A Bullet is Waiting is a movie that hovers on the edges of the Western genre. It stars Stephen McNally as a Utah sheriff and Rory Calhoun as his prisoner, who was a gunman on the run for murder, and it ends with a shoot-out in the rocks between the two, so that’s all pretty Western, but it’s a contemporary story, in which airplanes figure, and much of it is a psychodrama set in a remote cabin which has all the air of a stage play.
And not a very good one, at that. I think it was the directing. John Farrow was a writer (he wrote a Tarzan picture and married Jane – Maureen O’Sullivan) who turned to directing, and he was involved with Westerns first as a writer in the 1920s, on the Victor Fleming-directed Wolf Song with Gary Cooper, among others. But as director, with the exception of the excellent Hondo for Warners in 1953, the pictures were lackluster. California (1947) with Barbara Stanwyck and Ray Milland (with whom he worked a lot) was distinctly stodgy, Copper Canyon (1950) unconvincing, Red Mountain (1951) with Alan Ladd was certainly not in the Shane class, Ride, Vaquero! was a torrid romance with Ava Gardner and Robert Taylor, and that was it. Also, he always seemed to be co-director, maybe not finishing a picture. A Bullet is Waiting often drags.
Calhoun that year was doing good Westerns like Four Guns to the Border and the excellent Dawn at Socorro, as well as the big Otto Preminger picture River of No Return with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe, so this one with Farrow was definitely a come-down. McNally had started Westerns at Universal as James Stewart’s dastardly brother Dutch Henry Brown in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 in 1950, and wasn’t bad in that but the studio had tried him out as Western lead for a bit afterwards and that was less of a success (Wyoming Mail, Apache Drums). He was also the bad guy in The Duel at Silver Creek with Audie and Devil’s Canyon with Dale, so he had quite a profile, really.
It’s a small, intimate piece, basically a three-hander with Jean Simmons doing her gamine act. She’d made a hit in England with the likes of Great Expectations as Estella and Hamlet as Ophelia, and then in Hollywood with Preminger and Mitchum in RKO’s Angel Face but this was her first Western, if Western it be. She’d later do The Big Country and Rough Night in Jericho. She plays an English philosopher’s daughter living with Daddy on an isolated American ranch where she helps him write his latest book. Daddy (Brian Aherne) only appears at the end, as a kind of pater ex machina, as it were.
These static ‘cabin’ Westerns, or ‘Westerns’, only work if there’s genuine tension, and there isn’t really, in this one. Perhaps it was also the writing, by Thames Williamson. He was a prolific novelist and screenwriter who also published textbooks on economics and political science and wrote juvenile fiction under the pseudonym Waldo Fleming.
Or maybe it was the acting. Dennis Schwartz in his review of the movie said that, “Everyone seems to be going through the motions, offering one-note performances with no one’s character being even remotely believable.”
Actually, McNally would do something similar a few years later in Hell Bent for Leather when he also claimed to be a lawman and arrests Audie, but really has homicidal intent. That one was written by Christopher Knopf. Maybe Chris had seen A Bullet is Waiting.
A Bullet is Waiting isn’t rotten. There’s some nice Tehnicolor scenery here and there and the odd flurry of action. And I liked the dog. But it only just passes muster as a Western. In fact it barely passes muster at all.