In the first segment of class this semester we have already covered quite a bit of ground, from the humble (yet intriguing) beginnings of the genre with The Great Train Robbery (Porter 1903) to some films from the more innovative directors who spearheaded the “classic” period of the western, the most captivating of which would have to be Jack Arnold’s No Name on the Bullet (1959). In this film Arnold, who had already shown himself to be a very versatile director with a flair for noir-ish observant direction, presented the viewer with a new take on the western genre. Instead of having the showdowns and the obvious moral denotations, Arnold creates a western that, not unlike Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), calls into question the viewers ideals about the western ‘hero’ and the moral codes that seemed to be staples at the time.
In Zinnemann’s film we watch as a whole town one by one deserts the only person who has ever really been there for them, the only character who has really been there and with confidence and morals ‘in spades.’ This idea of the town full of people, who seem a lot more trust worthy than they actually are, is taken in a different direction by Arnold in No Name on the Bullet. With his film Arnold presents another very bleak representation of a seemingly ordinary western town, yet in contrast to Zinnemann’s town of cowards and felons (or felon ‘sympathizers’ i.e. people who profit of the presence of felons), Arnold takes a much more observant psychological approach, much like the methods of the films antagonist, John Gant played perfectly by Audie Murphy.
From the commencement of the film the atmosphere is impeccably set, a very desolate and isolated farmhouse. Two seemingly ordinary stock characters, a barking dog, and ominous music, create the setting in which we first encounter John Gant as he strolls up on his horse and inquires about his destination. Gant’s cold calculated manner coupled with the use of ominous music and the brechtian and uneasy use of the dog bark as well as the slow and seamless flow of cinescope to fashion a broad and vast landscape, brilliantly set the stage for the psychological “chamber” western that Arnold has just begun.
From this starting point Arnold proceeds to build upon this already noir-ish western set-up by presenting us with an austere, façade ridden average western town, and having emotions, or more importantly, tensions run high with the entrance of the ‘force of nature’ that is John Gant. One specific line from the film that wholly emphasizes the general importance of Gant’s character within the narrative as being of chaotic passive initiator is when the physician, while conversing to Gant, says “Right now I’ve got one big public health problem, and I’m looking at it.” (As quoted from you, quoting from Graham 1989; 273) This quote brilliantly describes the effect that Gant has upon this seemingly ordinary, run of the mill town, an effect that runs rampant through the minds of the towns people from the moment the hotel managers’ mistake of calling him Grant is corrected with the perfect stoic-ly delivered line “It’s Gant, John Gant.”
At this point on the seed of destruction has been planted and a growing unease quickly spreads through the town. The only people who appear to be immune to Gant’s force are Dr. Luke Canfield (i.e. The physician, Charles Drake), his father Asa (R.G. Armstrong), his fiancé Anne Benson (Joan Evans), and her father Judge Benson (Edgar Stehli). All of these characters have their own reasons for not being worried, but what’s interesting is that these characters, except for Judge Benson, who represent different pillars of morality seem more closely aligned with John Gant himself than with the rest of the town. Arnold doesn’t seem to place any judgment on Gant, instead he more or less presents the viewer with a characters who, obviously, has a warped vision of his own morality, and leaves it up to the viewer to decide how they feel about him. While the clearest conclusion the viewer can deduce is that Gant is clearly the bad guy, the way that Murphy plays the character coupled with the deplorable conduct of the citizens of the town, brings into question, who really is the monster of the film? Is it Gant himself, or is he simply the vehicle through which the real monsters are revealed?
Another main theme broached through the film is that of calculated reaction, as opposed to action. This is not only evident in the way Gant carries out his ‘occupation,’ but is also skillfully mirrored through the cinematography. The camera plays the part of a voyeuristic omnipresent yet unseen character that watches and waits to see how everything will play out. The compositions of striking scope, often utilize deep focus through which the viewer is given many different choices of where to focus their attention and yet, no matter where the ‘action’ of the scene is, the viewers focus is often beckoned to shift from the action to the reactions of the minor characters in the scene, as well as Gant himself, whose presence seems to be felt in every scene regardless of his physical presence (or lack there of).
