The Naked Spur is an Oscar-nominated Western and the third of five Westerns and eight films directed by Mann and starring James Stewart.
Screenplay nominations for Westerns were quite rare when the film was released. But sure enough, Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom’s script earned a nomination. They could have had their military history better researched but it is what it is. In any event, their work would play a tremendous role in redefining the Western genre. The genre would be redefined once again with The Magnificent Seven.
“Plain arithmetic. Money splits better two ways instead of three.” – outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan)
Bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart) finds himself in the Rocky Mountains in 1868 chasing after the outlaw, wanted for murdering a marshal in Kansas. Prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) assumes that Kemp is a sheriff and joins him in tracking him down. After a rock slide, the “morally unstable” Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) turns the duo into a trio. They shortly capture the outlaw but unexpectedly find him in the company of Lina Patch (Janet Leigh). It turns out that Lina’s father and the outlaw were friends.
Lina believes in Vandergroat’s innocence while the outlaw informs both Tate and Anderson of the money on his head. Not surprisingly, he is always trying to turn the bounty hunters against each other. As he says, the math means higher shares if split between less people. In any event, they approach a mountain pass only to learn that Anderson is wanted by the Blackfoot for raping the chief’s daughter. Anderson leaves the group so that the rest can safely pass but it results in a battle because Anderson shoots the chief. If you’re counting, we have two bad people here: Anderson and Vandergroat. In any event, Kemp gets an injury during the battle with the Blackfoot and goes delirious. This is when we learn about his fiancée, Mary. Or is it ex-fiancé?
This might be a Western film but there’s definitely a romantic angle at play. Howard and Lina find themselves falling for each other. She believes Kemp when he talks of a ranch in California. It’s why the reward money is so important. Without it, who knows how he might end up. As the film journeys forward, Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” recurs a few times as they make camp at the river.
The Western runs its 91 minutes at a quick pace. True to the genre, it climaxes in a shootout between Kemp, Anderson, and Vandergroat. You might find yourself wondering where Tate is in all of this. Well, he falls for the psychological warfare so to speak. Did anyone think that Vandergroat wants to be their friend? Tate, apparently, and he ends up paying for it with his life.
There are some historical errors in The Naked Spur but after watching Santa Fe Trail the other day, I’m not even surprised. With better research, it’s possible that the film could have been without its errors. Today’s technology puts the internet and such research at our fingertips. You can’t say the same about 71 years ago when they were making the film. It doesn’t drag it down too much unless one is a stickler for getting the history right. But I digress.
When they were not filming in California, they were making the best of everything Durango, Colorado had to offer. Westerns are known for having beautiful scenery and this film is no exception. Throw in the Technicolor cinematography and the picture is just stunning. Admire the views because the characters will fill the scenes up with tension rather quickly. Again, three bounty hunters and a $5,000 dead-or-alive reward is enough to cause even more tension.
Of eight collaborations between Mann and Stewart, studios would release three of them in 1953. Two more Westerns would follow because of the box office performance. Meanwhile, this would be the penultimate film for Millard Mitchell, who would die from lung cancer. Robert Ryan tends to find himself plying either a villain or a cop. Sure enough, the Oscar nominee is a villain once again. Another thing to note here is that all five principal actors see their names before the title. Nobody else gets a credit including the Native Americans who ambush them along the mountain pass.
The Naked Spur is a beautifully cinematographed Western that would help in redefining the genre and features a top-notch performance from James Stewart.
DIRECTOR: Anthony Mann
SCREENWRITERS: Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom
CAST: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, with Millard Mitchell
MGM released The Naked Spur in theaters on February 6, 1953. Grade: 5/5
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