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The Naked Spur (1953)

by on 2011/06/12

“A man gets set for trouble head-on and it sneaks up behind him every time.”

* * *

In the world of western cinema, there are several widely recognized institutions. Some are more popular, some are critically acclaimed, and yet only rarely do they overlap. Johns Ford and Wayne usually dominate, followed after by Leone and Eastwood. Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott are less well-known but surely worthwhile and, amongst those three groups, Mann and Stewart.

Director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart (It’s a Wonderful Life) marked their third western with The Naked Spur. In it, Stewart plays against popular type as Howard Kemp, a rancher mistaken for a sheriff. He’s on the trail of a wanted murderer, Ben Vandergroat (The Dirty Dozen’s Robert Ryan) for reasons of money, or maybe just revenge.

Along the way, three others are pulled into the journey: prospector Jesse (Millard Mitchell), dishonorably discharged soldier Roy (Ralph Meeker), and Vandergroat’s surrogate daughter, Lina Patch (Touch of Evil’s Janet Leigh).

Their path toward bounty in Abilene is less action-packed than psychological. A reasonable candidate for translation to the stage, much of its tension is generated by Ben sowing small-talking discord. Playing on the others’ weaknesses — bravado, greed, and pity — he strikes me as the true star of this show.

It’s unfortunate, then, he rubs me the wrong way. For as monstrous as he is, he affects an affable manner. Affable to some, perhaps, though I found him nearly intolerable. His incessant displays of humour are as exhausting as inexhaustible, as irritating as ingratiating. The leering and mugging might work by design, but they grated on me nonetheless.

At any rate, he distracts us from one of Stewart’s rare anti-hero roles . . . at least to start. Howard appears more familiar as the character evolves but, by that point, it feels too little, too late. In fact, his endearment disturbed me. I felt the tale had set up a keen edge just to blunt it, with use going dull.

Similarly, the early frisson of tug-of-war tensions becomes tedious, and the lag is overwhelming by the end. What began with exceptional promise plummets into convention and frustration.

Which is a shame, because what’s good is very good, great even: an interesting situation, a manageable set of characters, distinctly motivated, with a smattering of action and insidious complications. The potential is exceptional.

That potential is supported by a handsome sense of production. The scenery, and its photography, is striking enough to remind us why location shoots have value. The music recalls Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer”. Still, neither of these do more than slow the descent.

Oddly, I’ve seen no mention of The Naked Spur in discussions of “Three-Ten to Yuma“, a story by Elmore Leonard in the same year. It too follows the progress of a sharp-tongued captive’s journey. Apparently, however, it learned when to rein in excess, when to pick up the pace, and the value of not compromising.

* * *

Rated G

91 minutes

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