Reviews: Audie Murphy

Ride Clear of Diablo (1954)

A lot of Audie Murphy's baby boomer fans seem to remember him best, and love him best, in his "nice guy" movie persona: a naive cleancut young man who's surprisingly handy with his fists or his gun. To me Ride Clear Of Diablo is about the most enjoyable of his "nice guy" westerns.

Murphy plays Clay O'Mara, a young railroad surveyor who comes back home when his father and younger brother are killed by cattle rustlers. He doesn't know that the local sheriff and lawyer are the leaders of the cattle rustlers, and they decide that the quickest way to get him out of their hair is to deputize him and send him on dangerous law enforcement jobs so he will get killed. Unfortunately for the bad guys, Clay's a lot better at this kind of thing than they think. The first thing he does as deputy is outdraw, arrest, and befriend a notorious outlaw played by Film Noir character actor Dan Duryea. In contrast to the understated Murphy, Duryea is a Large Ham with a funny-annoying laugh somewhere between Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker, and he spends the whole movie spinning gleefully round and round in the Heel Face Revolving Door. He has great chemistry with Murphy, as does Susan Cabot, playing Murphy's love interest, who is the niece of the evil sheriff and fiancee of the evil lawyer.

The film drags a bit whenever it focuses too much on the main villains and their henchman, a very bored-looking Russell Johnson. But generally the action scenes and the interplay between Murphy, Duryea, and Cabot keeps things interesting. It's a little tricky to get hold of on dvd in the US: you have a choice between a $20 Amazon exclusive and a $40 TCM exclusive that includes three other Murphy films. But if this kind of thing interests you, and you can find it on TV or at a price you can live with, it might be worth a try.

No Name On The Bullet (1959)

This film is often considered the best western Audie Murphy starred in, thanks to its off-beat storyline about a hired gun (Murphy) with an unusual MO. He prefers to provoke his targets into shooting first, so that it looks like self-defense, and he never reveals who he's after unless it's necessary to provoke the target. So when he drifts into the local hotel and starts ordering coffee, the entire town freaks out, and nearly everybody starts accusing each other of hiring the guy, sort of like a 90-minute Wild West version of The Twilight Zone S 1 E 22 The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street, only the alien's sitting right there in plain sight smirking at them.

I remember enjoying it quite a bit the first time I saw it, years ago, but on a rewatch it was a bit meh. There's a lot less suspense once you know how it will play out, and the townspeople, who take up a lot of screentime, didn't manage to make me care about them. As you might expect from scriptwriter Gene Coon, it's also a bit Anvilicious about kind of trite things: corruption is bad, paranoia is bad, killing people for money is bad. It's directed by Jack Arnold, who did the first Creature From The Black Lagoon, so it's about at that level of competent thrillerness. An interesting movie, not a spectacular one.

The main attraction is Murphy himself as the gunman, who regrettably doesn't have quite enough screentime for my taste. He says little, shoots less, but he prowls about like a big cat. Something of a Manipulative Bastard, he is coldly amused by the fear he inspires in people, and coldly angry at the sleaziness and vindictiveness of human society, even if it does pay his bills. His performance here is a good litmus test for whether you can buy into Murphy's Memetic Badass status enough to enjoy his movies in general. The first time I saw this movie, I had little or no knowledge of Audie Murphy, WWII combat soldier, but at the same time I had no trouble believing that this short man with the soft face and the childish-sounding voice was a Badass par excellence. And yet, I've read plenty of reviews of this movie that said basically: "nope, I don't care WHAT he did in the war, I'm not buying that babyface as a badass gunman." So you'd have to make up your own mind there. It's available on dvd in the US.