Monday, August 1, 2011

The Naked Spur (1953) - Anthony Mann

Bounty hunter Howard Kemp (Jimmy Stewart) is on the trail of a murderer, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), and the $5,000 reward on his head. Kemp wants the money to repurchase land he once owned, but lost to a conniving wife while he was away in the war. Kemp joins forces with an old prospector, whom he offers $20 to help, and a discharged Union soldier of questionable repute. Vandergroat is traveling with a woman, (Janet Leigh). When the three pursuers finally catch up with their prey, he immediately sizes up their greedy natures and begins to sow doubt and distrust, hoping they'll turn against one another and allow his escape.
Jimmy Stewart as bounty hunter Howard Kemp.
This is the third of five exciting Westerns that Stewart made with director Anthony Mann in the 1950's. In each, Stewart portrays a rougher character type than he had built his career on up to that time. Stewart, as much as anyone in the history of Hollywood, grew as an actor, developing an entirely different screen persona over time. His work with Mann seems to mark the change. Whether it was his age--42--or a natural outgrowth of his experience as a bomber pilot in World War II, Stewart undergoes a remarkable transformation, aided by Mann's ability to tap into something previously kept hidden from audiences. Where once he mostly played genial, content characters, he began to take on more complicated, dark roles, cynical men with repressed anger. Starting with Winchester '73 in 1950; and followed by Bend in the River in 1952; The Naked Spur in 1953; The Far Country in 1954; and finally The Man From Laramie in 1955, Stewart and Mann fashioned a not so likable hero. By the time he made Vertigo with Hitchcock in 1958, and Anatomy of a Murder with Preminger in 1959, Stewart's characters can exhibit a disturbing lack of composure or grasp on accepted behavior.

As Mann's Western hero, Stewart is typically flawed, a loner, a man with a hidden past or with something that gnaws at his character. He possesses an obsessive quality to his personality and can be downright mean if he has to. As Howard Kemp, Stewart effectively conveys a wide range of emotions, from raging anger to quiet resignation. Still, deep down, the character retains a moral compass and understands right from wrong.  It's a sold performance, enhanced by an interesting script.

Mann packs the film with plenty of action, including the terrific climactic shootout at some raging rapids which required some niffy stunt work. There is also a quick battle with Indians. But the psychological game that Vandergroat is playing on his captives is as fun to watch as these set pieces. He tries to manipulate the men to his advantage, and cares for the girl only so long as she serves a purpose. The script, by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, received an Oscar nomination, a rarity for a Western.

The Rocky Mountains provide a beautiful Technicolor backdrop, a hallmark of any Mann/Stewart Western. William Mellor served as cinematographer on this one. Two years earlier he had won the Oscar for splendid work on A Place in the Sun. If Mann had no favorite cameraman, he at least knew how to pick good ones. He used four different cameramen for the five films with Stewart. Between them they had 26 Oscar nominations and 4 wins. 

Robert Ryan waits in ambush
Robert Ryan has seldom been better. He needs a shave and is dirty and his rugged looks are perfect for the part of the devious outlaw. He's really the star of the film, laughing at his captors to get them off guard. With the exception of Kemp, they are easy touches. Ralph Meeker plays the soldier, a man you are never too sure whose side he is on, and Millard Mitchell the grizzled prospector, almost unrecognizable behind a full beard were it not for his distinctive voice. (Millard, who also appeared as Stewart's sidekick in the Winchester '73, was fresh off his performance as a movie mogul in the musical Singing in the Rain ). Both are fine, though Mitchell needed to work on being a credible copse; he clearly can be seen breathing after Ryan shoots him dead. Janet Leigh is lovely in her short cropped blond hair.

Some viewers may think the ending is too abrupt, but it is within character. Kemp is a man who needs a new beginning. To make one, and to severe himself from the past that drives him, he makes the right decision.

Robert Ryan tries to outwit his captors.

Named to National Film Registry in 1997.

Other Films by Anthony Mann
  • The Furies - 1950
  • Winchester '73 - 1950
  • Bend in the River - 1952
  • The Far Country - 1954
  • The Man from Laramie - 1955
  • The Tin Star - 1957
  • Man of the West - 1958
  • Spartacus - 1960 (Fired by Kirk Douglas and replaced by Stanley Kubrick. The salt mine scene is the only remaining contribution by Mann).
  • El Cid - 1961
  • The Fall of the Roman Empire - 1964

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