A mysterious stranger rides into the town of Lordsburg much to the consternation of its residents. Things are made more intriguing when it transpires that he is legendary assassin-for-hire John Gant, and therefore one of Lordsburg's inhabitants must be on his hitlist – but who? It seems that there is more than one candidate and as the tension mounts the citizen’s secrets are revealed.
War hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy made a name for himself primarily in a series of run-of-the-mill westerns as a contract player for Universal. Whilst most of these were formulaic films, No Name On the Bullet is one of the better examples, a tense psychological western examining the effect that the arrival of one man has on the inhabitants of a small town.
Never known as one of the greatest actors, Murphy’s portrayal of Gant is probably his best performance. He doesn’t actually do a lot, but his understated menacing presence hangs like a shroud over the entire film. Indeed, it is his passive inactivity that prompts the other characters into action. It also helps that he is surrounded by some strong character actors such as Charles Drake in the role of Doctor Luke Canfield. The most interesting character, he is thoughtful, moral and the one man who strikes up a kind of rapport with Gant playing chess with him, an apt game which echoes the actions of the townsfolk. The rest of the cast contain many of the expected western characters; gamblers, the sheriff, corrupt businessmen and women of dubious morals. But they are all fully rounded in a film that, for the most part, avoids many of the western clichés.
Director Jack Arnold unobtrusively oversees proceedings, allowing the characters growing fears to increases the pressure. It is this sense of growing anxiety and mystery which keeps the viewer hooked. Things may come to a rather abrupt end, but the film is more concerned with the effect Gant’s presence has on the town than the task he has come to perform.
This is an entertaining and intelligent film that stands apart from the mass produced B picture westerns that Audie Murphy was best known for. Focusing on character rather than gunplay, No Name On the Bullet is an intriguing tale of how paranoia can destroy people and how the past never stays dead and buried.