Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Naked Spur (1953)

The Naked Spur was the third of the much-admired westerns directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart. Mann had made his initial reputation with film noir (including the excellent Raw Deal) and his westerns had a decidedly dark edge to them. They also provided James Stewart with the opportunity to show what he could do in rather unsympathetic roles.

Howard Kemp (James Stewart) meets up with grizzled old prospector Jesse Tate (Milard Mitchell). Kemp is tracking an outlaw and Jesse may have picked up his trail. Kemp offers Jesse $20 to help him find that trail. Jesse could use the $20 and he figures it’s not a bad thing to help a lawman catch a killer. At least Jesse assumes Kemp is a lawman - why else would be be hunting an outlaw?

Kemp is also soon joined by Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) although he’s not overly pleased about finding himself with such an assistant, Anderson having been dishonourably discharged from the army and being obviously (as his discharge papers state) a man of very dubious moral character.

Catching up with convicted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) proves to be easier than expected. Hanging on to him and getting him all the way back to Abilene may be considerably more difficult.

Kemp now has a party of five to get to Abilene, the fifth member being Ben’s girl Lina Patch (Janet Leigh). Except that she isn’t Ben’s girl. Well, not exactly. Roy Anderson clearly figures that if she’s not Ben’s girl she might as well be his girl. That idea doesn’t go over too well with Lina and it’s obvious that Howard Kemp is not oblivious to her charms either. There are no prizes for guessing this this is going to be a rather tense situation.

The situation is made even more tense by the revelation that Howard Kemp is not a lawman. He’s a bounty hunter. Not a professional bounty hunter but an amateur who has a very good reason for wanting the five thousand dollar reward for bringing in Ben Vandergroat. It’s a long sad story. Howard had been in love with this really swell girl and they had made plans to get married but then he marched off to the war and when he returned he was in for a very unpleasant surprise. Whether the five thousand dollars will overcome his pain and sense of betrayal might be debatable but it will allow him to buy back his ranch.

Howard Kemp is not exactly your classic hero from the golden age of the western although he is in some ways a precursor of the anti-heroes that would populate the genre so tediously from the late 1960s onwards. He is a man driven by a sense of having been wronged but mostly he is driven by greed. He thinks money will heal his wounds.

In fact the whole movie is about greed since Kemp is certainly not the only character motivated by the lust for money. A group of five people that includes a ruthless but resourceful killer with nothing to lose (he has only the hangman’s rope to look forward to in Abilene), an attractive young woman in whom three members of the party are taking a very close interest and a $5,000 reward that would be desirable if shared three ways but even more desirable if it didn’t have to be shared at all provides a perfect setup for some intense interactions.

It doesn’t quite pan out that way, largely because most of the characters are mere stereotypes. Robert Ryan is entertaining but Ben is your standard movie villain without a single redeeming characteristic and with zero depth. Jesse is a character who could have stepped straight out of a hundred other westerns. Lina is the feisty but fundamentally decent girl whose every action can be predicted. Janet Leigh’s performance is fine but Lina just isn’t very interesting. Roy Anderson is the cynical drifter who will do anything if there’s a profit in it for him although he’s made slightly more interesting by Ralph Meeker’s spirited performance.

That leaves it up to Jimmy Stewart to do most of the heavy lifting in the acting department. Fortunately he’s equal to the task and Howard Kemp really is a genuinely fascinating character. He’s rather unsympathetic but we admire his doggedness and Stewart gradually reveals some of the hidden depths of the man.

The script, by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, is very good at setting up interesting human dynamics but it’s a bit too obvious that this is a movie with a Moral Lesson to teach us. Which is a pity because mostly it’s a fine story.

Anthony Mann’s films are always stylish and visually impressive and this is no exception. The film was shot in Technicolor and looks terrific even if the TCM print has a few blemishes and looks just a tiny bit washed out.

The Naked Spur is an attempt to do a complex and intelligent western and it’s an attempt that succeeds reasonably well largely due to James Stewart’s powerful performance. Recommended.

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