Grade:  B+/B
Not rated (would be PG)

Some people consider classic Westerns to be paint-by-numbers, but the numbers are pretty darned good for Jimmy Stewart and director Anthony Mann. Of the 18 Westerns that Stewart appeared in, five were made with Mann, and four of those rank among Stewart’s top eight. Not bad, considering that Stewart also made four Westerns with the legendary John Ford and one with genre wizard Delmer Daves. The Naked Spur (1953) was the third film that Stewart and Mann made together, following Winchester ’73 (1950) and Bend of the River (1952) and preceding The Far Country (1954) and The Man from Laramie (1955).

Winchester ’73 is the best of the bunch, but The Naked Spur isn’t far behind. Mann got some great performances out of Stewart because he encouraged him to play characters that went against type. Sure, they’re basically nice guys, but they’re not meek, they’re not befuddled, and they’re not so darned goody-goody sure of themselves all the time. Under Mann’s direction, Stewart played characters with a tormented past that is kept tightly lidded, with occasional breakthroughs—rougher, rawer, darker characters than people were used to seeing, yet still one that’s likable, whom you root for and want to see win.   

Mitchell and Stewart

In terms of storytelling, Mann manages to have it both ways. He showcases the raging rivers and formations of the Rocky Mountains and San Juan Mountains, while also zeroing in on five characters who, because they are together the whole time, feel as if they could be on a stage, the drama is so contained and psychological. The assist for making the scenery feel like a sixth character goes to cinematographer William C. Mellor, who won Oscars for his black-and-white work in A Place in the Sun and The Diary of Ann Frank and captures both the stage-like intimacy on the trail and also the grand location scenery in glorious Technicolor.

Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a bounty hunter who comes upon an old prospector in the mountains and offers him $20 to lead him to a man he claims to have seen. Jesse (Millard Mitchell) assumes Kemp is a lawman and agrees to help him. Soon they come upon the man Kemp is after, but the shots draw the attention of another drifter, a discharged cavalryman named Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker). Roy helps subdue the man on the wanted poster, but Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) laughs at Kemp. They have a history together, and Roy lets Kemp’s “partners” know he’s no lawman—he’s a bounty hunter, out to collect a $5,000 reward. Suddenly that $20 doesn’t look so good, and both newcomers decide they want in on the action.

Ryan, Leigh, and Meeker

Everybody has a back story in this movie, and one simple line spoken by the murderer Ben pretty much sets this plot in motion:  It’s “plain arithmetic,” he tells the men. “Money splits better two ways instead of three.” His game is to get the men to try to eliminate each other, to better his chances of escaping; Kemp’s game is to try to raise the money to buy back the ranch he was cheated out of; the others want their fair share, and Ben’s “girl” Lina (Janet Leigh) is all about loyalty—only she’s not sure who’s deserving of it. Will morality or self-interest drive them to act? That’s the basic underlying question in this psychological drama that also loads a lot of action into the cylinder.

Stewart gives one of his finest performances, and though the whole idea of the spur seems overblown and melodramatic by today’s standards, this Western stays clear of gimmicks and clichés for the most part. The raging river scenes, the avalanche scenes, and a standoff with a band of Indians combine to provide a Western that both fits the mold and somehow breaks it.

The Naked Spur is available now from the Warner Bros. Archive Collection, with on-demand distribution. If you’re not a Western fan and could use a little perspective, Stewart appeared in more than 100 films, and has The Naked Spur ranked as his 14th best.

Entire family:  No (8 and older)
Run time: 91 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.37:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Studio/Distributor:  Warner Bros.
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for violence)

Language:  0/10—I didn’t notice anything offensive

Sex:  0/10—Give the writers credit for not turning this film into one rape attempt after another; Lina is pure as a girlfriend, and, apart from a kiss, sex doesn’t enter into the plot, though the film was billed as a romantic triangle

Violence:  4/10—There’s a shootout with Indians and many are killed (no blood), there are fist fights, a spur ends up in someone’s neck, a man is shot in the leg with some blood, and there are river casualties

Adult situations:  1/10—In addition to the violence there’s some cigar smoking

Takeaway:  Location filming and Technicolor were a match made in heaven, and films like this gave Americans a chance to experience a part of the country that otherwise was beyond their reach