Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Naked Spur (1953)

The Naked Spur (1953) *** ½
Directed by: Anthony Mann.
Written by: Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom.
Starring:  James Stewart (Howard Kemp), Janet Leigh (Lina Patch), Robert Ryan (Ben Vandergroat), Ralph Meeker (Roy Anderson), Millard Mitchell (Jesse Tate).

I have heard the Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns of the 1950s described as “revenge films”, but that is not exactly accurate. True, in Winchester 73, Stewart is trying to track down his brother, who killed their father, but he’s only one part of a larger story. And in The Man from Laramie, Stewart is seeking revenge for his brother’s murder, but his motives, and in fact his character, are largely outside the family melodrama at the heart of the film. What is true is that the movies are morally complex – and that Stewart may not always be the good guy – he may never actually be the good guy in these films. I think Mann liked using Stewart for a similar reason that Hitchcock liked the actor – he had such a wholesome image, that audiences would follow Stewart into darker places than they would many other actors.

The Naked Spur (1953) is no exception. In the film, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a man who has been tracking fugitive Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) for months, in the hopes of catching him and getting the $5,000 reward. He knows that if he does catch Ben, it will mean he gets hanged, but he doesn’t care. He wants the money. But just as he’s closing in on Ben, he unwittingly gets two partners – the wily old Jesse (Millard Mitchell), and the dishonorably discharged soldier Roy (Ralph Meeker). They catch Ben, but things get further complicated because he was travelling with Lina (Janet Leigh), a beautiful young woman, who is the daughter of a dead associate of Ben’s. Things get even more complicated, when Ben reveals to everyone the bounty on his head, which Howard had failed to mention. So now, these three “bounty hunters”, who don’t know each other, have to find a way to trust one another. Ben hopes to drive a wedge between them, and perhaps that wedge could be Lina.

The Naked Spur is odd for a Western, in that it is almost a chamber piece. These are the only five characters we see in the movie, and although the mountains and the scenery are fantastic (as we expect from Mann), this certainly a film with more talk than action. Stewart did some of his best work with Mann, and here is no exception – he is a bitter, angry man just trying to get back his land, and sees everyone as in his way. And yet, he is also a moral man – or at least likes to think of himself as one. Robert Ryan, who was a wonderful character actor, and often played terrific villains roles, is in top form here as Ben, who slowly tries to pick this “alliance” apart. He isn’t a nice man, but he doesn’t seem unrepentantly evil either. No one, it seems, except Howard really care if he is ever caught – no one else is pursuing him anyway – and he’s fighting for his life. Although the roles played by Leigh (part damsel in distress, part innocent girl in over her head), Meeker (slimy skeezeball) and Mitchell (old coot) are more standard issue Western tropes, they play them well – and round out the cast.

The filmmaking by Mann is, as always, top notch. He loves the shots of the mountains in the distance – another hill to climb – and also loves the idea of “higher ground”. The few gun battles in The Naked Spur – like Winchester 73 and The Man from Laramie as well – all involved someone getting the upper hand, by getting the higher ground. The scenery in The Naked Spur is beautiful, but it’s also ominous.

If I think The Naked Spur is perhaps not quite as good as Winchester 73 or The Man from Laramie (on the same level of Bend of the River – and I still need to see The Far Country), it’s because this time, I didn’t see much wrong with Stewart’s moral position. A lot is made of the fact that he is going to making money off of another man’s death. But Ryan is hardly an innocent – he is a murderer after all – and in the Old West, the death penalty was something no one questioned. Perhaps looking back through modern eyes his position seems slightly suspect, but not really. If he was a Sheriff chasing down Ryan to be hanged, would anyone have a problem with it?

But that’s really just a small quibble, with what is otherwise a top notch Western. Anthony Mann was one of the masters of the genre, and The Naked Spur is a good example of why.

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