Monday, May 30, 2011

The Naked Spur (1953)

Filmed, as it says, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, this James Stewart western fills the screen with plenty of scenery. Held in high regard from the time of its release, the film continues to show up on people’s best-western lists. Usually credited is the team of Stewart and director Anthony Mann, who made five westerns together in the early 1950s. The first of these, Winchester ’73 (1950), has also been a critical favorite.

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.

James Stewart
The film is marred by an early scene meant to reveal Meeker’s reckless duplicity. He gets all of them into a firefight with a group of Indians who have been following on horseback. Their grievance is with Meeker, who apparently has taken liberties with an Indian maiden. Stewart is wounded in the exchange of gunfire, for which Meeker is unapologetic. He’s just glad the Indians aren’t on his trail anymore.

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
Stewart graduated as he grew older to playing more conflicted characters, often with complex motivations and dark sides like this one. For me, it works when the men he plays are still basically sincere. I’m thinking of his roles in Hitchcock films, like Vertigo. But I have trouble believing him when he has to be less than honorable, as he does in this film. With his guileless face, he’s too obviously a decent man.

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)


  1. I've also enjoyed all the Anthony Mann and James Stewart westerns. I recently saw this film and noticed how easy it was to kill the indians. I real life it was alot harder and it became common practice for men to save their last bullet in order to commit suicide. You did not want to fall into the hands of the indians. They really enjoyed torturing live captives.

  2. I did like Jimmy Stewart quite a lot but I haven't seen this one.

  3. I saw this film years ago, on the BBC! I loved it then, and love it now, you re right about Stewart. He is too good a man, to play baddies!

    However, Meeker`s character is totally believable. Leigh, what can I say? I think she is miss cast here, but thats my opinion.

    Millard Mitchell was fantastic! Always watchable.

    Now then, Robert Ryan, he always has that care worn look about him, kinda world weary. This for me always makes him worth watching. He has screen presence, for me though, his two best films were, The Wild Bunch, and Flying Leathernecks.
    Why? I dont know, but he is believable, and thats not always something you see.

  4. I liked Jimmy Stewart's movies, and I can still hear his voice hemming and hawing about something or other even though I haven't watched any for a few years.

  5. Walker, death tends to come instantly in movies. I remember Hitchcock in one of his movies wanting to show how hard it is to actually kill somebody.

    Charles, it's a good one; I think you'd like it.

    Cheyenne, Ryan was an interesting presence on the screen, often on the edge.

    Oscar, Stewart's hemming and hawing delivery was a trademark.