Money Splits Better Two Ways Instead of Three

Posted: 09/01/2013 in 1953, The Naked Spur, Western


Admittedly, I came into Anthony Mann’s western The Naked Spur with some reservations.   The good news is that the film vindicates itself on a number of levels.  The bad news is that I walked away from The Naked Spur with some reservations, albeit of a different nature.  Mr. Mann’s western, thankfully, does not fall into the cliche of many 1950s westerns.  There are few gunfights, there are no saloon brawls, and there is no town center with a duel at the end. Instead, it is beautifully shot in the lovely Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The characters in this film and the story itself are drawn more real that is typically seen as well.  This is the story of Howard Kemp, played by an unlikely James Stewart, and his desire to put away suspected murderer Ben Vandergroat for the reward on his head to buy back a lost plot of land.  Very quickly a cast of rather unsavory individuals wants to join the team to escort Vandergroat back to Kansas to be hanged and collect on the reward.  What is refreshing about The Naked Spur is that is it very difficult to find a hero here.  These characters are just about as imperfect as they come, each with a possible selfish agenda that could result in the death of the rest.  On the other hand, the sexism of the film gets a bit unbearable at times.  Additionally, the ending just does not work for me.  This is further frustrating because the end almost did work, and then fell completely flat for this reviewer.

I don’t think that The Naked Spur will be in best picture contention by the end of the year to be quite honest.  However, it does have a strong screenplay (90% of it at least) written by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom.  This is not your typical western.  Instead, the viewer is given round characters and building tension almost to the very end.  Where it falls short, sadly, is with a love story that is difficult to follow and a very one dimensional female character, played by Janet Leigh.  It is unfortunate that Miss Leigh turns in such a flat performance here, but she’s given very little to work with.  On the opposite end, Ralph Meeker plays the very fascinating Roy Anderson, a discharged U.S. Army serviceman with a checkered past.  Meeker is fun to watch as the audience wavers on the trust worthiness of his character.  Almost equally interesting is Robert Ryan as Ben.   A likeable “antagonist” if there ever was one, Ryan takes the audience through a range of emotions with the at times alarmingly unstable Ben.  Unfortunately, Jimmy Stewart is ultimately difficult to like and believe as Howie.  It certainly is a star turn, and you almost do feel for the character he plays, but in the end one can not get over that Mr. Smith is going to Kansas now.

As an early year release, The Naked Spur is a fine western with some strong moments.  On the whole, there will likely be better westerns to screen later in the year.  As well intentioned as Anthony Mann’s work is, it does not quite function on the level intended, making for a slight disappointment in the aftermath of it all.

**1/2 ~AOS

Next up: Our first musical of the year, Walter Lang’s Call Me Madam.


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