Friday 9 October 2020

Movie Review: The Naked Spur (1953)

A taut western, The Naked Spur gets under the skin of five distinct characters engaged in a lethal battle of wits.

Rancher turned bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart) teams up with veteran gold prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) to track down fugitive Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), wanted dead or alive for murder. Disgraced ex-soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) joins Howard and Jesse, and the trio capture Ben and his girlfriend Lina (Janet Leigh).

Howard had intended to use the $5,000 bounty on Ben's heads to repurchase the ranch he lost when his ex-lover betrayed him. Jesse and Roy now want their share of the reward money, and as the tense group make their way to Abilene, the resourceful Ben sets about exploiting the tensions between his three captors. An encounter with Blackfoot tribals adds further complications.

A journey driven by greed, complicated by uneasy alliances, and stirred by a charismatic fugitive desperate to save his neck from the hangman's noose, The Naked Spur is a dark, complex western. Carrying worthy echoes of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, the script by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom presents five flawed character with disparate personal aspirations, and director Anthony Mann conjures up delectable moral dilemmas and psychological gamesmanship.

The third western collaboration between director Mann and star Stewart, The Naked Spur provides Stewart with one of his most intriguing characters, immediately placing the drama on dangerous ground. Howard Kemp is no stand-up hero looking to do the right thing. Instead he is deeply damaged by a love gone wrong, and has now defaulted to a stance of personal greed seeking to redress a sense of deep injustice. Indeed, the script hints Kemp chose Ben as his prey because he is the easiest target compared to genuine hardened outlaws.

While Kemp does his best to dissuade Jesse and Roy from claiming a share of the reward, they have their own issues to deal with. The aging Jesse has dedicated a lifetime to the futile pursuit of gold, a fading dream Ben can easily exploit. And the roguish Roy is on the run and desperate for the additional firepower a group can provide. 

Further intrigue is introduced by Lina and her spiky relationship with all the men. She immediately senses both Howard and Roy making moves towards her; and is shocked when the ever enterprising Ben encourages her to lead them both on, introducing a romantic duel as another potential crack to weaken the already rickety alliance against him.

With just the five speaking parts, Mann is able to delve deep into his characters, the fascinating multi-dimensional conflicts playing out against a lush landscape of forests, cliffs, caves and roaring rivers along the slow but dangerous trail to Abilene. As tensions run high, acts of betrayal and unexpected heroism converge towards moments of truth. With trust in short supply and no unity of purpose, few objectives are fulfilled, The Naked Spur a harsh exposition of the difference between superficial desires and soulful needs.

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