Sunday Editor’s Pick: The Naked Spur (1953)

by on August 7, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Aug 14 at 2:50, 6:10, 9:40 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Double Feature with Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Don’t miss Imogen Smith’s essay on Robert Ryan for Alt Screen. Of The Naked Spur she writes:

Ryan brought ferocious energy to Mann’s magnificent The Naked Spur, which brought the convoluted interiority of chamber drama into the dwarfing grandeur of the Western wilderness. As a wily outlaw captured by a bounty hunter (Jimmy Stewart), Ryan grins and cackles with delight at his own malicious cunning, reveling in the tortured guilt of Stewart’s ambiguous antihero. With his wrists tied, perched ridiculously on a small donkey, Ryan still finds ways to exert power, because he has X-ray vision for other people’s weaknesses—and is stone-blind to his own failings. Ryan rarely portrayed men who enjoy their villainy, and he was never a heavy you “love to hate.” Some actors have a gift for portraying evil that is pure, elemental, inexplicable, so that there’s a guiltless satisfaction in hating them. Ryan, by contrast, revealed the inner workings of sadists and bigots, the all too recognizable ingredients of self-pity, resentment, rage, and sheer sickness of being inside one’s own skin. There’s a strange, harsh beauty about his willingness to inhabit these ugly souls, condemning himself to a kind of moral quarantine.


For you autuerist types, here’s a long, heady piece on Naked Spur director Anthony Mann, written by Alt Screen Editor, Paul Brunick.


A conflation of Jonathan Rosenbaum remarks from the Chicago Reader and DVD Beaver:

An uncharacteristically nasty James Stewart plays an obsessive bounty hunter with Robert Ryan in tow in one of the very best Anthony Mann westerns, which means one of the very best westerns, period. This 1953 film has Janet Leigh in jeans, beautiful location shooting (and Technicolor cinematography) in the Rockies, and some of the most intense psychological warfare to be found in Mann’s angular and anguished oeuvre.


For natural splendors in color, you couldn’t do better than this gorgeous piece of landscape art, shot almost entirely in exterior locations in the Colorado Rockies. James Stewart plays a rather nasty and troubled bounty hunter—-a character diametrically opposed to his civilized lawyer from the east in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—-and it’s characteristic of Mann’s best and most elemental western that, along with the four other characters, he never changes his clothes even once.



Rosenbaum continues at his blog:

The Naked Spur, the most elemental Mann western and my favorite of all his pictures, has the most breathtaking scenery, including snowcapped mountains, rock formations, and green forest clearings in the Colorado Rockies near Durango. Yet insofar as westerns are intrinsically mythological, I suppose one could argue that this one might as well be taking place inside Mann’s head.


With the exception of a few nameless Blackfoot Indians killed in a brutal ambush — whom the film lamentably discounts, though the white man responsible for the ambush is no sort of hero — the film has only five characters. And because it never leaves the spectacular wilderness and everyone’s traveling light, no one has a single change of wardrobe — which somehow seems fitting for a landscape film. Moreover, the four male principals, as is typical in Mann westerns, all develop dialectically: Howard Kemp (James Stewart), the bounty-hunter hero, starts off as unpleasantly self-centered in relation to a friendly old prospector (Millard Mitchell), a dishonorably discharged yet resourceful cavalry lieutenant (Ralph Meeker), and even the cheerful outlaw (Robert Ryan) Kemp captures. Kemp becomes vulnerable when his leg is injured and bits of his tainted past are revealed (physical pain and traumatic back stories are central in Mann’s westerns), and only then do the three other men begin to show their darker natures, sparking an intense psychological war (another Mann specialty). The prospector and ex-officer insist that Kemp make them his partners and split the reward for capturing the outlaw three ways, and the outlaw contrives to unravel the complacencies of all three as they travel through the wilderness toward Abilene. When the prospector, aiming his shotgun at one of the others at a critical juncture, complains, “It’s gettin’ so I don’t know which way to point this no more,” he could just as well be speaking for the audience. As usual in such a fluctuating context, the role of the woman — a feisty orphan (Janet Leigh) the outlaw has in tow — is to represent all that’s left of civilization, a value that’s also prone to change as loyalties and ethical profiles shift.


