by Roy Frumkes
Available to purchase at KINO-LORBER and on Amazon.com
NO NAME ON THE BULLET - 1959 - 77 mins
DIRECTOR: JACK ARNOLD
WITH: CHARLES DRAKE, JOAN EVANS, R.G.ARMSTRONG
COMMENTARY: STEVE MITCHEL & GARY GERANI
RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL - 1958 - 88 mins.
DIRECTOR: JESSE HIBBS
WITH: WALTER MATTHAU HENRY SILVA, GIA SCALA
COMMENTARY: TOBY ROAN
THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK - 1955 - 77 mins.
DIRECTOR: DON SIEGEL
WITH: STEPHEN McNALLY, FAITH DOMERGUE, SUSAN CABOT, GERALD MOHR
COMMENTARY: TOBY ROAN
One of the commentators makes an interesting suggestion: It’s true that Audie Murphy killed 240 German soldiers, making him the most decorated soldier in World War II. What about all the others he just wounded...?
Kino has released a boxed set of three representative films from Murphy’s Western career. It’s a wonderful intro to his legacy, and will absolutely - I can almost guarantee it - have you digging up more of his titles.
Though narrow in scope, Murphy’s screen persona is highly effective, apparently off screen as well as on. One director was spooked by the fact that Murphy never blinked. Another quit after he told the actor that one of his friends whom he gave a job on the film would have to go, and Murphy just stared him down and creeped him out.
What you’re seeing between the frames is what I refer to as ‘The Real Thing.’ You know what I mean. Take Charlie Chaplin, raised in abject poverty, who wrestled with themes of homelessness and unworthiness for his entire 60 year film career. Same, pretty much, with Roman Polanski - a five-year-old child of the Holocaust. He’s there in all his films dealing with the same kind of paranoid spaces (REPULSION, THE TENANT, DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, ROSEMARY’S BABY) where he was hidden to avoid the Nazis.
James Cagney’s adolescent street environment made him The Real Thing, whereas Humphrey Bogart, who could be found on Long Island playing tennis and drinking cocktails, was anything but. No shame on his career. He’s entitled to what he earned - in many people’s minds the honor of being considered the best film actor of the last century. You’re just not seeing the real him in all those gangster roles.
Johnny Eck was the real thing. How could he not be? Bill Chepil, in the lead role of the cop in STREET TRASH, had been a cop in real life, whose beat - Times Square and 8th Avenue, was the most dangerous in the country. The number of pimps and related malefactors who ended up in the Hudson River rather than in a jail cell due (we surmise) to his code of street ethics, earned him and his compadres the moniker ‘The Goon Squad.’
But no one is more deserving of the honor than Audie Murphy. Take that with you as you enjoy these three Westerns. Listen to at least two of the commentaries (I’ll steer you to the right ones), and perhaps you’ll want to explore his work further. There are plenty more good examples where those came from. Also, see them in sequential order to watch him develop his thespian skills.
THE DUEL AT SILVER RIVER (1955) has him listed in top position, but it’s clearly a co-starring role. My guess is that in some way he pulled a Lauren Bacall. Her footage for THE BIG SLEEP was already shot, but since it was her first film, the studio didn’t realize how good she was, and they had her reshoot her scenes, bringing her closer to the lens, etc., in order to pump up her role. It feels like a similar case in the making here. Stephen McNally is fine in the lead, but his character is weak - the hero-chump - not to mention that his lower lip is often unappealingly wet as if he were prepping for an in-studio glamour photo-shoot.
Murphy has very little screen time in the first two acts. He could almost be seen as McNally’s sidekick. By the third act it must have dawned on the studio brass that among this enclave he was the one with star material, and he finally is allowed to abandon ‘cute’ and get serious, but it was too late to reshoot (you don’t have that option with ‘B’s). I find him at times unpleasant to watch; I can almost sense his discomfort in the role.
The film in general, however, is quite good. There are unexpected twists in the script, the Technicolor cinematography is saturated and robust, and Don (DIRTY HARRY, THE SHOOTIST, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) Siegel, who was already ready for the big time with this, One of his first directorial assignment, is also remembered for his work in Noir, and leading lady Faith Domergue, with Technicolor-red lipstick splattered across her mouth, is a femme fatale transplanted into the old West. She also delivers here what she doesn’t in other appearances such as THIS ISLAND EARTH, which is a beauty and allure that makes one understand why Howard Hughes was drawn to her.