One of the more interesting ways in which Arnold places Gant in different compositions is through the use of the colossal mirror in the saloon below the hotel. Gant is often shown at a bit of an angle through this mirror, and often in shots where the immediate focus is on the person confronting Gant, or purposefully avoiding a confrontation. Through the wide deep focus scope Arnold is free to show the action and the reaction (or lack there of) of Gant, with the use of the mirror.
In this same vein, the voyeuristic air in the film is well executed through the use of over the shoulder, out the window shots used not only to create a certain atmosphere but also to further the narrative. For example, many of the scenes with which the citizens’ internal fears come to an emotional or chaotic climax, such as the suicide or the scene where the apathetic couple fight about the jilted ex-lover that ‘obviously’ hired Gant to kill them for running off together. Both of the aforementioned scenes begin with an over the shoulder, out window shot, which pulls back creating a change in focus from out the window to the inside where Arnold will now focus on, or allude to the character(s) with whom the viewer has just shared a perspective, reaction to what they (as well as the voyeuristic viewer) have just witnessed (or the implications of the action seen just prior). While the camera stays in the same room, it simply pulls back and changes the focus. This subtle and swift use of cinematography is a perfect example of one of the director’s auteurist stamps (as discussed in class). Arnold has an affinity for less ostentatious shots that have a subtle yet undeniable effect upon the viewer.
Another even more intriguing way in which the theme of reaction is envisioned is the way in which all of Gants’ movements seem very cold and calculated preemptive reactions. This is an aspect that is especially interesting when one gives more than a passing thought to the chess game between the physician and Gant. Through this game Arnold creates a perfect metaphor for Gants’ vocational life. To be successful in chess, the player is reliant on thinking a few moves ahead, all the while trying to lead their opponent into various ‘traps.’ In the end, chess very similarly to Gants’ strategy behind legal murder, is all about entrapment. What’s also fascinating about the use of chess is how the cinematographic and compositional choices during the chess game focus on the dialogue and the faces of the two players showing their reactions rather than the actual action taking place, that of the physical moving of chess pieces. For Arnolds’ vision the action is of very little importance in comparison to the reactions.
Along the same line as Arnolds’ noiresque focus on reaction is his unrelenting focus on the tension-ridden build up toward an ever-illusive climax. From the initial contact with Gant, the aural aspect of the film is heavily weighted with ominous music and well-placed silence, both of which are utilized to instill a sense of anxiety in the viewer, who is constantly waiting for the moment that Gant will strike and break the ever-growing tension. Yet this moment is postponed many times through the film. Arnold repeatedly raises the stakes, only to reveal a pay off much less gratifying that the viewer would have hoped. Through the constant build up and let down, Arnold is also playing with the viewers’ head. The viewer may think that when Gant is confronted by the sheriff that the pay off has finally come, and every aspect of scene, composition (the imposition of blatant oppositional roles) and a drop of soundtrack in particular, leads the viewer to believe that this is the moment, only to be let down by a minor instance of anticlimactic action. While some might assume that the moment Gant shoots the sheriff would be a fairly gratifying climax, the fact is that it furthers the narrative very little, and only serves as a way to bring the tension to a boil and then give the reader no true reward.
Possibly the most interesting scene that truly embodies all of the different aspects discussed throughout this essay, is the scene where the physician leads the charge to try and eject Gant from the town. The viewer watches as the mob amasses and, once again, though the use of voyeuristic camera work we feel as if we are there ourselves, preparing for the confrontation we so desire. Then, as the seeming moral compass of the film, the physician takes the lead, calming the crowd enough to the point where they will allow him to ‘give peace a chance,’ the confrontation is once again prolonged, but tensions are high and as the camera seamlessly switches from the approaching mob to Gant sitting calmly on the porch, it seems so evident that the climax is near. As the physicians pleas are refused, and the camera switches from Gants’ perspective looking down on the mob and the mobs perspective, the mob even starts to move toward Gant with every intention of bloodshed. Yet once again Arnold finds an inspired way to trump your expectations, with the climax leading to a speech from Gant where he calls the mob out by saying that they could kill him, but he would be taking some of them with him. It is then that the camera cuts to each of the characters he claims he’ll take with him. Through the eye matches, in combination with Gants’ confident smirk, and excellently delivered concluding line “That’s my prescription physician, you’d better get it filled,” once again puts a cap on the climax.