Kent Jones for Film Comment (Jul/Aug 2006):

Bend of the River and The Man from Laramie are stiff competition, but this tough, minimal 1953 movie is the likely peak of the Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaboration, one of the glories of American cinema. Stewart is the wronged man turned bounty hunter on the trail of Robert Ryan’s smiling murderer: he’s burning to collect the price on the killer’s head and buy back the ranch his ex-fiancée has stolen from under him. Stewart’s hair-raising struggle to contain his own lust for vengeance is directly keyed to a perilous trek up, down, and around the rocky terrain-every twist and turn adds another knot to his character’s already taut and frayed psyche. Ralph Meeker’s dishonorably discharged soldier, Millard Mitchell’s wizened prospector, and Janet Leigh’s ruggedly appealing Lina each add further complications to the purity of Stewart’s mission. A vividly physical experience, in which the California and Colorado mountain locations are just as forcefully present and alive as the thick-skinned yet surprisingly vulnerable characters.


Mann himeslf, in a 1967 interview (uncredited, via Rosenbaum):

Q: What is the starting point for The Naked Spur?
A: We were in magnificent countryside — in Durango — and everything lent itself to improvisation. I never understood why almost all westerns are shot in desert landscapes! John Ford, for example, adores Monument Valley, but I know Monument Valley very well and it’s not the whole west. In fact, the desert represents only one part of the American west. I wanted to show the mountains, the waterfalls, the forested areas, the snowy summits — in short to rediscover the whole Daniel Boone atmosphere: the characters emerge more fully from such an environment. In that sense the shooting of The Naked Spur gave me some genuine satisfaction.


Nathan Gelgud for his blog New York Film Review:

Watching Naked Spur, or any of Anthony Mann’s movies from the era before 1954, at which point the frame doubled in width to a grotesque vastness, I scream “Down with CinemaScope!” Revisiting Mann’s deep and vertical compositions begs a return to the squarish, 1.33:1 aspect ratio, within which directors had to choose what they wanted to look at and trace movement in depth rather than lean on all-encompassing long shots featuring figures scattering on the screen trying to figure out where they belong.


The essential qualities of movies are found in their treatment of time and space, elements unique to the medium, and in a trail movie like Naked Spur the space game is heightened. The sensations of movement in Naked Spur come from its sense of travel through the frame, into it, rather than across it. There isn’t enough room to create a sense of space alongside the characters (see Eastwood’s Unforgiven); Mann has to do it behind them or in front of them, which is when he’s at his best. The loving portraiture of the landscape becomes psychological, the movement self-perpetuating. The movie itself becomes a journey by expanding into itself, deep into the frame, while collapsing the audience’s distance from the places portrayed. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the only CinemaScope Mann-Stewart western, The Man From Laramie, is their most stationary. Manny Farber said that John Ford “doesn’t give a fuck about the country out there … He has no curiosity about land or ground.” But Mann’s frames and affections run deep, and his sense of movement, landscape, and emotional geography show that there has not been a better director of westerns.



John Greco on Ryan’s role, for his blog Twenty Four Frames:

It is Robert Ryan’s twisted outlaw Ben Vandergroat who drives the film and Stewart’s Howie that reacts. Vandergroat’s divide and conquer policy is relentless, the men switching loyalties, shifting sides. He entices the old man Tate telling him how splitting the reward money two ways is better than three. Vandergroat continually attempts to pit the men against each other and displays an almost superior arrogance at times, for example when he smugly instructs the lone female character to “do me Lina.” While it is meant to rub his shoulder, it comes across as a more overtly sexual demand especially considering the salivating Roy Anderson is standing by watching. Mann’s westerns are dark conflicted works with characters whose seem to be at a crossroad in their life.


