"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Naked Spur (MGM, 1953)

Corrupting greed

1953 was an astonishingly good year for Westerns. Not only did we have the great Shane, and the splendid Hondo, we also had The Man from the Alamo, Escape from Fort Bravo, The Stranger Wore a Gun, The Lawless Breed and many others besides. And in that year Anthony Mann and James Stewart collaborated again on the third of their powerful pictures, The Naked Spur.
Pretty damn good

Shane and Hondo had something in common: a stranger comes out of nowhere and uses his gunman’s skills to aid farmers. The Naked Spur is very different. It is much more like Winchester ’73 or Randolph Scott in Ride Lonesome: it is the story of a man bent on hunting down a villain for very personal reasons. In this case, Howard Kemp (Stewart) is seeking the bounty on badman Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) who has killed the marshal in Abilene. Kemp is not a professional lawman, but a citizen on a mission because he needs the money (like Van Heflin in 3:10 to Yuma) and because he knows it's his duty (like Fred MacMurray in At Gunpoint), but mostly out of sheer rage. Once again, as in Winchester, Stewart plays the driven, manic man with a mission and once again, as in Bend of the River, we are in the dangerous, awe-full mountainous settings beloved of Anthony Mann, jagged, hostile locations which heighten the drama and provide a violent backdrop for the action.

It must be said that Mann and cinematographer William Mellor made the most of the Durango and San Juan Mountains locations. The film is a visual feast. And for once I don’t think there were any interiors, that I can remember anyway. Unless you count the cave (the only moment when Stewart's character softens a little). That makes it colder, harder, more savage.

In this huge wilderness we have a very small cast. There is the driven hunter Kemp (Stewart) and his prey Vandergroat, the outstanding Robert Ryan. We have Ryan’s girl, Lina, played by Janet Leigh, very good indeed, who forms a point of the love triangle that is almost inevitably created. We have a dubious Union Lieutenant Anderson (Ralph Meeker) who has been discharged as “morally unstable” (whatever that means) and lastly we have a grizzled old miner Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell, Stewart's sidekick in Winchester '73, in one of his last roles – he died soon after of lung cancer) whom Stewart inveigles into helping him track down the fugitive. It’s an intimate, intense, stage play-like ensemble in a huge, wild open-air theater.

Stewart was at his passionate best. He is nastier here than in any of the other Anthony Mann Westerns, more sullen too, but just as much as a man with a vengeful, borderline-psychotic mission as he is in Winchester or would be later in The Man from Laramie. This time he is an embittered ex-soldier who lost his ranch when he went away to fight the war, signing the deed to his property over to his woman. When he came back from the fighting she had sold the place and run off with another man. Now he wants to buy it back, and the only way he can raise the money is to collect that reward. Stewart handles the psychological warfare that Mann and the superb screenplay (Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom) provide with a steely malevolence that puts him on the very outer edge of the good-guy role.

I have spoken elsewhere of the qualities as a Western actor of Robert Ryan. Ryan had power and subtlety. Like all great Western actors, he was tough and convincing as a Westerner, good or bad (often bad in Ryan’s case) and compared with famous but unconvincing and/or over-the-top leading badmen he was in another league. He carries off brilliantly the murderous cut-throat with charm and intelligence that often figured in these Mann Westerns (Duryea in Winchester, Kennedy in Bend). He is relaxed while Stewart is tortured. He is profoundly evil but he is the most fascinating of Mann's villains.
One of the greatest Western badmen of all: Robert Ryan

Janet Leigh certainly wasn’t known as a Western actress, far from it, but here she manages to be more than the additional love-interest afterthought that women could so often be in Mann Westerns (after the first two). She is tomboyish yet seductive, and it is entirely credible that strong men would fight over her. Tough/voluptuous is a hard act to carry off but she does it.

Millard Mitchell was always solid, dependable and strong in supporting roles. Sadly, he only did three Westerns but they all top drawer: this one, Winchester '73 and The Gunfighter. He is dependable and strong here too as the tough old Colorado miner who joins Kemp, thinking he is a sheriff, then when he is disabused of that notion (by the villain) he too becomes driven by the desire to bring the man in and claim his share of the reward.
They're all against him

Ralph Meeker, pre-Mike Hammer, is the weakest of the party as the Union soldier who has the Indians after him. He isn’t bad, it’s not that. It’s just that beside the very powerful performances of the others, he pales a little.

I like the way the advantage shifts one way and the other in a dangerous arithmetic depending on who will get the money and who outnumbers whom. It reminded me of the Raoul Walsh-directed Along the Great Divide (1951) in that way. Apart from the Indian raiding party, there are only these five characters, yet the possible combinations shift and change, in an intense, introspective ballet. And the way that Ryan plays on the corrupting greed of the party  - "Money splits up better two ways instead of three," he smiles  - reminds me (as it has reminded other viewers) of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But then again it touches a real chord: we all want the chance to start life over again after failure.

The film was very violent for the time (though quite tame nowadays). You have to watch it with that in mind. Still, even though it is relatively mild for us now, it can still shock and be brutal.

Mann did dazzling endings and The Naked Spur doesn’t disappoint in this regard. We had the rifle shoot-out in the Arizona rocks in Winchester ’73 and the gunshots echoing in the mountain valleys in Bend of the River. Here we have freezing torrents, waterfalls and jagged rocks in a gripping finale.
Classic shoot-out

Gun buffs will rear and shy. The story is set in 1868 yet they are using 1870s and 1880s Colts and Winchesters. It doesn’t worry me, I must say, but there are a lot of trainspotters out there…

The naked spur shown at the start and which Stewart uses to climb the barren rocks (the naked spurs) and which he finally tosses into Ryan's face (like Barbara Stanwyck and her scissors in The Furies) is an excellent symbol of the sharp, dangerous and painful journey he travels.

This really is a stunning film.



1 comment:

  1. Yes sir. One of the best. Just saw it for the first time in about five years and I like it even more now.

    What's interesting about this movie is that all the characters have mental problems to one degree or another. It might not say much about my own mental health, but I liked Ralph Meeker's character the best. Aside from the implied rape of an Indian woman, he wasn't really all that bad. I wouldn't trust him, but he was not necessarily evil personafied like Ryan. A cool shades of grey wild card.

    I can see his point about just wanting to kill Ryan and be done with him. Meeker and the prospector were about buisness, not trying to win the heart of some strumpet shacked up with the villain like needy Stewart. She was a little daffy, imo, still caring about her dead lover's corpse after she witnessed him shoot a defenseless old man.

    I hope it ends well for the hero. I have a feeling that afterwards she might have lost interest. For his sake I hope he didn't sign over any property to her.

    As far as Robert Ryan goes, I've seen about 80% of all of his movies. Judging from what I've viewed, I'd say this is tied with his role in ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW as his best performance.