The Naked Spur (1953)

4 08 2008

Another great western from Anthony Mann, though this is actually only the first one I’ve seen with James Stewart, who I’m not particularly fond of. Still, under Mann’s control, he does deliver one of his better performances. It probably helps that, like many of Mann’s heroes, Stewart doesn’t really have much to say. This bodes well for the film for two reasons, one because the audience doesn’t have to deal with Stewart’s far too familiar voice that often and two, it reinforces the “contemplative” nature of Mann’s cinema as well as the notion that he is pretty much the best genre film director ever.

Bounty hunter Howard Kemp captures long time rival and outlaw, Ben Vandergroat and plans to turn him in for the $5,000 reward. However, he needed the help of Roy Anderson and Jesse Tate to do so. The men reluctantly decide that they must split the money three ways. Greed begins to get the best of everyone and to make things worse, the trip is taking much longer than expected. In addition, Howard begins to fall for Ben’s girlfriend, Lina Patch, which only deepens the complications of the scenario.

Of the “psychological westerns” (as critics have penned them) that Mann made in the mid to late 50s, this is probably the least subtle. The back story of Howard Kemp and his wife’s betrayal is a nice touch, but Mann’s hints at it are pretty obvious. There’s one particularly embarrassing sequence in which a dazed Kemp starts speaking to Lina as though she was his ex-fiancé. I would have greatly preferred for such exposition to end at the little mention that Robert Ryan makes at the very beginning. Other than that, though, this is standard Mann, which is to say it is pretty much amazing. I missed the widescreen compositions present in The Tin Star and God’s Little Acre but the addition of technicolor provides for some of the most lush visuals moments in the history of Hollywood filmmaking. Then again, I expect nothing less from Mann.

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One response

4 08 2008
Ed Howard

I envy you that you have all the other Mann/Stewart westerns still to see for the first time. These are amazing films, with this one and The Man From Laramie ranking as not only my favorite Manns, but among my few favorite westerns, period. The lack of subtlety you mention is pretty characteristic of all the films the two of them made together, as Mann tends to write the psychological struggles of Stewart’s characters directly on the surface. If you think this is unsubtle, wait until you see The Far Country, in which Mann performs all his characterization with a rather large and hefty hammer. I happen to think Stewart is a great actor in general, with a much larger range than he’s usually given credit for, and his blunt, unsympathetic turns in the Mann westerns are some of his finest work. He dramatizes the internal duality of these characters in every aspect of his performance; his guilt, indecision, and ethical introspection are practically tangible.

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