Jimmy Stewart continued his successful partnership with Anthony Mann in this 1953 classic The Naked Spur. By the time this film was released Stewart and Mann had worked together on Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, and Thunder Bay. This film was an instant success both critically and financially. The Naked Spur stars Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Millard Mitchell, and Ralph Meeker. The movie would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing and in 1997 it was added to the National Film Registry.
Howard Kemp (Stewart) is on the hunt for Ben Vandergroat (Ryan). Vandergroat is a cunning killer from Kansas with a price on his head. As Kemp chases Vandergorat he meets up with Jesse Tate (Mitchell) and Roy Anderson (Meeker). Tate is a backwoods prospector who hires on to help Kemp in his search. When the two corner Kemp they meet up with Anderson, a recently discharged soldier. The three team up and capture Vandergroat and his young accomplice Lina (Leigh). When Vandergroat tells Jesse and Roy about the bounty on his head they both demand equal shares in the $5000 prize. As the men begin the trip back to Kansas, Vandergroat begins to play the men against each other, using his own bounty as bait. When Lina gets in the middle of Ben and Howard the stakes only get higher. The greed in the three men could prove fatal in the end, as they match wits with a killer.
The whole movie has a dark feel that moves the psychological drama along nicely. Anthony Mann could best be described as the Hitchcock of westerns. The lighting, dialogue, camera work, and acting all manage to bring out a suspense that’s unexpected in most westerns.
The acting in the movie is great from all the major players. Stewart magnifies the darkness in his role as the troubled and suffering Howard Kemp. Robert Ryan is superb as the psychological villain who manages to play all those around him in an effort to gain his freedom. Janet Leigh is wonderful as the conflicted woman in the middle. She made a career of suspense films, working with masters like Hitchcock and Welles. She would go on to have roles in classics like Touch of Evil and The Manchurian Candidate. Also excellent were Millard Mitchell and Ralph Meeker. Mitchell was a versatile actor who had parts in classics like Singing in the Rain and Twelve O’Clock High. Meeker would go on to have a long career in both movies and television.
The partnership between Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann would go on for many more films after this. It would help open doors for Stewart to play darker and deeper characters in the future. These roles also prepared Stewart for the future roles he would play in the movies of Alfred Hitchcock including Rear Window and The Man Who Know Too Much.
A real classic, arguably the best work Stewart and Mann did together. The small core of actors and the contrasting outdoor locations highlight just how isolated they all are in their private conflict. Stewart’s climactic breakdown is really powerful, gut-wrenching stuff – no faking going on there.
Well stated. This is definitely a great film. I’m always torn between this one and Winchester 73′ when it comes to Stewart and Mann westerns.