Naked Spur, The (1953)

“They’re men, honey, and you ain’t — remember that.”

Synopsis:
An embittered bounty hunter (Jimmy Stewart) seeks help from a grizzled prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a dishonorably discharged “Indian fighter” (Ralph Meeker) in trapping an outlaw (Robert Ryan) who is travelling with a vulnerable young female companion (Janet Leigh).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “in his third Anthony Mann western, James Stewart is a hard-bitten man” whose actions — “like most Mann westerners” — are “determined by his past. … Having lost everything dear to him, he suffers guilt and self-hatred — his need to take out his anger on another man, who is much like the immoral ‘beast’ he has become, is obviously his way of attacking himself”. Peary adds that “as usual, Mann uses his landscape as more than a backdrop: as the terrain becomes rougher and the stream they follow becomes more turbulent, the tension among the characters increases and their cruelty becomes more evident”. However, Peary writes that “the script by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom is weaker than those used in other Mann westerns”, with “trite” dialogue and Stewart’s “character… poorly developed, so that we can’t really understand… the exact nature of his neurosis”. He notes that “this is the one Stewart hero in a Mann film that could just as easily have been played by other actors”, but he concedes that “Ryan makes a great villain”.

I share Peary’s concerns. Stewart’s character is too much of an enigma to relate to: we hear in passing about the injustices he suffered while away at war, but his bitterness and deceit prevent us from sympathizing with his goal of bringing Ryan back (dead or alive) at any cost. While Ryan is a “great villain”, his psychopathy — emblemized by his near-constant sneering smile — is so obvious it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine Leigh maintaining her loyalty to him for so long. Indeed, this entire group of men are so tough and self-serving that it’s difficult watching naive Leigh navigate among them, knowing she’ll inevitably be taken advantage of. However, the action scenes are all exciting, Mann keeps the pace moving quickly, and excellent use is made of rugged outdoor locales. Film fanatics will want to check this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine direction
  • Excellent use of outdoor locales

Must See?
Yes, as a well-crafted if harsh outing by a master director.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Naked Spur, The (1953)”

  1. First viewing. Must-see and in agreement with the concluding comment above: “…a well-crafted if harsh outing by a master director.”

    ~which is why I don’t concur with some of the comments above. Admittedly, as the plot began to unfold, the script seemed a bit commonplace to me and the characterizations appeared a bit obvious and thin.

    But then I let the story works its way on me and a number of things changed my attitude: the plot slowly became more detailed and complicated and the characters took on more layers.

    I don’t feel Stewart’s character is “poorly developed”; his motivation is simple: he was deeply in love and he was betrayed. (That ran deep in him, believably so. That becomes clear in Stewart’s scene alone with Leigh in the rain, in the cave.) He then finds a way to get some of himself back…and he’s bitter enough to take that path.

    As well…even though a central flaw in his character may be obvious to us in the audience, Ryan plays his villain with a kind of cheerful (and vaguely sociopath) duplicity – the kind that could fool someone like Leigh’s character: at heart, she’s a good person and she lets us know that Ryan’s character has never been anything but on-the-up-and-up with *her*. (She finds out the truth too late.)

    My only real issue with the film is ultimately a minor one. While it’s true that all of the male characters are “self-serving”, it’s also true that Ryan’s character is not an innocent and he has a price on his head. So, to me, the conclusion comes off as weirdly and even inappropriately sentimental. I probably would have preferred it written a bit differently, to prevent the sudden ‘morality’ that’s served up.

    Aside from the denouement, the film’s lengthy climax is a complex knockout.

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