The Naked Spur (1953)

nakedspurThe Naked Spur, 1953, 91 mins

Directed by Anthony MannRaw Deal, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Glenn Miller Story

Starring James Stewart – It’s a Wonderful Life, Rope, Rear Window, Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, The Flight of the Phoenix (1 965), Airport ’77.  Janet Leigh – Touch of Evil, The Vikings, Psycho. Robert RyanThe Woman on the Beach, Crossfire, The Set-Up, The Woman on Pier 13, Born to be Bad, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground, House of Bamboo, Odds Against Tomorrow, Ralph Meeker-  Kiss Me Deadly, Paths of Glory, The Anderson Tapes

The Naked Spur is a superb Western –  usually Hollywood Westerns from this ‘classic period’ tend to leave me a little cold, they often seem to be overly simplistic Good vs Evil morality plays, the American dream painted as noble frontier endeavour, with unconvincing actors in clean pressed clothes, and with an often racially questionable treatment of Native American Indians that never ages well. Clearly these films are products of their time, and I have little issue with that of itself (indeed many no doubt feel that’s part of their appeal), but it does leave me feeling cold towards them. I guess I’m more inclined towards the morally bankrupt/twisted-fate dramas painted in Film Noir, regards 1940s and 1950s Hollywood film-making.

But contrary to what one might be inclined to expect, considering it was released back in 1953,  The Naked Spur turns out to be surprisingly complex, and feels very ‘modern’ (save for its treatment of Janet Leigh’s character, but perhaps more on that later).  Notwithstanding its utterly gorgeous colour cinematography, this is a Western that is painted in shades of grey with genuinely interesting, three-dimensional characters, distinct from possibly expected Wild West tropes With drama in spades, it features some great action sequences that are filmed and edited consummately well, and it even manages to treat Native Americans with respect. This is no doubt a top-tier Hollywood Western.

The film begins with Howard Kemp (James Stewart) doggedly on the trail of killer Ben Vandergrift (Robert Ryan). Kemp encounters a down-on-his-luck prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and shortly afterwards a dishonourably discharged Union soldier, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) who decide to help him, both assuming Kemp is a lawman. However when they capture both Vandergoat and the young woman accompanying him (Lina- Janet Leigh), the killer reveals to them that he has a $5000 reward on his head, a fact Kemp has avoided informing them of because he’s actually a bounty hunter intending to keep the reward for himself. Both of his recruits decide they deserve a share in the bounty and maintain they will accompany Kemp as he returns Vandergroat to Kansas in order to collect, and Vandergroat sees this as an opportunity to appeal to each man’s greed. He starts to sowing doubt and temptation between them (“Money splits better two ways than three,” he suggests) while scheming with Lina to make their escape on their long journey back.

nakedspur3The film is a fantastic character piece, the film thriving on the tensions between them. I found each actor to be brilliantly cast in clearly defined, yet refreshingly ambiguous roles. Each character has flaws. Stewart is typically excellent as the bounty hunter; this is a morally conflicted man with a hidden past that is slowly torturing him; once revealed this provides much insight into him and really makes the finale work. Tate is a good-natured, affable prospector who is easy to like but whose greed finally gets the better of him, while Anderson is a charming rogue who avoids becoming what could easily have been a one-dimensional character.  Naturally as Vandergoat Ryan pretty much steals the show- Ryan is so good at roles such as this, full of charm and disarming humour, albeit still displaying the cold snake underneath.  That face that limited him from the leading-man roles he craved (which he rued for all his career) serves him so well in roles like this; he looks like he stepped right out of the actual wild west, that he’s lived it and breathed it.  Janet Leigh’s character is problematic and doesn’t entirely convince- she’s fine in the part but really she’s there as a function of the plot, and as beautiful as she is, she’s the one element that betrays the era the film was made. She’s obviously been put in to provide some romantic dynamic between herself, Kemp and Vandergoat, but one can forgive that as it thus provides the desperate Kemp some kind of redemption at the end, and therefore helps the film work as well as it does.

Indeed, The Naked Spur works brilliantly; other than the awkwardness inherent in fitting Leigh’s character into it, I must say the film is pretty much perfect and one of the best ‘classic westerns’ I have ever seen. It certainly looks astonishingly beautiful: I watched the film in HD on TCM, where it looked vibrant and terrific with great detail and vibrant colours, but I will certainly be looking to get the Warner Blu-ray (which is being released in the UK this month). Its just a pity this film doesn’t seem destined for the Indicator treatment- I’d love to  see that; some video appreciations of Stewart and Ryan, a commentary track, one can imagine what an Indicator disc would be like.


6 thoughts on “The Naked Spur (1953)

  1. I think this is my favorite of the Mann / Stewart westerns. That tight cast and the remarkable intensity Stewart achieves, particularly in that last redemptive scene elevate it. All Mann’s westerns are excellent though, but The Man from Laramie and Man of the West are, like this one, simply superb. And I still say the 50s represent the golden age of the western, there are so many complex and worthwhile examples to explore among them.

    1. I probably haven’t seen enough of them- maybe I should hang around the TCM channel and see what jewels are on there (its where I first encountered Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country too).

      1. Generally, you can’t go far wrong with any of the Mann/Stewart films or Scott/Boetticher. I know you’re a Robert Ryan fan so Day of the Outlaw ought to be up your street.

  2. Matthew McKinnon

    I did a run of Mann westerns last year and they’re all uniformly excellent. I’d recommend just buying them on Blu-ray as they’re fairly cheap at the moment, in good editions.

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