Gerald Mohr strikes the right notes in a smallish role as the villain. Interestingly, James Garner singled out Mohr as the best actor he worked with in his several years of the tv show MAVERICK.
THE DUEL AT SILVER RIVER and RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL are both commentary-tracked by Toby Roan, who goes the ‘who’s who’ route, enumerating every major actor, familiar face, and meaningless walk by. This works adequately for one of the films, but beware - depending on which you choose - his other commentary is predominantly redundant.
And, check out the Menu: there’s a great freeze-frame under it which probably captures Murphy’s adrenalin rush in battle.
RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL is directed by Jesse Hibbs, who shared something in common that Murphy’s other directors didn’t - combat experience. Not only did he helm several of the star’s other vehicles, but he directed TO HELL AND BACK, Murphy’s autobiographical feature, which made more dough than any other Universal picture till then.
In RIDE, Murphy plays a criminal who assumes the identity of the marshal who was tracking him down. He is up against a local judge deliciously portrayed by a loud, wily Walter Matthau, and their banter easily sustains the first act. The swift screenplay by Borden (RED RIVER, VERA CRUZ, RIO BRAVO) Chase practically replicates the first act of THE WESTERNER with Matthau doing Walter Brennan’s hanging judge Roy Bean and Murphy, appropriately low key, in the Gary Cooper role. Sticking close to the William Wyler film, after an act’s worth of the two of them verbally dueling, they even get drunk and wake up the next morning hung-over, but in separate beds. I don’t think, in the conservative ‘50’s, that Audie would have felt comfortable with the gay inference of the same bed gag in THE WESTERNER (but then again, who knows...) Basically he plays straight man to Matthau’s loud mouth, but playing straight man takes a certain kind of talent, and he does it with aplomb.
A woman arrives in town who Audie knew in his real life, and she becomes a further threat to his charade being blown. Gia Scala acquits herself perfectly well, and all three performers are up to the demands not only of constant tension but of comic relief.
In the third act we get a serious villain thrown into the mix who isn’t one bit funny, played by the always-welcome, anywhere, anytime - Henry Silva.
The commentary track, again by Toby Roan, inevitably retraces some of the same stories - many of them, in fact - with which he littered the previous disc’s coverage. So pick one but perhaps not both.
Roan does produce the key salaries for this film, which is an unexpected pleasure. Using it as a template, we can get a sense of what all ‘B’s cost back in the day:
Overall budget: $800,000. (Today the goal is to keep ‘B’ budgets under two million.)
The Dog: $40. Per week
The Dog’s trainer: $35. Per week.
IMDB was unduly hard on Audie’s westerns. They may have been ‘B’ budgeters, but regardless they deserved better. However, even IMDB couldn’t play down the virtues of NO NAME ON THE BULLET. This was Murphy’s finest genre production, and it holds up extremely well today.
How many of you remember 1951’s THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, with its message of pacifism and it’s subtext of Christ’s life and teachings? One of the commentary track historians makes a near-irrefutable case for NO NAME ON THE BULLET being a biblical allegory. True, Murphy plays an Angel of Death rather than an angel of mercy like Klaatu did in the sci-fi classic. But there are connections that just can’t be ignored. The town he rides into is called Lordsburg. There is no church in the town, which is conspicuous, but the character of Luke Drake, who tries to deflect Murphy’s murderous goal throughout the film, is the town doctor - eg. a ‘healer.’
I can easily add another element to these: the Robot in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, capable of wiping our planet off the face of the universe, is called Gort. Audie’s character is called Gant. Four letters each, both beginning with the letter ‘G’ and ending with the letter ‘t’. Hmmm... And screenwriter Gene Coon went on to write teleplays for the ‘60s STAR TREK tv series. I don’t think that director Jack Arnold’s previously helmed IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN have any pertinent relevance. But then again, who knows...
It being the late ‘50s, the Hollywood Black List as subtext also works quite comfortably here. A great many films dealt sub-textually with the Commie witch hunt, appearing in every genre. The nature of the spiritual subtext here is more unique.
Audie is, by now, on top of his game, well up to the task of staring down everyone in town, and probably everyone on the crew as well. NO NAME ON THE BULLET is the apex of his film career, more powerful even than such one-off ‘A’ list performances as those in Joe Mankiewicz’s THE QUIET AMERICAN or John Huston’s THE UNFORGIVEN.