The Naked Spur—James Stewart, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell (1953; Dir: Anthony Mann)
Every one of the characters in this movie is deeply wounded or flawed in some significant way. As the film develops, it’s not clear who’s the best one, but it is clear who’s the worst: Ben Vandergroat, played by Robert Ryan in one of his best roles, an outlaw wanted for murder in Abilene, Kansas. He’s always smiling and utterly without conscience, traveling in the company of Lina Patch (a dirty-faced Janet Leigh), the young daughter of a now-deceased outlaw colleague.
At the start of the movie, Ben is captured in the mountains by Howard Kemp (James Stewart), with the incidental help of cashiered cavalry lieutenant Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and down-at-the-heels prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell). Ben knows Howard from the Abilene area, and lets the others know that (a) Howard (whom he irritatingly calls Howie throughout the movie) is not a peace officer but only wants to bring him in for the $5000 reward, and (b) Howard went off to fight for the Union in the recent Civil War and deeded his ranch to his fiancée so she could work it properly in his absence. When he returned from the war, she’d sold the ranch and left with another man. Betrayed and unsure of himself now, Howard wants the reward to buy back his ranch and start over.
When Roy and Jesse hear this, they want equal shares of the reward and Howard is forced to accept that arrangement. As the group heads east toward Abilene, Ben starts to work on the three taking him back, exploiting personal weaknesses and setting them against each other. He also uses Lina to appeal to their baser instincts. (“They’re men, honey, and you ain’t. Remember that.”) Ben’s creepily physical relationship with Lina sets their teeth on edge. (“My back’s bothering me again, honey. Can you do me?”) Howard’s emotional stability starts to show some cracks. It turns out that the sleazy Roy was dishonorably discharged from the army for being “morally unstable.” The group is followed by a dozen Indians (Blackfeet, Howard says), and it’s Roy they’re after. Apparently he demonstrated his moral instability by raping a young Indian woman, and they want revenge. Ben plays on Jesse’s lifetime of unsuccessful prospecting by slyly suggesting he knows the secret location of gold in the mountains.
Howard expels Roy from the group when he discovers why the Blackfeet are following, but Roy gets the group ambushed for his own protection. They kill the Indians, but Howard is shot in the leg. Lina tends Howard while he is delirious and seems to be developing some sympathy for him; Howard may reciprocate, on his way to becoming more human. Ben uses that attraction between them to try repeatedly to escape. He’s never quite successful, but he never gives up
Finally the lure of a potential strike becomes too much for Jesse, who cuts Ben loose to lead him to the supposed gold. Jesse, Ben and Lina escape, but Jesse by himself is no match for Ben, who shoots him and prepares an ambush for Roy and Howard. The final showdown takes place in mountain rocks (much like in Mann’s Winchester ’73), which Howard climbs with the help of a spur used as a piton. In the end, both Howard and Lina have to decide what they really want—the reward for Ben and a life in the shadow of the past, or a new beginning somewhere else.
There’s always action, either psychological or physical or both, in this tautly-paced movie. In a genre previously known for black-and-white values, this one has all shades. With all those loose psychological threads, the end can seem abrupt. Nobody’s entirely admirable. With only five characters, it’s a small cast, but every performance is excellent. Stewart was in the middle of his association with director Anthony Mann, and gives perhaps his most tortured performance for Mann. Meeker would not be recognized by most audiences now; he had a brief career in the movies, with his greatest success as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. He is very good as the sleazy Roy, who wears his uniform throughout the movie despite having been cashiered. Millard Mitchell (who also appears in Winchester ’73 with Stewart and in The Gunfighter with Gregory Peck) is fine as Jesse, the failed prospector. Janet Leigh’s role is the smallest, but she does well.
Mann and Stewart made several westerns in the 1950s, and Mann is now considered the father of the psychological western. Many think this is his best movie, although The Man from Laramie and Winchester ’73 also get votes. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Script, and William Mellor’s color cinematography makes good use of the high country of Colorado where it was shot. It’s gorgeous if you’re watching this on a good print or DVD transfer.