Why I Love… #157: The Naked Spur

Year:  1953

Director:  Anthony Mann

Stars:  James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan

I remember very specifically how I came about The Naked Spur as part of a deliberate attempt on my part to change my own perspective on The Western. Having self-educated my way through all manner of film genres I still associated one of America’s genuinely original art forms with antiquated values embodied by John Wayne’s terse and tragic turn in The Searchers. To me, westerns also meant Saturday afternoons with my dad. Wayne-like himself, his way of the world differed greatly from mine, and I suppose that coloured what I thought about the genre. I struggled to separate the two.

Respecting John Ford but never having come to love any of his works (yet), I looked to challenge myself and started seeking out alternatives that might broaden my understanding of the western. I quickly discovered and fell hard for the films of Anthony Mann, particularly his hot-streak of the early ’50s with James Stewart and the peerless The Furies with the awesome Barbara Stanwyck. Of the Jimmy Stewart offerings, The Naked Spur wholesale blew me away.

I knew Stewart mainly for his early nice-guy routines in a variety of screwball comedies and romances, or from his later Hitchcock collaborations, where he embodied a kind of elder-statesman of American cinema (albeit one prone to lurid voyeurism). The Stewart presented to me here was very different. If Wayne’s turn as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers had repulsed me, Stewart’s bounty hunting Howard Kemp seemed even meaner; a ruthless opportunist filled with hatred.

Wayne’s Edwards sat ill with me for his contemptible racism. Kemp’s hate was different, however. It didn’t seem to stem from prejudice. It’s allusivity was intriguing. Was he born with this temperament? Was it trampled into him through bad fortune and experience? Could he possibly emerge out of it?

The story finds Kemp on the trail of a fugitive named Ben Vandergoat (Robert Ryan), keen to recruit others to his cause. He offers elderly rancher Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) a keen $20 to assist him, under the pretence that he, Kemp, is an officer of the law (not true). Kemp finds competition in former 6th cavalry man Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), who scales a sheer rock face to catch Vandergoat. Kemp gets the drop on all of them, however, just as Janet Leigh’s runaway Linda Patch gets caught up in the action. All the while Kemp is glassy eyed with anger, shooting irons in both hands, trigger finger itching to keep them all in check.

The vertiginous opening of the picture is well-served by the tight 1.37:1 ratio. Westerns are often thought of as great landscape pictures thanks to the often handsome nature of the terrain, conjuring painterly notions. Mann’s film feels vertical. Tight. Claustrophobic. This sense of confinement, of pressure extends to the roiling emotions of the piece. Watching The Naked Spur often feels like being privy to a cross-section of a volcano on the verge of eruption. You can see the hot magma of violence and anger struggling to be contained. The viewer feels suspense waiting for it all to blow, to overflow, to cause terror. Even when it pauses in the mid-section (once Kemp is wounded), The Naked Spur feels uncommonly tense. It never fully settles, and a lot of this is thanks to the volatile menace exuded by Stewart, even as he convalesces. Hell, he even dreams angry.

This wasn’t what I had expected from a western. School days had drummed into me certain stereotypes, but this didn’t adhere to the binary “good v bad” definitions that I came to the film with. It was knottier. Who are the good guys here? Kemp might be redeemed but he simply seethes. Vandergoat is a conniving, manipulating captive, not some misunderstood hero. Even Leigh’s Linda Patch feels somewhat removed from the angelic, having chosen a darker path in following after her beloved outlaw. She doesn’t seem to quite believe in Vandergoat’s capacity for redemption. Her eventual commitment to Kemp reads as strange, like a compromise made between two people who only want to dam up the damage that they feel.

Much as I was riveted by the stark monochrome of earlier Mann westerns like The Furies and Winchester ’73The Naked Spur evidenced a master of Technicolor. All shot on location around Lone Pine, California, the skies and scenery pop hard. The immaculate blues above colliding with the verdant greens of the woods and the hillsides. Kemp, Vandergoat and Patch are wardrobed in earthen tones that do nothing to solve their moral mystique. The preening Anderson and rancher Tate match one another in navy blues indicative – to differing degrees – of their clearer moral righteousness, be that genuine or self-ascribed. The film’s palette is as aggressive as its characters. Vibrant. Almost searing. A recent remaster has worked beautiful wonders on the picture (the Warner Bros blu-ray looks exquisite), still I almost miss the sickly bleed of these bold colours exhibited on prior, cruder releases. It suited the film’s over-ripeness.

The Naked Spur prefigures the melodramatic heights that the western would reach a year later when Nicholas Ray offered up his masterpiece Johnny Guitar. It isn’t that picture (what picture is?), but it has a similar sense of emotional volatility. It is a movie fit to bursting with feeling. So much so that it almost feels like a horror movie. In Mann’s film, nothing can be contained for long, and the risks of losing control are the cause of great anxiety. Bronislaw Kaper’s music trembles with anticipation and fear. Look, for instance, at the scene where a wounder Kemp falls from his horse and tumbles down a steep slope. Is this death? Right here? Right now? Kaper’s score engenders our panic.

The Naked Spur streaming: where to watch online?

Mann’s west is forsaken. It’s heroes sullied. Greed and paranoia are the persistent drivers. It’s a misanthropic reflection of humanity, yet it is riveting. Partway revisionist, partway reflective of the tempestuous nature of America itself, still a work-in-progress in the period of its setting and the years of its making (and even now). With terrain that routinely threatens (from cliffs to caves to rushing river rapids), The Naked Spur evokes a sense of unreliable, sinister, even deadly territory. That the land itself might be damned or evil in some way. A comparable colonialist terror to the one that inhabits the far-flung likes of Peter Weir’s dreamy Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock. Mann’s characters don’t inexplicably disappear in the treacherous Colorado mountains (not all of them, anyway), but one senses that they’re caught in their jaws, ready to be swallowed whole. An indigenous presence skirts the very edges of the narrative, but remains at bay, as if knowing that these white folk will see to themselves. That the land will eat them up.

The 1950s were a peak decade in American cinema, and The Naked Spur is, for me, one of the best films of that decade. By extension, surely, that makes it one of the best American films ever made. As intense and menacing as anything made since.

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