"The Naked Spur" may not rank in the higher echelon of classic Hollywood Westerns like "Stagecoach," "High Noon," "Shane," "The Searchers," or "Unforgiven," but this 1953 James Stewart release is a nifty little film all the same.
In it, Stewart plays a bounty hunter, a fellow who goes after a wanted murderer only for the money. He's not out for justice or to right any wrongs; he just needs the cash. Right away, you can see that this is not going to be your typical Hollywood Western. It was the early 1950s, and the Hollywood Western was growing up. It was the early age of the "adult Western," the "psychological Western." In fact, there is more talk in this film than there is action, but that's what makes it so unusually good.
Anthony Mann directed the film, and he was one of Stewart's favorite directors. The two men would make a number of films together, including "Winchester '73," "Bend in the River," "Thunder Bay," "The Glenn Miller Story," "The Man from Laramie," "Strategic Air Command," and "The Far Country." At the time of "The Naked Spur," they were beginning to know each other's styles pretty well. Clearly, Stewart was never a convincing action hero, but his leisurely mannerisms and down-home charisma always carried him through. That is still true here, yet this is one of the few films where he is not entirely the Mr. Nice Guy, either.
Stewart plays Howard Kemp, an embittered Civil War vet who lost his ranch when he went away to serve his country, turning the deed to his property over to his true love. When he came back from the War, he discovered she had sold the place and run off with another man. Now he wants to buy it back, and one way he can raise the money is to collect a reward of $5,000 on a killer named Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan).
In the course of pursuing Vandergroat from Abilene to the Rockies, Kemp comes across two other men who join him in his pursuit of the outlaw, both of them out to split the reward, of course. Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) is a grizzled old prospector in the Gabby Hayes mold, who seems an honest and decent type. Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) is a cheeky former cavalry officer dishonorably discharged for being "morally unstable." It isn't long before the three of them catch up to and capture Vandergroat and his traveling companion, Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), and that's when the movie's drama begins.
Notice first of all the character names: Kemp, Vandergroat, Tate, Patch. These are not glamorized Hollywood movie names, and this is no glamorized Hollywood movie. Notice next that Kemp, the assumed hero, is taciturn and suspicious of everyone, while Vandergroat, the assumed villain, is a cocky, arrogant rogue, and not a little charming. These are real people, not simply cardboard Hollywood stereotypes.
No sooner do they capture Vandergroat than the rascal tries to ingratiate himself with his captors, especially with Anderson and Tate. He tries to persuade them that "money splits up better two ways 'stead of three," hoping to turn them against their partner. His scheme is to play on their greed. In this regard, the film may remind viewers, as it did me, of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."
To complicate matters, the story soon makes apparent that Kemp and Vandergroat have known each other before, and there's bad blood between them. At one point, Kemp tells him, "It's your choice, Ben: A bullet right here on the trail or a rope in Abilene." And to make things even worse, there is a largely unnecessary sequence where Indians are trailing Anderson for an indiscretion involving one of their young women, and as a result they're intent on roasting him alive over an open fire.
OK, there were a couple of other things that didn't work so well, either, like the repetition of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer," which is lovely the first few times we hear it but gets old fast; some overemphatic and clichéd "action" music used too often when there is no real action going on; and an ending that seems too abrupt and too pat. But these are minor shortcomings in an otherwise splendid, character-driven film.
Finally, I can't leave without saying a word on behalf of cinematographer William Mellor, whose gorgeous camera work on location in the Colorado Rockies is half the fun of watching the film. Several of his scenes with rock slides early on are truly harrowing. With the exception of a couple of obvious soundstage segments, the filmmakers set the story completely out-of-doors, in mountains and valleys, amid trees and rivers. With its abundance of long, lingering shots and loving pans, it makes you want to pack up and head for the hills yourself. Which, I might add, is an endearing quality of the director, too; he takes his time to develop a scene, to develop a mood, and to develop a personality trait, things you wouldn't expect in more common Westerns. You'll find no quick edits or excessive close-ups from these filmmakers.
While "The Naked Spur" may be located in the wide open spaces, it is essentially an intimate character drama. Its combination of seasoned cast, fine acting, realistic motivations, and attractive photography set it apart from most others of its breed.
The movie's coming out in 1953 was a bit unfortunate, because Hollywood had just recently introduced Cinerama and CinemaScope, and it would be another year or two before studios began filming most of their major attractions in widescreen. So, we get a 1.33:1 ratio DVD transfer of a 1.37:1 movie, and more's the pity because, as I've said, the cinematography is so good it would have benefitted from some extra-wide dimensions. Ironically, a few years later Stewart would star in the CinemaScope production "The Spirit of St. Louis" and be cooped up for most of the movie in a tiny cockpit. Oh, well....
The audio engineers transferred "The Naked Spur" to disc at a very high bit rate, ensuring that the film's Technicolor hues are deep and solid. They are also quite natural, except in a few shots that appear a tad dark. Plus, it's a clean transfer, with almost no added grain or noise. The snag is that the image itself looks slightly blurred. It hasn't the sharply etched definition of a film newly and fully restored. Oh, well, again....
The audio engineers use Dolby Digital to handle the film's 1.0 monaural soundtrack. There's really not much to it. It does what it has to do in reasonably good fashion, but it has no outstanding virtues, either. It is quiet and clear, just not too impressive in frequency range or dynamic contrasts.
The extras that Warner Bros. include have nothing to do with the movie, but they are from around the same production year. The first is a black-and-white Pete Smith comedy short, "Things We Can Do Without," about eight minutes long about various pieces of furniture we don't need. The second item is a seven-minute MGM classic cartoon, "Little Johnny Jet," directed by Tex Avery. And the third is a theatrical trailer for "The Naked Spur."
Beyond that, we get twenty-eight scene selections, but again no chapter insert from WB; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
There probably isn't enough action in "The Naked Spur" to generate a lot interest among young folks these days, when somebody has to die or something has to blow up every ten seconds to draw any attention. But it is an engrossing little film that doesn't flinch from showing us the worst in people, including the hero. It's worth a look, if only for the scenery.
Oh, and you're probably wondering what the title is all about. Well, nothing really. But you know how Hollywood likes to throw things "naked" into a movie. It sells tickets. Oh, I know some fans are going to say the title is a bit of allegorically charged symbolism referring to the conflicts brought on by the antagonist amongst the protagonists and all; but I just think sex, even in oblique name only, is always marketable.
Warner Bros. have made "The Naked Spur" available individually or in the box set "James Stewart: The Signature Collection," where you will also find "The Spirit of St. Louis," "The FBI Story," "The Stratton Story," and a double-feature disc containing "The Cheyenne Social Club" and "Fire Creek."