The Naked Spur

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Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart – one of the three great director/actor partnerships (the others, of course, being John Ford and John Wayne and Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott) that made such an impact on the western and how it was to develop. The importance and the legacy of their collaborative body of work is undeniable; I think it’s safe to say there’s consensus on that. A thornier issue, or at least a more subjective one, is attempting to settle on their best work. When it comes to Stewart and Mann I reckon a case could be made for any one of their westerns – although I do feel that The Far Country is probably the least of them – which is a testament to the consistency of their quality. However, having given it a good deal of consideration, I feel The Naked Spur (1953) just about gets its nose in front. There are two major, interdependent, factors for this: the obsessive and relentless tone that never lets up, and a lead performance by Stewart that I can only describe as magnetic in its intensity.

That this is going to be a dark and tense affair is evident right away as Bronislau Kaper’s moody score plays over the blood red credits. A solitary rider slowly dismounts and ever so cautiously picks his way towards some target he’s spotted up ahead. This is Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a man who’s been doggedly pursuing a wanted murderer all the way from Kansas. On this occasion he doesn’t have his man, it’s merely an old prospector, Tate (Millard Mitchell), he’s stumbled upon. However, the two men strike a bargain to track what may be Kemp’s quarry. Before they can run down their man though they’re joined by another traveller: a flashy young man, Lt Anderson (Ralph Meeker), who’s just been drummed out of the army with a dishonourable discharge. Immediately, the viewer is caught a little off guard as there’s no clearly identifiable hero figure: Kemp is a driven, secretive man who’s exhibiting signs of instability; Anderson is a vain, amoral criminal; and Tate is a sly opportunist. When we finally see the fugitive, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), he’s all smiles and affability, and he’s even got a beautiful young girl called Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) as company. Who are we to root for here? As the story progresses it does become clearer where our sympathies are being drawn. Nevertheless, at no point does it become a simple black hat vs white hat exercise. Apart from one short skirmish with a party of faceless Blackfeet, it’s these five, disparate characters who dominate proceedings as they trek across a breathtakingly beautiful landscape towards Kansas. The real conflict of the picture is contained within this tight group, and more specifically within the heart of Howard Kemp.

The eyes have it - James Stewart in The Naked Spur.

Anthony Mann’s direction is tight as a drum, never slackening the pace for more than a moment or two at a time and maintaining the high pressure atmosphere right to the end. He keeps the viewer on edge throughout with a bombardment of disorienting high and low angle shots and extreme close-ups, yet intersperses these with enough long range views to ensure that the geography of the action remains apparent. Even here though, where William C Mellor’s camera showcases the natural beauty of Colorado, the binding together of the five travellers is highlighted – simultaneously dwarfed by the towering mountain backdrops and still hemmed in by their need keep each other as close as possible at all times. There are also examples of what Jim Kitses refers to as Mann’s visual motif of a man straining to scale a high place. Kemp is the one who struggles, and fails initially, to reach that higher ground. By the end he succeeds, he’s no longer overreaching himself and consequently achieves the redemption he’s been searching for all along.

It’s the redemptive quest that marks The Naked Spur out as a genuine classic western, but what ensures its successful execution is the power of James Stewart’s performance. Stewart’s wartime experiences gave him a quality that’s very difficult to define but very easy to discern. He could still draw on and display the old geniality of his earlier years, yet there’s an edge there too. His eyes could suddenly fill up with doubt and paranoia, and that “aw shucks” drawl could just as easily strangle itself into a choked stammer. Both Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock got him to tap into this and coaxed performances from him that are almost painful in their honesty. Stewart’s Howard Kemp is a real three dimensional character, a man who marched off to war to do his duty yet finds that in so doing he has ended up at war with himself. He’s driving himself to reverse the mistakes of the past while also loathing the kind of man he’s forced himself to become in the process. In contrast, Robert Ryan’s Vandergroat is a man at peace with himself; he knows he’s no good, he feels no regret for his past actions, and has no hesitation in turning any situation to his own advantage. Ryan was usually best when he was bad, and in this movie he turns on the charm as the unscrupulous student of human weakness to whom manipulation is second nature.

It’s always disappointing when a top movie is handed a less than ideal presentation. The R1 DVD of The Naked Spur from Warner Bros is not a terrible transfer, but it is weak. Clearly, there was no restoration done on this title, and while there isn’t any significant print damage visible there is a softness and lack of detail in the image. These muted visuals are especially noticeable in the long shots. Extras on the disc are confined to a couple of shorts and the theatrical trailer. Anyway, I feel this film remains the pick of the Mann/Stewart westerns, although that’s not to be taken as a criticism of the other films they made together. I’d just place it at the top of an already highly elevated group of films.

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7 thoughts on “The Naked Spur

  1. Once again, a brilliant review of a great film. I myself have spent a lot of time (not wasted, I now know) wondering which of the Mann-Stewart westerns was the best, and narrowed it down to “Naked Spur” and “Man From Laramie,” with “Winchester 73” being, in my opinion, the least of the series. I remember being stunned when I first saw this movie about 10 years ago at how excellent it was, how dark and powerful Stewart’s performance was, how non-John Ford it was. I’d never seen him like that before…well, outside of his films with Hitchcock, of course. I can’t think of another actor, in the golden days of cinema or in modern times, who had so much range to draw from, the half-stuttering aw-shucks Jefferson Smith to his near-maniacal near-bad guy Howard Kemp in this film.

    I think he drew all those strands together in 1959, when he made “Anatomy of a Murder,” portraying a lawyer defending a murder suspect he’d obviously much rather prosecute. In that film, there’s a very telling scene between Stewart and Arthur O’Connell, where the latter laughs at Stewart’s courtroom antics and says, “Ah, Paulie, I love that humble country lawyer bit,” and Stewart gives this subtle smile around his cigar that tells us he (character and actor) knows exactly what he’s doing, knows his talents and knows how to use them. A great moment. But then, James Stewart provided plenty of them, didn’t he?

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    • Hi Bruce. Personally I rate Winchester 73 very highly (my review is here), but the truth is there really isn’t a bad title among any of the Mann/Stewart westerns.
      Stewart has to be placed right up there with Cooper, Scott, Wayne, and McCrea as one of the greatest western actors of the classic period. Although, it has to be said his post-war work in general is rich, varied and rewarding.

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  2. I was lucky enough to see Janet Leigh being interviewed and told her how much I admired NAKED SPUR. As you say, Colin, a powerful performance from Stewart as a man fighting demons.
    Ryan so, so good too.
    That ending when Stewart gently eases Ryan’s body off the horse is so effective.

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  3. Pingback: The Far Country | Riding the High Country

  4. I’ve thought for a while that Stewart didn’t get enough credit, but I didn’t expect this level of intensity from him. You’re right to point out that it’s not really a “good vs. bad” story in The Naked Spur. It’s clear that Kemp’s obession has taken him into some pretty dark places. I’m also a big fan at just how straightforward the story is. It’s all about the small group interacting with a few exceptions like you mention. Robert Ryan is so good, and the way his character finds the holes in the group is just brilliant.

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    • Dan, I love the minimalism of the movie, the way it’s pared right down to the essentials and nothing is wasted.
      The whole thing is a terrific, probing examination of human nature, with Ryan’s character expertly directing the operation.
      And that ending just gets better and better the more you see it.

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