The Naked Spur (1953)

D: Anthony Mann
S: James Stewart, Janet Leigh

Hard-edged but not entirely revisionist western from director Anthony Mann and scriptwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom. Bounty hunter James Stewart pursues outlaw Robert Ryan through the Rocky mountains. He meets up with luckless prospector Millard Mitchell and enlists his help in picking up the trail. Shortly afterwards the pair encounter "morally unstable" ex-serviceman Ralph Meeker and between them they succeed in capturing Ryan and sidekick Janet Leigh. We're only about fifteen minutes into the movie at this stage, and after this suspenseful, brilliantly directed opening, you can't help but wonder where it can go next. The remainder of the story is a variant on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Ryan actively sowing dissent among the uneasy partners and trying to manipulate his way to freedom.

Moral rather than psychological tension is in play here. Though we are given snatches of backstory which flesh out the motivations of some of the characters, it is really only in moments of life and death in which their true selves emerge. Stewart is given the greatest amount of depth, though unfortunately Rolfe and Bloom are not quite able to follow through with their initial instincts about him. The script provides unconvincing romantic relief through Leigh and the film concludes by drawing back from the brink of true darkness upon which it has perched for most of the running time. Along the way there are some stunning moments of moral uncertainty though, and Mann has dared to blur the lines of distinction between necessity and wilful evil to a degree quite unprecedented at the time. Ryan spends most of the film smiling and joking, 'scratching' his way under the skins of his would-be captors, but mostly demonstrating seeming good will. Stewart, meanwhile, grimaces and sweats his way through the action, frequently bursting into fits of murderous rage and greed which force the audience to consider their sympathies. In a confrontation between a murderer and a mercenary, who is more honourable?

The film is quite striking visually. Cinematography by William Mellor tends not to emphasise the pictorial qualities of the Rocky mountain landscape, but keeps things crisp throughout. Mann directs with an eye for the hard surfaces which surround these hard characters, and without labouring the point, succeeds in creating a very organic blend of man and nature in which neither is particularly warm or inviting. Sometimes nature holds sway over these lost souls. One scene takes place in a dark cave where the characters have taken shelter during a rainstorm. Raindrops patter upon the cups and plates left at the entrance creating an eerie natural music which sets the tone for a tender scene between Stewart and Leigh. Though music supervisor Bronislau Kaper underscores the moment with a corny rendition of "Beautiful Dreamer" (as he does almost all the scenes featuring these two people), the sense of the characters' relationship with their environment is what is most compelling. Similarly the climax which takes place next to the raging torrents of a Colorado river overflowing after the rains is framed by the rush and roar of the water, and it is here that the most violent emotions of the film are displayed.

The Naked Spur is filled with powerful scenes like these and leaves the impression of a monumental moral drama with a tough, realistic sense of human morality. Yet it cannot quite escape its generic roots, offering an easy 'out' for its dark but not irredeemable hero, leaving Leigh with little more than the usual female characterisation to work with, and despite (or perhaps because of) its fast pace, it fails to convincingly resolve some story threads involving the secondary characters. It still has more than enough going on to make it well worthwhile for serious film viewers and western fans alike, and it is most especially interesting when viewed in the context of what went before it. Mann's willingness to delve deeper into the moral centre of characters previously easily employed for lazy thrills demonstrates a vision of the genre which transcends the limitations of exploitation. It lacks the grandeur of Ford's My Darling Clementine, but its viewpoint is so different that it forges an identity of its own distinctive to the artist behind it. Ford would one-up Mann only three years later however with The Searchers, where the troubled and conflicted character played here by Stewart became the truly relentless Ethan Edwards, portrayed by John Wayne with an intensity which far surpasses Stewart's good work here.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.