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.