Saturday, May 21, 2011

#288. The Naked Spur (1953)

Directed By: Anthony Mann

Starring: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan

Tag line: "Packed with Technicolor Thrills!"

Trivia:  When this film was released in Spain, its title was changed to "Colorado Jim"

James Stewart teamed with director Anthony Mann on five westerns, starting with Winchester 73 in 1950 and continuing through to 1955’s The Man from Laramie. Aside from turning out five excellent films (which also included Bend of the River and The Far Country), this pairing marked a change of pace for Stewart. Gone was the disillusioned do-gooder of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; the loveable underdog of It’s a Wonderful Life; and the eternal optimist of Harvey. Under Mann’s skillful direction, Stewart explored intense characters, men hardened by life who were looking for a way to come out on top, whatever the cost. In thee movies, James Stewart got his chance to walk on the dark side, and by all appearances he was just as comfortable in the shadows as he was the light. 

Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a bounty hunter from Kansas, has been tracking wanted murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) for hundreds of miles. With the help of two partners he picked up along the way: unlucky prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and dishonorably discharged Union soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), Kemp does finally capture both Vandergroat and his companion, Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), a young girl the fugitive has been looking after for some time. 

Unfortunately for Kemp and the others, the journey back to Kansas to collect the $5000 bounty is fraught with dangers on all sides, not the least of which is the threat they pose to one another once greed rears its ugly head.  Before long, each man is looking for a way to claim the reward for themselves. 

As with many of Mann’s films, there are no clear-cut heroes in The Naked Spur, nor are there any obvious villains. Stewart’s Kemp is bound and determined to bring a wanted man to justice, but only so he can collect the reward. The fact that Vandergroat may actually be innocent means nothing to him. “it’s him they’re paying the reward on”, he reasons. Kemp even tries at one point to swindle Roy and Jesse, who helped capture Vandergroat, out of their share of the bounty. 

On the reverse side of the coin, Vandergroat is wanted for murder, but has also set himself up as a father figure to Lina, the daughter of his deceased best friend. Vandergrost has gone out of his way to care for the young girl, even if he does use Lina from time to time to stir up tension between Kemp and his ‘partners’. Then there’s Roy, a soldier who was thrown out of the army for taking up with an Indian chief’s daughter (whether the chief’s daughter was a willing partner or not is never disclosed). Wonderfully portrayed by Ralph Meeker, Roy has a nasty disposition, and makes unwanted advances towards Lina every chance he gets. 

With the line separating good from evil erased, none of the individuals in The Naked Spur are particularly trustworthy, character traits that bring a level of unpredictability to the proceedings.  With each man capable of any action, right or wrong, we the audience have no idea what to expect from scene to scene.

And that, my friends, is what makes an Anthony Mann western such a rewarding experience.


joem18b said...

I've always wondered what the alternative was to a naked spur. A spur with its rowel (which is actually the naked part, anyway) points covered with protective plastic tips, in which case the horse remains unmoved by your heel work?

And, is this related to the similar situation with chaps?

DVD Infatuation said...

joem18b: You know, you raise an excellent point!

I tried searching on Google for some idea of what a "naked spur" might be. Unfortunately, through the 1st 10-15 pages, every result referred back to the movie (which, may, in itself, have given us the answer).

But I'll continue searching. If there is, indeed, such a thing as a "naked spur", then there must be a picture floating around out there of a fully dressed one.

Thanks, and have a good one!

Ian said...

The westerns that Mann & Stewart did together are among the best films that either made.

I love THE NAKED SPUR, which I watched for the first time a few months ago, and WINCHESTER '73 is one of my all-time favorites.

DVD Infatuation said...

@Ian: I agree with you on both counts: the films of Stewart and Mann were truly incredible, and WINCHESTER '73 is my personal favorite as well. I'll be covering that one, and all of the Mann/Stewart westerns, at some point over the course of this "experiment".

Thanks for the comment, and have a good one.