The Naked Spur Reviews
I found the film very refreshing for a western and it reminded me of other classics road-trip westerns such as Red River or The Searchers.
It strikes me that, for all the Western is a genre celebrating the wide, open, unpopulated spaces where civilization does not reach, it's really quite rare to have a Western without a couple of dozen people at least. Even things like [i]Stagecoach[/i] and [i]True Grit[/i], which are mostly about a small group of people traveling far from the rest of the human race, include scenes set in towns. You may spend most of the movie isolated with just a couple of characters, but it's made plain that there are more people somewhere. While John Ford made Monument Valley some of the most recognizable territory in the United States, it is also true that the Western created iconic locations in audiences' minds such as the frontier town and the ranch. Even if the characters are just passing through, it's plain that there is somewhere to be just passing through. This movie is original at least in the sense that its characters are as isolated as the Moon.
Howard Kemp (Jimmy Stewart) is searching the wilderness for Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). Ben is wanted for shooting a man in the back, and Howard is determined to bring him to Kansas to face justice. He recruits Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), an old prospector who saw someone's trail, to show him where that trail leads. On the way, they meet Lieutenant Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), late of the US Cavalry and discharged dishonorably. (It is strongly implied that he raped an Indian girl.) He joins the hunt for Ben. When they catch him, Ben is traveling with Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), and he swears that he is innocent. He also reveals that Howard's search for Ben is not that of a lawman doing his job but that of a bounty hunter seeking a reward. He has known Howard for some time, and he knows the parts of Howard's past that he would rather Ben not tell everyone. But of course he does. And so the five travel through some of the most beautiful country in the West to take Ben back to Kansas for trial.
Oh, Jimmy Stewart wasn't [i]quite[/i] twice Janet Leigh's age. But he was close enough so that I had a hard time accepting the implicit assumption that Lina was going to end up with Howard. It didn't take a genius to spot that Ben was bad news, just someone with a bit more life experience than poor Lina had. And certainly I didn't want her to end up with the old man or the crazy rapist, either. But it struck me that Jimmy Stewart would have been a lot more believable if he'd treated Janet Leigh's character as a daughter, not a romantic interest. Howard had a dark and sordid past, and the implication is that he is looking for Lina to help him redeem himself. Which is all well and good. But I, for one, found myself hoping that Lina would just go off somewhere and not be with any man at all for a while. She didn't really seem to know who she was yet, and I think you ought to before you sink part of your identity into a relationship with another person.
I did believe Howard's expressly stated position that he didn't care if Ben was guilty or not. Howard may not have been a sheriff, as he strongly implied to Jesse at first, but he was still doing a job. Indeed, in the West, it was a pretty necessary job if anyone was going to stand trial who wasn't willing to go along with it of their own free will. This was a time when all you had to do to escape the law was travel a hundred miles or so, and the options for law enforcement were slim. Travel and communication weren't what they are now. Yes, Howard knew Ben. But I still don't really believe that Howard's search was anything personal. His interests were purely financial. Yes, he also had a reasonable disgust for someone who would shoot a person in the back, but it's hardly as though he was going to make it easy for himself by opting for "dead," even though no one would have been around to say that he hadn't gotten his man in a fair fight.
It's a beautiful movie, or anyway a movie filmed in beautiful territory. It's got a decent cast. And some of the characterization is drawn well enough, especially for what it is. However, large amounts of the movie are just unbelievable. There's a lot about the character of Roy that I don't understand, including why there was the whole thing about the Indians. (Oh, I suppose there's an Indian fight at one point, and that's other characters. But it's certainly not as though any of the Indians get any lines other than generic whooping. It may also be assumed that Indians do not count as "civilization" in a Western from 1953.) In just a few years, it would become possible and even probable that the character the bounty hunter was seeking was actually innocent, and that would have been a lot more nuanced than the moustache-twirling we get here. In short, the movie is missing quite a lot which would have made for a movie worth watching a second time. But I'm not sure this was even worth watching the first time.
In color, the film has great cinematography, beautiful scenery, good acting ensamble including Ryan and Stewart,Leigh. Young Ryan is his usual acting self, but does a good job of acting as the prisoner along a long trail to justice in Texas.
Aging actor Millard Mitchell is a gold prospector and he is wonderful. He helps Stewart in the very beginning of the film in the quest for the criminal, Robert Ryan (Ben).
The most honest stranger Stewart meets, his desire for gold makes him the unwitting target of Ryan's manipulation.
Ryan has a very talky part which gets annoying fast. How it is they expect to travel on horseback from what appears to be Colorado to Texas is a stretch.
The main problem I have with the film is the time spent with Ryan. He is given as much time and probably more than Stewart. Being a dispicable character and somewhat psycho, all you begin to hope for is this torturous ride to end by a showdown.
Stewart is about the maddest, vengeful man I have ever seen in his films. He carries with him a great hatred of Ryan for a crime not really known. Ryan at this point knows more about Stewart than we do as he reveals bits and pieces to his captors. Made up or not, Ryan spins tales to his captors to try to escape.
Ryan makes it known early to his adopted girl (Janet Leigh) that he plans to divide and conquer, so he talks this movie to death.
After Stewart gets shot in an Indian fight, he is handicapped the rest of the film, with Ryan laughing to himself all through the journey.
Ryan just keeps talking and talking, hoping to make his move to escape. Ben (Ryan) is a dispicable criminal who loves to manipulate and thereby control the actions of others. He works on gullible Leigh to help him escape.
Problem is, a relationship has begun between heartsick and jilted Stewart and Leigh. Ryan exploits this to try his escape. The old tune Beautiful Dreamer crops up during the romantic scenes. Stewart literally throws himself at the girl. Ryan predicts early in the film this would happen.
Tempted to shoot Ben after an untimely escape, Stewart feels betrayed by the girl. Arguments begin about the bounty money between a fellow traveler and calvery man (Ralph Meeker), with Stewart fighting him with a bad leg (not credible by the way that he could do that).
The title Naked Spur curiously comes from the use of Stewart's boot spur during a climactic moment late in the film. Not the best title however and today sounds corny.
Maybe the Naked Truth would be better, but Westerns in the fifties always liked to throw in a western reference into the title. The word Naked itself is strange here and not too sure what that refers to. Suprisingly, the title with the word Naked never got struck out by the censors.
A raging river scene is just amazing. The truth of the matter here is that Stewart needed the bounty money to rebuild his life on a farm.
But in the end, the blood money is not worth losing Janet Leigh.
Worth watching once, becomes difficult to sit through as the group travels the mountainous terrain. The endless talking of Ryan to fashion his escape is just as hard to listen to.
This is as much Ryan's film as Stewart's.