The Naked Spur (1953) is the third Western that director Anthony Mann made with star, James Stewart. The film, also starring Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh, is the best of the Mann-Stewart collaborations and the definitive Anthony Mann Western.
Howard Kemp was a rancher in Abilene, Kansas before he went off to fight in the American civil war. Before going to war, Howard signed over his cattle ranch to his fiancée, Mary, so that she can run the ranch in his absence. On his return, Howard is shocked to discover that Mary had sold the ranch and ran away with another man. Despite being angry and embittered at being betrayed and dishonored, Howard decides to continue with ranching, but first he needs to buy back his land from the new owner, who is willing to sell it back to him. Now Howard needs to raise the required money and the quickest way Howard figures he can do it is bounty-hunting. So, he sets out in pursuit of Ben Vandergroat, a wild killer with a $5,000 “dead or alive” bounty on his head for the murder of a Kansas marshal. Howard chases Ben all the way to the Colorado Rockies, where he gets help from two very unlikely partners: Jesse Tate, a greedy, grizzled old prospector, and Roy Anderson, a morally unstable dishonorably-discharged Army officer. The threesome successfully manages to capture Ben, who is accompanied by Lina Patch, who’s the daughter of Ben’s friend killed during the Abilene robbery. After Jesse and Roy comes to know about the bounty on Ben’s head, they demand an equal share of the money. Howard has no choice but to go along with them and the fivesome begin their journey towards Abilene. Throughout the journey, the cunning Ben devises several means to turn his captors against one another; he even throws in Lina as bait to hook Howard. And though at one point it seems that Howard has almost fallen for the bait, he recovers in time and stops Ben from escaping. But Ben’s constant provocation finally bears fruit when he manages to turn Jesse around; Ben secretly offers to lead Jesse to a rich gold mine in exchange for his freedom, and as they sneak away that night, Ben insists that they take Lina with them. On the road, Ben takes Jesse’s rifle and kills him, to Lina’s horror. He then drags Lina to a rocky cliff from which he can easily ambush Howard and Roy. But when Ben fires on Howard and Roy from the cliff above, Lina grabs the rifle barrel and Ben misses the shot . While Roy exchanges gunfire with Ben, Howard uses one of his spurs as a piton to climb the cliff and outflank Ben. Howard hurls the spur at Ben and catches him in the face just as Roy comes from the other direction and shoots the outlaw. Ben falls into the river below and is carried away by the current. Roy attempts to retrieve Ben’s body from the rushing water, but is struck by a log and killed. Howard uses a rope to bring Ben ashore and flings the body over his saddle, but when Lina says she is willing go with him, Howard realizes how low he has fallen and weeps with disgust. After burying Ben, Howard and Lina ride off together in an attempt to start a new life in California.
This in a nutshell is the story of “The Naked Spur (1953),” The third Western directed by Anthony Mann with James Stewart in the lead. As it is obvious from the above synopsis, this is not a classical Western story. There is no Cavalry Vs Indians or Honest Lawmen Vs Evil outlaws or Honest cowboys Vs evil ranchers theme here. This is all about a bunch of flawed characters trying to outsmart one another for their survival. When we think of Classic Westerns, the films that come to mind are the ones made by director John Ford, with John Wayne in the lead. The Ford-Wayne duo, who made more than a dozen films together, majority of them Westerns, is the preeminent director-actor duo of the classical Western period. James Stewart and Anthony Mann made 8 films together in the 1950s, of which 5 are Westerns. These Westerns were nothing like the ones made by the Ford-Wayne duo. These films were actually antithetical to those Westerns; while Ford’s Westerns were grand, broad and optimistic and dealt with big issues like civilizational-conflicts and nation-building, Mann’s Westerns were cynical, small-scale nuanced psychological character studies, filled with flawed heroes and gritty events. The only Ford Western that comes close to the psychological evaluation of its angry, embittered lead character is “The Searchers”; all Mann Westerns are like “The Searchers” done an a much smaller scale. Mann’s psychological Westerns could also be considered the bridge between Classical Westerns and the revisionist Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. James Stewart perfectly embodied the rage-filled, morally ambiguous heroes of Mann’s Westerns with a neurotic menace that was seldom seen in his pre-WWII roles. Stewart started out by playing bumbling, gawky characters in comedies and dramas for directors like Frank Capra and George Cukor. He even won an Oscar for his portrayal of a goofy journalist in “Philadelphia Story (1940).” But after he returned from the war, he transformed into a different kind of an actor. Teaming up with directors like Mann and Alfred Hitchcock, who specialized in dark noirs and thrillers, Stewart showcased a gritty, obsessed, unlikeable side of himself that perfectly suited the more adult, psychologically complex dramas that was getting made in the post-war period.
