Howard Kemp (James Stewart) is a bounty hunter on the trail of outlaw killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). Traveling from Kansas to the mountains of Colorado, Kemp encounters old prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and offers him some money to take him to the fire he saw that he suspects will lead him to Vandergroat.
Assuming he’s a lawman, Tate obliges. On the trail they then encounter dishonorably discharged Calvary man Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) who offers to help. The three corner Vandergroat and his accomplice Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), capture them and are about to go their separate ways. That is until they discover Kemp is not a lawman and there’s a $5,000 reward to collect for Vandergroat and they each want to be cut in on it. Kemp begrudgingly accepts that he now has two partners he has to split the reward with.
The five begin the long ride back to Colorado. Vandergroat has his own plan of escaping and begins to sow suspicion and resentment between the three. Lina is caught in the middle of this battle while hoping that Vandergroat is wrongly accused and he has some decency and her loyalty to him. Meanwhile, Kemp has to wrestle with the realization that he is going to set up a new life for himself by bringing a man to his death.
When classic westerns come up, very often the team of John Ford and John Wayne will inevetably come up. Very rarely does the partnership between Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart is mentioned.
At the start of the 1950s, Stewart was moving into the next phase of his career. He was leaving behind the optimistic boyish persona he was known for and was beginning to tackle middle-aged, more psychologically complex and darker characters. He would find plenty of tougher, more grizzled characters with Mann and in the western genre.
The director and actor worked together on eight films. Starting in 1950 and ending in 1955, they collaborated eight times! Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, Thunder Bay, The Glenn Miller Story, The Far Country, Strategic Air Command and The Man From Laramie. Eight films in five years! It’s a very impressive output. Mann would be the director Stewart would work with the most in his career. More than Hitchcock or Capra!
From their collaborations they made several westerns that would go onto become ‘classics’. The Naked Spur is what I think of as the best the two made together. I’d rank it as one of my favorite westerns. Ever since first seeing it it caught me off guard and every time I stumble onto it I get caught up with it and have to watch until the end.
The story starts rather simply – five characters in the mountains. But it gradually gets more and more complex and more tension arises as Vandergroat scratches away at the three men who are taking him in. They’re
Each man has their soft spots and Vandergroat zeroes in on them and slyly manipulates them in order to open an escape path for himself. Ryan had a long history playing unsavory and hardened characters in film noirs through his career. Here, he’s terrific!
Even while tied up he has an aura of menace about him. He chats in seemingly chats a friendly jovial manner on the trail, all the while opening up opportunities of dissension between the three men. And while they’re worried about the seeds he’s planting, Vandergroat will jump on the chance of shooting them in the back.
How can he possibly turn this situation around for himself? He entices Tate with tales of finding gold himself. After a life of facing failure digging and finding nothing. Nevermind the reward for him that he has to split three ways, perhaps there’s bigger riches to be found if Vandergroat is telling the truth and he can lead him to gold in the ground.
Anderson is a man who is clearly not a man to be trusted. Kemp discovers he was dishonorably discharged from the Army and he has a tribe of Blackfoot Indians after him for raping the Chief’s daughter. Not only is his mere presence there putting the others in danger, Lina is the perfect tool to distract and lure Anderson to focus on as Vandergroat formulates his escape.
Anyone who has seen Meeker as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly knows how good he could be and here he doesn’t disappoint as a shady character who you don’t know where he might turn.
Let’s throw in that the less people they have to split the reward with means a much bigger cut for each of them. Are they all honorable enough to hold up their deal?
Then there’s Kemp. We learn he was a rancher who was sent off to war and while away his wife sold his ranch and left him. He’s filled with anger and views Vandergroat’s reward as his way of buying his ranch back. Does it matter to him whether Vandergroat is actually guilty of the crime he’s wanted for? It’s something he’s trying to look past, rationalizing someone would have collected on him eventually.
And even if Kemp looks past Vandergroat’s guilt of this particular murder the reward is for, now having to split the reward three ways, it won’t be enough money for Kemp to buy back his ranch anyway.
Perhaps, the possibility of having a future with Lina is the better one. However, she’s adamant she could never be with a man who would trade another man’s life for money. Is Kemp willing to give up the reward money for her love?
There is a lot of drama, greed, conflict and demons running through this band of characters!
It’s a very interesting western, especially considering there are only five speaking parts in the entire film! It sets up the conflicts and motivations quickly and becomes a slow burn of how each of these characters stories are going to play out and it’s compelling all the way through.
It’s not a large scale, scenic Ford western with beautiful locales of Monument Valley and thrilling Indian battles. Oh sure, there’s Indian fights, shootouts and punches thrown, but this is a much smaller, intimate, character driven piece and it’s all beautifully done!
All the actors are perfect in their roles. Stewart excels as a the possessed rancher who’s trying his darnedest to look past the fact he’s trading a man’s life to rebuild his own past. He’s not a professional bounty hunter and try as he might to view Vandergroat as a ‘sack of money’, this whole escapade is not who he is.
Leigh’s Lina is the character who gets the most cheated. She is more of a device that is used by Vandergroat and becomes a love interest and possible future for Kemp.
The Naked Spur is one of my favorite westerns. When I’ve been asked what’s my favorite wester, a question that can be difficult to answer for every genre, I always mention The Naked Spur. I always felt it didn’t get the attention it should.
Everytime I stumble onto it, I end up watching it until the very end. I always felt it didn’t get the attention it should. It’s a great movie!
Much better than the old trailer, here’s a clip of from the beginning of the film when Stewart finds himself forced to partner with Meeker and Mitchell for the reward on Ryan – it’s an enticing scene that starts to lay out the drama that awaits…
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