A Bullet is Waiting
Set in the aftermath of a plane crash in the isolated California Hills, so far off the grid it could be the western frontier of the 1850s rather than the 1950s of airplanes and automobiles, A Bullet Is Waiting (1954) is as much a modern western as it is a crime drama on the edge of civilization. Rory Calhoun is man-on-the-run Ed Stone, a crash survivor who shucks off a pair of handcuffs and sets out to escape in the wilderness. And Stephen McNally is the obsessive Sheriff Munson, a lawman with a personal grudge against the wanted killer he's been pursuing for two years. But their mano a mano bout is interrupted by the tough, tomboyish yet cultured Cally Canham (Jean Simmons, stunning even in jeans, flannel and workboots), a woman who doesn't take kindly to trespassers on her land. She'd just as soon see them gone, but with Munson's ankle sprained, the pass flooded from heavy rains and the only vehicle taken into town by her father, she grudgingly puts them up in her rustic cabin until her father returns. Of course, that's plenty of time for embers of attraction between Cally and Ed to fan to life.
A Bullet Is Waiting is like a chamber piece in the wilderness; it builds dramatic tension between an isolated trio of characters and then introduces a fourth character (Brian Aherne) in the final third of the film; the latter is an Oxford philosophy professor who has fled civilization in disgust to return to nature with his grown daughter in tow. The rest of the film is a simmering battle of wills, with Ed as the soulful outlaw whose escape is constantly delayed for reasons that clearly have more to do with Cally than Munson and the vindictive Sheriff on the prowl for the sole rifle that Cally has hidden from them both.
Jean Simmons, who had arrived in Hollywood in 1950 from an impressive career in British cinema (among her credits were Black Narcissus  and playing Ophelia opposite Laurence Olivier in Hamlet ), had a slow start in America. The poised, intelligent British actress battled Howard Hughes to get out of an RKO contract only to get stuck in a succession of stiff costume dramas and period pieces. Cally was a rare opportunity to play a tough and independent character and she does so with steely strength and physical sureness. Though Rory Calhoun, a minor western star thanks to his matinee idol looks, athletic physicality and rough-and-tumble image, was top-billed in the cast, Simmons dominates A Bullet Is Waiting by the strength of her presence and her talent. Stephen McNally, familiar as an outlaw in dozens of westerns and crime thrillers, fills out the trio and reliable British character actor Brian Aherne brings dignity (and more than a little unchallenged arrogance) to the role of the philosopher turned rancher.
Director John Farrow (husband to Maureen O'Hara and father of Mia Farrow) was a reliable Hollywood hand whose best films were elevated by his talent for stirring up suspicion and volatile relationships (The Big Clock  and Where Danger Lives ) and giving action scenes--especially outdoor action--a tough, austere, muscular quality (Hondo ). A Bullet Is Waiting provides both for Farrow, and in spite of an unsurprising and often dialogue-heavy script with an ethically questionable climactic twist, he brings ambiguity to the dramatic tension and a rugged, rough edge to the violence. Though seeped in moral quandaries and philosophical debate, A Bullet Is Waiting is at its best stripped of everything but primal conflict in the wilderness.
Producer: Howard Welsch
Director: John Farrow
Screenplay: Thames Williamson (screenplay and story); Casey Robinson (writer)
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Art Direction: Ross Dowd
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Film Editing: Otto Ludwig
Cast: Rory Calhoun (Ed Stone), Jean Simmons (Cally Canham), Stephen McNally (Sheriff Munson), Brian Aherne (David Canham).
by Sean Axmaker