liked it lots and lots and lots... until the last few minutes, and then it all sort of fell apart in a tangled heap.

John Gant (Audie Murphy) shows up in a small, prosperous town.  When he tells the hotel clerk what his name is, everyone playing poker in the hotel lobby freaks out.  Why?  Because Gant has a reputation for showing up in a town, goading someone into drawing on him, killing them in a legal fight, then collecting handsomely from whoever hired him to dispatch that particular victim.

And nobody knows why he's here, who he's after.  Suddenly, guilty consciences go into overdrive, and anyone who's been involved in something illegal or underhanded or vicious gets awfully edgy.  Someone commits suicide.  Other people start gunning each other down.  As the town's seemingly solid citizens show their true colors, Gant sits in the hotel lobby drinking coffee and smirking grimly.

So far, so good.  It was quite awesome, in fact.  Dude just shows up, never says he's even here to kill someone, and the psychological thrills begin.

Then there's this really nice doctor (Charles Drake) and his blacksmith father (R. G. Armstrong).  They're the only people in the whole town who don't freak out, who are friendly and nice to Gant.  The doctor and Gant almost become friends.  They play chess together.  They start to trust each other.  When the other townsfolk collect themselves up into a mob to go try to run Gant out of town, the doctor tries to stop them, and Gant misunderstands and thinks he's with them, and I was just brimming over with sadness and affection for these two guys, and so eager to see how they'd come to be able to trust and respect each other again.

In fact, through the whole movie, I was half suspecting that Gant wasn't actually there to kill anyone at all.  That he just liked to show up in a town and scare the miscreants enough to make them show what they were really like, and then move on once the town was cleaner than it had been before.  Like a sort of scouring powder, scrubbing away corruption and sin.  I figured that at some point, we'd learn what was behind that smirk, and learn just why he conducted such unusual business.

Except that didn't happen.  In the last act, the whole thing unraveled.  Gant goaded his mark by implying that he'd assaulted a woman, making his mark angry enough to try to gun him down, and then... Gant didn't even kill him.  But other people think he did, and he ends up leaving town wounded and alone and without a shred of character development, and I was so disappointed, I sulked.  Because they had done all this gorgeous setting-up and then just dropped the whole cake on the floor and said, "Oh well."

So, I'm not sorry I watched this, because I learned a lot of good storytelling stuff from it, but I sure am disappointed it didn't live up to the promises it made.

6 comments:

  1. "I sulked", I couldn't have said that better myself. I was on an Audie Murphy kick once upon a time and happened upon this one that kind of crushed that kick. This movie ended so lamely! It was so pointless! So I totally get what you meant.

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    1. Cordy, oh, I'm so relieved it wasn't just me that was vexed by the ending! (Cowboy agreed it was abrupt, but that's about all he's said about it.) It really hammered home to me the importance of not neglecting character development, and of making sure your ending is solid.

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  2. This is actually my favorite Audie Murphy movie and I'm a fan anyway. I don't think the whole movie unraveled in the last reel, I think it played out exactly how it had to. Gant was a gunman and if he didn't shoot anyone outright in the back - not his style at all, he's no cowardly murderer - he did make them draw first, and he knew he would win.

    It's pretty clear he has many notches in his gun belt. It's just this time around, he plays a cat and mouse game. And the townspeople react true to type. The old "conscience makes cowards of us all". Like a spider he just sits and waits. Gant is the catalyst who brings out the worst in people.
    Gant personifies a higher abstract justice, just as Clint Eastwood did in High Plains Drifter. Once he's gone nothing will ever be the same.

    It could only end one way. The doctor didn't kill him but wounded his gun hand. That means soon someone will get Gant. He too will have to pay the price.

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    1. Margot, intriguing! I do like Murphy as an actor, though I've only seen him in 3 or 4 things. He has a lovely presence and can pull off both sweet and innocent guys and more world-weary and steely ones. Kind of reminds me of Alan Ladd in that respect. I don't blame him at all for the ending falling flat, that's on the writers and editors.

      I wasn't upset that he went up against the judge. I'm fine with a "higher abstract justice" sort of story. But I am totally bugged that there was no meaning to the ending.

      There HAS to be a change in the main character, for good or for evil, or you have a lame story at best and a bad one at worst. And Gant doesn't change. He could've. He had a lot of chances. There are oodles of options, ways it could end. He says, "Guess this is the end of my career. Can you take a look at this arm, Physician? Looks like you've cured me." Or he could try to explain himself and the doc brushes him off and threatens him some more, and he leaves sadly. Or the doc tries to apologize and he brushes the doc off, and leaves coldly. ANYTHING to show that he's been affected more than physically by his experiences in that town, his almost-friendship with the doc. But nope, nothing. It's like there's a final page missing from the script.

      Or, if you see the doc as the protagonist, you need something from him showing how encountering Gant has changed him. He's been wounded, he's severely injured someone deliberately, and yet he's a doctor -- how has this changed him? It seems not to have. Again, we get nothing. It just stops there.

      It's bad storytelling, and that's all there is to it. Doesn't mean no one can ever enjoy it, it just means I personally don't.

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  3. Aw man I hate being let down at the last minute. (Funny how powerful conclusions are. Many a time they've made my opinions about a story do a U-turn, for better or for worse.)

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    1. Megan, YES, it really illustrated so powerfully the importance of as solid conclusion AND a solid character arc. Static characters are not a story, they're just a photograph.

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