Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Naked Spur (1953)

Director: Anthony Mann                                Writers: Sam Rolfe & Harold Jack Bloom
Film Score: Bronislau Kaper                          Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Starring: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan and Ralph Meeker

Another in the series of westerns that Anthony Mann made starring Jimmy Stewart, The Naked Spur is perhaps the best of the bunch. No riverboats, no saloons, no frontier towns, just five people riding horseback through the wilderness. It’s small cast, telling an intimate story and packs more raw emotion into a western than most, certainly more than Mann’s usual work with Stewart. This was the third of their collaborations and the success of this film assured there would be three more after. This was also the first teaming of Mann and Robert Ryan, who would go on to film Men in War and God’s Little Acre with the director. Finally, it’s one of Janet Leigh’s better films. She’s still young here, and has a vibrancy that is lacking in her post-Psycho work.

The story begins with Stewart on the trail of a killer. He comes across gold prospector Millard Mitchell and convinces him with a pile of silver to help him get back on the trail of Robert Ryan. When Mitchell calls him a lawman, you can see in Stewart’s face that he’s not. He’s a bounty hunter. After getting Ryan cornered, ex-cavalry officer Ralph Meeker comes along, dishonorably discharged for amoral behavior and the three of them wind up capturing Ryan and his girlfriend Janet Leigh. This is something John Huston would have enjoyed. While Stewart is looking to get the reward for bringing in Ryan, the killer spills the beans about the bounty. Both Mitchell and Meeker want in on the spoils, and Ryan tries turning all of them against each other. And as if the tension between the three men over the reward isn’t enough, they’re also riding through Indian territory.

You couldn’t have asked for a more unlikely western hero in the fifties than Jimmy Stewart, but the actor was bored and wanted to play more versatile and interesting parts. The fifties certainly did that for him. This part in particular has Stewart angry and bitter, wanting only the money that Ryan’s life will earn him and relentless in his pursuit of it. But at the same time he was filming his westerns for Mann, he was also working for Hitchcock in films like Rear Window and starring in The Glenn Miller Story and The Spirit of St. Louis, capping the decade with an Oscar-nominated performance in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. If there’s a flaw in the film it’s with Robert Ryan’s character. He’s playing the wild-eyed killer, but Mann lets him go overboard. A more subtle approach, something like Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma would have played much better and ratcheted up the suspense, especially since Meeker is also playing something of a psycho.

The look is the lush, saturated Technicolor of the time. It was filmed partially in Durango, Colorado and in Lone Pine, California. The screenplay, written by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, managed a rarity in Oscar history in being nominated for best screenplay in a western film. Bronislau Kaper’s score, for the most part, is good, but he makes a serious misstep in rehashing “Beautiful Dreamer” yet again, a staple in films as far back as Gone With the Wind. Ralph Meeker had only done a few films prior to this one, and achieved most of his success in television in the fifties and sixties. For Millard Mitchell, on the other hand, this was his second to last film and died of lung cancer the same year the film was released at the age of fifty. The film has been touted by Leonard Maltin, and was also featured in Martin Scorsese’s history of film, A Personal Journey.

The B List review of the film is somewhat scattered, as Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay was not written for the book but for the Chicago Reader about a series of films emphasizing settings. In it he notes the disparity of this film with others of the John Ford ilk that are set in Monument Valley with a quote by Mann himself saying that he wanted to show the whole West, not just the desert. But Rosenbaum also goes on to bemoan the recent influx of revenge films coming out of Hollywood and how these older types of pictures differ. The fact is, while Jimmy Stewart is obsessed with bringing in Ryan it is only as a means to recapture what he has lost, not to enact retribution. And there’s a big difference. While Rosenbaum uses Road to Perdition to make his point in an addendum to the essay, the best explanation of this negative trend comes in Frederick Barton’s novel With Extreme Prejudice in writing about the film Mississippi Burning. While modern films make the audience complicit in their acts of vengeance, films like The Naked Spur emphasize the weakness inherent in seeking revenge rather than the glorification of it. Ultimately The Naked Spur is not only the best of the Mann-Stewart westerns, it’s one of the most satisfying westerns of the period.

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