Mann magnificently uses the camera to isolate the partners depending on who is on whose side at the time. He also positions his camera in various scenes that guarantee you are certainly seeing the actors in the fight scenes and not stunt doubles. As with the black and white beauty of his film noirs this color production is beautifully scenic (mostly filmed in the Colorado Rockies), one of the most visually stunning westerns this side of John Ford. But the landscape is more than just scenic it becomes another character in the film. Mann’s west is a country of streams, mountains and wide open land. It is the landscape that determines the final destiny of Vandergroat and Anderson.


Jeanine Basinger in her book on Anthony Mann:

Perhaps the most interesting villain in all of the Mann Westerns is Ben Vandergoat. Something of a cracker-barrel philosopher (“Choosin’ a way to die, what’s the difference? Choosin’ a way to live – that’s the hard part.”), he has the easy style and grace, the sense of humor, the camaraderie, and the knowledge of life that separate the Mann villain from the Mann hero. The charming and relaxed Ryan is not a villain you love to hate.


Ryan talks about his miserable childhood, nearly winning the audience’s total sympathy. As he explains about a pa who tied him up, a ma who caught the fever and died, and the killing in a saloon that orphaned him, he does it with just the right rough of ironic self-humor. With his disordered background, Ben is almost a joke on the sociological westerns that became popular in the 1950s, in which the poor outlaw was revealed to be nothing more than a misguided juvenile delinquent. But Ryan’s character is no textbook punk. He is evil, through and through. His apparent ease is later revealed to come from a moral vacuum rather than grace under pressure. He hideously shows his callous nature by casually shooting at the feet of the old dead prospector. When Janet Leigh is horrified, he remarks, “Day after tomorrow I’ll be just like a story you once heard.” Everything in his life is like the stories he spins out as they ride – distances, meaningless.



Richard Armstrong for Senses of Cinema:

The Naked Spur derives its dramatic currency from an ever-shifting moral centre. Consumed by the desire to buy back the farm he lost to a faithless woman, Kemp sees Ben purely as expedient, “a sack of money” with which to secure the future. Notice how he gratuitously rattles coins under Jesse’s nose to enlist his help, while the name “van-der-groat” underlines the Ryan character’s function in a film that is plainly more interested in the travails of James Stewart. Of Jesse and Roy, Kemp feels nothing but suspicion and resentment that he must share the bounty. As John Saunders points out, the bounty hunter was a relatively new figure in the western at the time, and actor and director make the most of Kemp’s moral ambivalence. “Quit acting like we was friends!” he yells at his confederates. It could be Stewart telling his audience not to rely on past acquaintance. Ben and Lina’s whispered escape ploy in the dark cave remains a concentrated statement of the film’s shifting allegiances; her wavering between betraying Ben and cultivating Kemp, we torn between seeing Ben as a raffish but likeable outlaw, and as a vicious unprincipled killer. Played by veteran actor Millard Mitchell, crusty representative of a simpler age, Jesse has spent his whole life going here, digging there, wherever a man told him gold and the good life could be found. The tragic consequence of moral equivalence and straitened actions, the old man’s death is still shocking, reminding us that Mitchell himself died that year. In an earlier moment over which Jesse had brief control, even his words “It’s gettin’ so I don’t know which way to point this no more” bespeak the spectator’s ambivalence about the characters in a genre that has for decades been the proving ground for the right thing to do.


If The Naked Spur muddies the ethical waters of the traditional western, its rigorous exploration of the imperatives that impede decency and honour in an uncertain Cold War period looks forward to the pared-down gunfights and laconic discourse of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. The film’s regular re-appearance on daytime TV schedules worldwide testifies both to its modernity and to its compelling and singular trajectory. The Naked Spur is pivotal: drawing a line forever beneath Stewart’s beneficent drawl, and foretelling the bloody revisions of the post-classical horse opera.


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