The Naked Spur (1953)



Dir: Anthony Mann - Cast: James Stewart (Howard Kemp), Janet Leigh (Lina), Robert Ryan (Ben), Ralph Meeker (Anderson), Millard Mitchell (Tate)


The third western collaboration of the duo Mann-Stewart, usually called one of their best. It’s no doubt the most intense of the lot.

James Stewart is Howard Kemp, a frontiersman turned bounty hunter after he had lost his ranch in the Civil War; Kemp is after the outlaw Ben Vandergroat, who’s wanted for killing a Marshall. Vandergroat has fled into the mountains and Kemp is forced to accept the help of two men, who both hope to collect a part of the reward money: Jesse Tate, an old gold prospector who thinks Kemp is a sheriff, and Roy Anderson, a Union soldier who has been discharged from the army dishonerably. With the assistance of these two, Kemp finally captures Vandergroat and his companion, who turns out to be a young woman, Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), the daughter of Vandergroat’s former partner, who thinks her father’s friend is innocent.

As more often in Mann’s work, the beauty of nature is perfectly played against the nature of man, the rockslides and raging rapids mirroring the despair of the characters involved. Only gradually we learn how desperate - and far gone - they all are: Kemp not just lost his ranch when he was off to fight in the Civil War, his fiancee sold it and ran off with an other man; Lina clings to Ben because he was the only person on earth she could turn to after losing both her parents; Ben seems an amiable villain, intelligent and cheerful, until we learn that he’s as mentally unstable as Kemp, the man who has been chasing him like a dog; both men are on the edge of insanity.

The cinematography, by William Mellor, is impressive, with the camera often showing the events from the perspective of the characters; in some scenes - like the finale or the scene with Stewart, climbing a cliff, being scared off by a rockslide - the effect is stunning. The magnificent landscape is at the same time so terrifying, that we get the feeling that it’s closing in the characters rather than offering them a way out. The result is an outdoor drama that almost feels like an indoor drama, a film noir reinvented in western form. Apart from a brief intermezzo with a group of Blackfoot Indians (who are after Anderson, who dallied with the Chief’s daughter) there are only five characters and they’re constantly on each other’s lip.

The movie developes like a hostage drama, albeit one with the villain as the hostage, not the hero and his family. Ryan’s character soon starts playing off his captors against one another: he's getting on old timer Tate with stories about gold treasures hidden in the mountains and also encourages Lina to use her charms because he has noticed that both Kemp and Anderson are attracted to her. It all leads to a finale on a cliff, high above a howling river in the deep, in which the characters not only face each other, but also themselves. 

The tight script, by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack, is perfectly functional, but might show some weaknesses when observed more carefully; the sequence with the Indians (who are quickly disposed of) looks perfunctory, a bit thoughtless, and the redemptive finale may lead to some frowning as well, but both direction and performances are so strong that you hardly notice the imperfections. Stewart and Ryan are a perfect match as the hunter and his prey (who becomes his taunter), but Janet Leigh almost steals away the film from them as the tomboy who dreams about traveling to California with a man who cares for her.



References:

Paul Simpson, The Rough Guide to Westerns
Ozus’ World, Movie Reviews, The Naked Spur, reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
DVD Savant, James Stewart, the Signature Collection, The Naked Spur, reviewed by Glenn Erickson


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