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The Naked Spur

The Naked Spur(1953)

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teaser The Naked Spur (1953)

Between 1950 and 1955, Jimmy Stewart made eight films with director Anthony Mann, and though The Glenn Miller Story (1953) was the biggest box-office success, most critics view Mann and Stewart's remarkable series of Westerns as the heart and soul of their collaboration. The Naked Spur (1953), the third of their five Westerns, is a critical favorite and, with the possible exception of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), the film that shows Jimmy Stewart at his most hysterical.

It may be difficult to comprehend today what a risk Stewart took when he began, in the 1950s, to accept roles far removed from the sweet-and-gawky persona he had, by then, perfected. Popular memory may think of Stewart's films with Alfred Hitchcock as the definitive break from his ebullient Frank Capra roles, but it was with Mann, not Hitchcock, that Stewart first began playing characters at war with their inner demons. Of course, It's a Wonderful Life (1946) showed this side of Stewart - just think of him on the Bedford Falls bridge, terrified and suicidal in the moment before Clarence dives into the churning water. But not until he began working with Mann did Stewart play a character whose very being was in torment.

In each of the five Westerns he made with Mann, Stewart plays essentially the same character: a hard-nosed loner (though often with an older male sidekick), either out to avenge a past wrong or to redeem himself after committing a wrong against others. In Winchester '73 (1950), he hunts down his patricidal brother; in Bend of the River (1952), he is a former bounty hunter trying to "go straight" when an old acquaintance (the underrated Arthur Kennedy) shows up to test Stewart's newfound commitment to peace. In The Naked Spur, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a Civil War veteran who returns home to find that he has lost his land. To get his property back, Stewart decides to become a bounty hunter and he enters the Colorado territory in pursuit of outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). Along the way, Stewart picks up two companions, played by Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell. Vandergroat is accompanied by the young and beautiful Lina Patch (Janet Leigh). In this physical and psychological journey, the five characters shift alliances and blur moral lines until, at last, Stewart's deeply buried humanity rises to the surface. But this is at the film's end. Throughout most of The Naked Spur, Stewart is as unsympathetic as the villain. In one scene, Stewart uses his gun to beat an Indian to death and his vengeful demons keep him beating the man until long after his death is apparent. Not until John Wayne's portrayal of Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers (1956), would audiences see a Western hero more tortured, more possessed of hatred.

With the exception of the dark scene in the cave, the entire film was shot on location in Rocky Mountain National Park. Cinematographer William Mellor (who won Oscars for his work on A Place in the Sun [1951] and The Diary of Anne Frank, 1959) uses crisp Technicolor to capture the harsh landscape. Mann's films regularly use the landscape to express the characters' inner states. As critic Jim Kitses notes, "the terrain is so colored by the action that finally it seems an inner landscape, the unnatural world of a disturbed mind." During filming, the actors stayed in cabins 25 miles from the town of Durango, Colorado. According to Janet Leigh, Jimmy Stewart and his wife, Gloria, stayed "in the same quarters Clark Gable and Lady Ashley lived in when Gable shot Lone Star (1951) in this area a year or so before. Evidently Lady Ashley had done some remodeling so theirs boasted the most modern decor."

On the set, Stewart was as nice as they came. Leigh tells of a scene between she, Ryan and Stewart. Because of lighting problems, they weren't able to shoot Leigh and Ryan's close-ups. According to Leigh: "Howard Koch, the A.D. dismissed Jimmy for the day, since his work was done. Jimmy, as only he can, said, "Well, I can't do that, you see, because, well, that just wouldn't be right, now would it? I think I'll just - hang around - and be off camera - for my friends there." And he stayed the entire tedious afternoon, only to play the scene in back of the camera, while it was focused on us. Now, that is a pro!"

For Leigh, The Naked Spur was a major departure from the forgettable ingenue roles that MGM had foisted on her. Her husband, Tony Curtis, had a minor role in Winchester '73, Mann and Stewart's first Western collaboration, but this was of little help to Leigh as Curtis' career had yet to prosper. Leigh did a screen test with Stewart and, as she says in her autobiography, they "sparked the proper chemistry." The rest of the cast is superb, especially Robert Ryan, whose portrayal of the laughing Vandergroat almost steals the movie (Mann so liked Ryan that he cast him in two of his non-Westerns: Men in War (1957) and God's Little Acre, 1958). Stewart, though, remains the focal point. His performance here is so good, so brutal, that his former aw-shucks persona is most definitely laid to rest.

Stewart made more films with Mann than with any other director, and although their films together aren't often mentioned in the same breath as those of Stanley Donen and Audrey Hepburn, or John Ford and John Wayne, theirs is one of the most successful collaborations in film history. And The Naked Spur is one of their best. The screenplay by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom was nominated for an Oscar, a rare recognition for a Western (it lost out to the screenplay for Titanic).

Producer: William H. Wright
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Sam Rolfe, Harold Jack Bloom
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Editing: George White
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: James Stewart (Howard Kemp), Janet Leigh (Lina Patch), Robert Ryan (Ben Vandergroat), Ralph Meeker (Roy Anderson), Millard Mitchell (Jesse Tate).
C-92m. Closed captioning.

by Mark Frankel

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