Stewart and Mann teamed up for the first time in Winchester’73 (1950). Shot in Black & White, the film was a very different kind of Western from the ones that was being made at the time. The film featured a hero that was as angry, resentful and obsessed with revenge as an antagonist. The film also dealt with Mann’s pet themes of moral corruption, familial betrayals and an obsessive hero on a mission. Their second Western, “Bend of the River” was a more optimistic and colorful affair, but it again featured characters with constantly wavering moral center, leading to friends betraying friends. “The Naked Spur” could be considered the definitive Anthony Mann Western, as it epitomizes all the themes and styles that’s characteristic of Mann Westerns. This is a very spare, austere film that runs approximately 90 minutes and revolves around just five characters. The film is diamond-tight with no time wasted on exposition or setting up the plot & characters; action defines characters; and character interactions and the geography defines the plot. Unlike the grand horse operas of Ford, Mann’s Westerns plays out like tense psychological thrillers. Also, Ford’s Westerns usually takes place in beautiful red & yellow flat lands under big blue skies. Mann’s westerns usually takes place on uneven rough, rocky terrain with dense vegetation that tend to block out sunlight. Landscape is used in Mann’s films to mirror the psychology of his characters. It’s no different here: the dense forests, the treacherous cliffs, the dark caves and the rapid rivers of the Colorado Rockies mirrors Howard Kemp’s restless, conflicted inner-self. It’s a beautiful albeit ‘violent’ landscape, with knifelike rocky outgrowths that just into the screen as if to stab the viewer. The terrain is so treacherous that If you fall off a horse, chances are that you will be falling into a deep ravine and to your death- at one point in the story Ben loosens Howard’s saddle cinch, forcing Howard to fall off the horse and over the edge of a steep mountain trail; a tree breaks his fall, so he manages to crawl back up.
Mann’s penchant for minimalist, to-the-point, action-driven storytelling is visible right from the opening sequence, where he places the audience right in the middle of the action without any buildup of any kind. When the film opens, Stewart’s Howard is already in the Rockies and is seen making contact with Millard Mitchell’s Jesse, whom he initially suspects to being Ben’s accomplice. Once that matter is cleared, Howard offers Jesse a proposition: 20$ for helping him find Ben; Howard makes him think that he’s a lawman out to capture an outlaw and he keeps the matter of the bounty a secret. Soon they are joined by Ralph Meeker‘s Roy. Within the first 15 minutes, the threesome has captured Robert Ryan’s Ben. This is the point where most of the Westerns end, but here it’s just the beginning. Immediately after Ben’s capture , his captors start falling out when they come to realize that Ben has a Five thousand Dollar reward on his head and Howard is just a bounty hunter after the reward. Now the three enter into an uneasy partnership, and the next 75 minutes of the movie is about the charismatic and affable Ben using every opportunity to stoke their greed and manipulate them into turning against each other. And as in a nerve-racking psychological thriller, the suspense builds and builds as to who will be the first to come under Ben’s spell. There are very few gunfights or action sequences in the film (a brief skirmish with Blackfoot Indians and the climactic gunfight is all that you get in the form of action-set pieces), except for the fact that the characters are moving through a treacherous terrain. Most of the battles are psychological, as characters, who are troubled to start with, try to remain stable under Ben’s emotional manipulations.
