Westerns In March: The Naked Spur (1953)

the naked spur poster

Westerns in the 1950s began to change. The days of heroes dressed in white and villains clad in black were not entirely gone, but they were slowly being replaced by westerns with more nuance. Films brimming with anxiety, that were concerned with the consequences of violence and the psychology of those who lived on the edges of society (and you don’t get farther onto the edge than the old west) began filling up the movie screens.

Perhaps no other director better exemplifies the psychological western than Anthony Mann. He made numerous westerns in his career, half a dozen of them starred James Stewart. These films are filled with men seeking revenge or otherwise revealing the old west as a dark, dirty place full of violence and greed.

The Naked Spur is possibly their darkest collaboration, and one of their best. Stewart plays Howard Kemp who has been tracking Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), a wanted killer, across the country.

In the Rocky Mountains Kemp enlists the help of an old prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) to help track Ben down. They locate him and his companion Lina (Janet Leigh) at the top of a ridge. Their shots draw the help of an ex-solider, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker).

Once they’ve captured Ben, Kemp tries to send the others on their way, but Ben stops them noting that there is a large reward coming to those who bring him in. He does this not out of some sense of altruism, but knowing that if he can set the three against each other he has a shot at getting away.

For the rest of the film, Kemp continually finds ways to set his captors against each other. Each man has their own dark secrets. Stewart, playing against type, is a man who lost his farm to a girl. He gave her the deed when he went away to war and she sold it out from underneath him. He’s now desperate to buy it back but needs all the reward money to do so. He might just be willing to do the others harm in order to collect it.

Shot on location the scenery is gorgeous which makes it a nice contrast to all the dark, evil deeds brewing in the men’s hearts. But while there are some nice vistas Mann keeps things pretty tight, focusing on the faces of his characters as they all try to figure out to get the best of one another.

It ends with some of the nastiest scenes ever seen in a classic western. I won’t spoil it, but it is a one-two punch that really must be seen.

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