Anthony Mann and James Stewart teamed up in the first half of the 1950s to create a series of Westerns that have since been recognized as the critical missing link between the traditionalism of Ford and the revisionism of Peckinpah and the Spaghetti Cycle. 1950 saw their first, Winchester ’73, a bold film that had both Biblical and Oedipal undercurrents—and 1955 saw their last, The Man from Laramie, the first Western to use CinemaScope. The Naked Spur is the middle film—number three of five—and many critics consider it their best. Its layered characters, great performances, and gorgeous landscape photography are all top-notch, ensuring this Western a place in the genre’s extensive canon, but its Noirish protagonist Howard Kemp is what truly separates the film from the pack.
Spur is the story of a bounty hunter—at the time a rather new figure in the Western—named Howard Kemp (James Stewart) who is hunting a murderer through the Rocky Mountains. On the way through this beautiful countryside he meets two drifters—Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), an old prospector who’s never had any luck, and Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), a washed-out Union soldier of “unstable morals.” When Kemp first meets the prospector, he lets Tate think he’s a lawman—and this distinction between lawman and bounty hunter is the movie’s main concern.
When they do come across the killer, Ben Vandergroat (played with typical gusto by Robert Ryan), they have to work together and end up agreeing to split the reward. Vandergroat is accompanied by his ex-partner’s daughter, although it’s unclear whether their relationship is sexual. Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) is a woman divided between loyalty to her father’s friend and loyalty to her moral code; her character arc is fascinating. The dynamic that builds between her and the men—each has their own interest in her—fills the movie with a barely concealed dread. After the trio catch Vandergroat, the film becomes more of a psychological Thriller, with Vandergroat playing each character’s greed off the others’ until the group just falls apart. This conflict was the best part of the movie and seemed to be a clear influence on 3:10 to Yuma.
It was shot on location outside of Durango, CO—a city that was involved in a number of Western productions— and the footage of the San Juan Mountains is awe inspiring. Mann is known for using the environment to portray his character’s interiority, and my favorite example of this in Spur is a sequence that has our gang taking refuge in an old unstable cave. The possibility of a cave-in reflects the paranoid group dynamic that has taken over by this time; any one of them could betray the others “bringing the whole thing down on top of them.” There are numerous references like this, where Mann and cinematographer William Mellor use natural visual metaphors to illuminate their hardboiled character’s inner struggles.
“Mann’s visuals…call attention to themselves in ways that might be called Baroque,” says Emil Bundmann in Mann’s bio at Senses of Cinema, and we see these “Baroque” compositions throughout the film. Characters crawl right into the camera, exploding the frame—mountains dwarf them as they travel across the horizon, and rivers look like ancient beasts slithering through the valleys, searching for prey. Mann’s background in Film Noir allows him to use some of its visual principles in service of the Western—making his forays into the genre atypical and exciting.
Lina points out that Kemp could be hunting any criminal; it’s not the crime but the reward that drives him. Stewart does a great job of portraying Kemp’s shame at his own greed, and by the end of the film it’s become too much for him to bear. He breaks down in tears at his own degradation, and once he crosses that emotional threshold, he can’t turn a human being’s body over for a bag of money. It’s a rare Western that drives its male protagonist so completely to his knees, especially from an emotional crisis. The Naked Spur is so good precisely because it takes risks like these—shedding light on the post-war American male’s utter inability to reconcile its sense of entitlement with reality.
Even though all of the characters in Spur adhere to Western archetypes, they remain interesting because screenwriter Sam Rolfe plays with these types in very progressive ways: the Union officer is an unapologetic Indian rapist; the prospector’s a hopeless greedy curmudgeon; and the ‘bad guy’ is a man who until the very end never seems to be anything more than a desperate survivor trying to get by.
For all of its unique attribuites though, the film doesn’t skimp on the genre’s vicarious pleasures. Everyone who exhibits explicit greed gets what’s coming to them in the end, and Kemp and Lina are allowed the promise of a new life in California. In a typically metaphorical final image, Kemp begins digging the grave that Lina and he will bury their rotten past in so that they can say their prayers and get moving on down the dusty trail.