The Naked Spur (1953)
The Naked Spur (1953) has been at the top of my watch list for a longtime, the wait is finally over, the remaining Anthony Mann/James Stewart western I hadn’t seen. So was it worth the wait? I’d say so, not really knowing what to expect I found a troubled bounty hunter Howard Kemp is hot on the trail of Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) who we learn has shot a Marshal back in Abilene, we don’t know why and it doesn’t really matter, Kemp’s possessed in his pursuit of this wanted man. Becoming suspicious with gold digger Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) who becomes embroiled in this hunt for the as yet unseen Vandergroat. Our first encounter’s restrained by view and the avalanche of rocks that prevent us getting further. We are up in the mountains once more, where man hide and danger can surround you. It’s only when the two men meet dishonorably discharged soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) who is the first to begin to reveal the cracks in Kemp’s goals.
It really has been a while since I’ve seen an Anthony Mann western which drown themselves in the darkness of humanity, the drives that make is who we are. Using Stewart as his every-man is perfect casting if I’ve not said so before, ranging from the soft family man to a unsocaiable loner who wants to be left alone with his dark past, unable to spend time with civilised people of the young country below. Sounds like a lot of westerns from that decade that made a real shift in the genre to become more adult.
When we finally meet Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) Kemp has met his match, he even has the girl Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) in tow (or has he really) who is open to both sides as they are brought on a long and protracted journey through open country in the hope taking the reward money that they now all know is at stake. Vandergroat begins are series of acts that are supposed to slow down the men and goad Kemp who wants the money more than he wants to be with the men who only divide his odds not improve upon them.
Besides Stewart the standout performance clearly comes from Ryan who is used to playing the darker roles, really enjoying himself in the open country. Taking every opportunity to push Kemp to the limits, in the hope of escaping or being set free. We are surrounded by actors who are seen more in urban film-noir type roles, they are simply transported to the West, at the mercy of Stewart and Ryan’s game of push and pull.
Coming from my pro-Native American position there is one scene that does stand out in the film and change the tables in Vandergraots favor, a gunfight with a local nation that are all but gunned down, injuring Kemp to the point he should no longer lead, in fact should be left behind. He literally hobbles on to hold power over the other men, even swaying Lina to my surprise, coming out of nowhere.
Its a pretty standard Western when all said and done, with the dark edges brought about by the performances by a cast that is trapped almost within the confines of a B-movie. It looks like one in terms of screen ratio and cinematography that dirties the landscape that should be shimmering. Maybe that’s the effect of time on the film or it was not made with real care. Placing it with the rest of the Mann/Stewart films I would place it at the bottom with Thunder Bay (1953) which doesn’t really deliver. Maybe that’s expectation though when we look at the other films in comparison. Although I have found that in the Ranown cycle of films, there is always a few weak ones in any actor/director collaboration. Sadly for this actor and director they both happened in 1953. There is a darkness to the film that comes all from Stewart who delivers the goods every time, and that’s why he’s so celebrated today.