05 July 2008

On the Road With the Naked Spur


One of the most successful formulas for film is to have a disparate group of characters on a journey. If their trip is fraught with peril, and the travelers have conflicting agendas, all the better. This has worked wonderfully in such classic films as Stagecoach and Shanghai Express, earlier discussed on this blog. It also worked in Anthony Mann's Western, The Naked Spur (1953).

This journey is made up of:
A court marshaled reprobate officer played by Ralph Meeker;
A wise but luckless old prospector played by Millard Mitchell;
A tempestuous young beauty played by Janet Leigh (who better?);
A sociopathic killer played by Robert Ryan;
An honest but troubled farmer played magnificently by Jimmy Stewart.

Calling The Naked Spur a Western is like saying Casablanca is war picture. It is a taught psychological drama with compelling, nuanced characters. To write The Naked Spur off as a Western is to a trivialize a film of unique depth and complexity.

Stewart roams far from his home Abeline, Kansas to capture a wanted murderer in order to collect reward money. (Why he needs the money should not be revealed in advance of viewing it).

Ryan often played very convincing villains (see Clash By Night) but never better than here. He is Stewart's prey and the fact that he is captured early in the film does nothing to lessen his menace. The prospector and disgraced soldier get in on the capture and want in the reward. Leigh is Ryan's girl but her loyalty to him has its boundaries; ones that are tested by Stewart.

Jimmy Stewart's love in The Naked Spur resembles the desperate, passion of Vertigo. It is as unsentimental as the movie's violence and action. Indeed, the fight scenes in The Naked Spur are not the burlesque barroom brawl variety of traditional Westerns. These fights are clutching, grabbing kicking affairs with palpable anger.

As played by Stewart, Howard Kemp could have it no other way. This is a scarred human being who believes his redemption lies in a $5,000 reward and will go to any lengths to get it.

Ryan's Ben Vandergroat, so diabolical a fiend, presents a truly troubling challenge. Mitchell's Jesse Tate and Meeker (who in my mind left film for TV prematurely) as Roy Anderson serve both as impediments and allies. But Lina Patch as portrayed by Leigh is the real wild card. Leigh gave depth to a character who could have been shrill and transparent.

The Naked Spur is unpredictable. The beauty of the journey movie is that its cast of character are liable to take it in various directions. But more importantly, it is the journey and not the destination that make it an exceptional film.

The Naked Spur is such an exceptional film.

In technicolor and now on DVD.

1 comment:

rdfinch said...

I certainly agree that "The Naked Spur" is an exceptional film. I watched this on TCM not long ago. It is the fourth Anthony Mann-James Stewart Western that I've seen recently, and although I found all of them very good, I'd rate this one as the best of the lot. Its closest competition is "The Man from Laramie," which you discussed a while back.

The two make for an interesting comparison. One thing that impressed me about both films was their outstanding use of landscape. In "Laramie" that landscape is the high desert of New Mexico. It is a flat, horizontal, relatively featureless landscape ideally suited to the wide screen. The light is strong and the colors bleached and desaturated. The landscape in "Spur" is the high country of the Rockies. This is a colorful, vertical landscape filled with mountain peaks and valleys, aspen trees, and raging rivers (one of which plays a key role in the denouement of the movie). The films were shot by two of the great cinematographers of classic Hollywood--"Laramie" by Charles Lang and "Spur" by William Mellor. The American landscape is such an important part of the Western genre, the most American of all film genres; I'm sure that it has been largely responsible for the image many non-Americans have of the wide-open spaces of the U.S.

In both movies Stewart plays a ruthless and driven character, driven in "Laramie" by the desire for revenge and in "Spur" by the desire to regain his lost paradise with the reward money he will earn for capturing Ryan. For me the deciding factor that ultimately gives "Spur" the edge over "Laramie" is exactly the qualities you talked about in your discussion. Its plot, tightly compressed and structured around the journey motif, is more focused than the more sprawling plot of "Laramie." And its deeper examination of the psychology and interactions of a small group of characters--as you observed, rather like "Stagecoach," to me the greatest of all Westerns--gives the film greater humanity than "Laramie."

As you noted, the excellent cast makes this small number of characters especially vivid. Although all were excellent, I particularly liked Millard Mitchell. I remember him as the movie director so frustrated with Jean Hagen in "Singin' in the Rain." It was a treat to see him playing such a grizzled, disappointed, stoic chaacter in "Spur."

I know that some have criticized the ending of the movie as unrealistic, and I have to admit that at first I had reservations about it too. But after a bit of thought, I came to accept what the movie was getting at with Stewart's seemingly out-of-character decision at the end: Janet Leigh ultimately persuades him to let go of the obsession that has been driving him and move on to a new future. In doing so he frees himself of its grip and at the same time regains his humanity. All in all, one of the greatest Westerns, and a great movie of any type. Thanks for your insightful analysis.