The color and the setting are actually an interesting contrast to the darker story of men driven by naked self-interest. Thrown together on a cross-country journey, they are the classic mix of poorly matched travel companions that has been a staple of westerns. In this case, the complicating factor is a $5,000 reward for the return of one of them to Kansas.
Robert Ryan, always good to play a brazenly grinning killer, is the man with a price on his head. A very blonde, short-haired Janet Leigh, dressed at first in men’s clothes, is his girlfriend. A second smirker among them is Ralph Meeker, a dishonorably discharged cavalry soldier without two principles to rub together. Completing the group is a grizzled, out-of-luck prospector, a frontier stereotype played with unexpected depth by veteran Millard Mitchell (one of his last films). And, of course, there’s Stewart.
Ryan, as in other roles, is a walking pack of lies and makes no secret of it. His captors can trust each other only up to the point where their share of the $5,000 is compromised. The girl is a question mark, drawn as she is between faithless Ryan and the achingly lonely Stewart. And so it goes until, one by one, lives are lost and only two are left standing.
For modern audiences, the problem with the scene is that, of the 20 or so Indians, not a single one survives. That Meeker would pull such a stunt is fully within his character. But the total wipeout of the band of Indians is too much a convention of earlier western movies. Their dead bodies littering the ground as the dust clears, it stretches credibility.
The final scene, however, is a remarkable achievement. Played out along, across, and in a swollen, raging river, it involves some thrilling stunt work. Nifty editing creates a seamless action sequence that keeps the drama breathtaking. The “naked spur” of the title also figures in here as a plot device and a weapon.
|Janet Leigh and Robert Ryan|
Altogether, it’s an interesting film for its time, with only a five-person cast (plus Indians). And there are no “good guys” among the characters, only degrees of self-interest to distinguish them. Except for the gorgeous sun-lit scenery, it’s arguably a “noir western,” much in keeping with the dark mood of Hollywood during the “happy days” of the post-war Red Scare.
The Naked Spur is currently available at amazon.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Man in the Shadow (1957)