The hero and the villain of the piece is also one of a kind; like all Mann heroes, Howard attempts to overreach at every stage, failing miserably most of the time. At the beginning we see Howard trying to climb a steep cliff with the help of a rope, and then burning his fingers and falling down; that’s totally unexpected from a Western hero. It’s Roy who finally manages to climb the cliff and apprehend Ben. Howard’s attempts to keep the bounty a secret and grab Ben all to himself also fails; he has to take the other two as partners, which means that even if he is successfully in taking Ben to Abilene then his share of the bounty will not be enough to buy back his ranch. So, he’s basically doing all this for nothing. Ben is also not the typical Western bad guy; he’s actually more charismatic, likeable and even resourceful than the hero. When we first see Ben he is completely out of bullets and using rocks to fight his enemies; sitting on a higher ground, he starts rockslides to prevent anyone from reaching him. This is the story of human beings at their most primitive. Most of the time, Ben is occupying a higher ground and Howard is down below, always trying to climb up to him. It’s almost a metaphor for Howard’s attempts to move up in the world from the lows he has fallen into. He finally manages to do that in the climax, when he uses the titular spur taken from his boot to not only climb up to where Ben is hiding, but also fatally wound him with it. The rawness of the violence is quite startling for the time, and so is the morally ambiguous nature of the characters. In the end there is very little that separates the hero and the villain, except maybe the fact that Howard cannot bring himself to murder someone in cold blood, while Ben can; the coldness with which he shoots and kills Jesse is chilling, while Howard draws his gun multiple times on Ben, he can never bring himself to pull the trigger; he even fights Roy when the latter wants to kill Ben.
“The Naked Spur” must have been a big influence on director Budd Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy in crafting their Randolph Scott Westerns. Boetticher-Scott was another director-actor duo who blazed a new trial with their austere ‘Ranown’ Westerns in the ’50s. Like Boetticher’s Westerns, this film opens in the wilderness and ends in the wilderness; there is no sign of civilization or modern society anywhere in the film; and there are only very few characters and location changes. Boetticher’s Westerns, like “Seven Men from Now” and “Comanche Station,” were all filmed in Lone Pine, California (where some of this film is also filmed) and featured mostly five or six characters, with a charismatic villain, played by Lee Marvin or Richard Boone, to square off against Scott. Of course, the Anthony Mann Westerns were a big influence on Sergio Leone and the spaghetti Westerns. Unlike Mann, who was restricted by production code and the studio from fully following through with the moral ambiguities of his lead character, Leone and the Euro-Western directors took the Western hero all the way into amoral territory; Leone’s heroes have no problem killing people in cold blood or shooting them in the back, something that Mann, with all his edginess, could never allow his heroes to do. But still, the performances of the actors are far richer than the ones we get from a regular oater. All the four characters are well defined and well performed. James Stewart is terrific as Howard kemp, who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown in almost every scene. Stewart channels his likeable everyman personality through a darker prism to come up with a character who is pretty ordinary in every way but is obsessively driven to better himself at any cost. He is resentful, bitter, angry, dogged and he is also vulnerable, both physically and emotionally; he is not the all-conquering Western superhero in the John Wayne mold, but a survivor haunted by his past; a man who returned from fighting in the war only to start a war with himself. He knows that what he is doing is wrong, and he hates himself for turning into what he has become, but he is too unswerving and obsessed to turn away from the path he has chosen for himself.
Robert Ryan, who specialized in playing bad guys, is even better than Stewart here. He is alternatively charming, chilling, pathetic, violent and cunning. Unlike Stewart’s character who is carrying the burden of the past and is worried about his future, Ryan’s Ben lives in the present with nary a concern for his past or future and, hence, he is totally free at any point to do whatever he wants. He understands human nature very well and knows exactly which buttons to push, either in his girlfriend or in his captors, to achieve what he wants. Janet Leigh’s performance as the girl in the middle of the four men is the only one that does not work properly in the film. It’s not Leigh’s fault because the role is undercooked; she starts out as a kind of femme fatale and the villain’s accomplice, but then, perhaps to satisfy the censors, is heavily watered down and becomes just the typical heroine in a Western, who follows the men around. Though, to be fair, she is given some agency in the climax and in the film’s final scenes where she seems to turn Stewart’s character around with her own goodness. Bronisław Kaper‘s music and William C. Mellor’s photography are two major assets of the film. The film makes very good use of the Colorado locations; this is a very beautiful looking film that was shot completely on location; Mann loved to shoot on real locations because he believed that it made actors’ performances more believable; and the real locations also amplified the elements of danger and suspense that was an integral part for Mann’s Westerns.
The film was very successful upon its release and its success ensured five more Stewart-Mann collaborations, including two more Westerns. Screenwriters, Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, were nominated for an Oscar for their work on this film, which is a very rare accomplishment for a Western. Usually Westerns are considered more for their visual aspects than their literary quality. In the years since its release, the film has achieved continued success, gaining more critical acclaim now than upon first release and is today considered one of the greatest Westerns ever made. The film that was available only in badly faded DVDs and home video for a long time has recently been remastered and is now available through Warner Archives in a beautiful print that fully restores the majestic beauty of the film.