My home state of Colorado has played host to many major film productions, mostly in the western genre. While California may have been the idea place for the studios to set up shop with the easy access to the ocean, mountains and everything in-between, there’s something about the true American West that adds a rugged edge to the struggle of the individual that is so often played out in the western.
Director Anthony Mann was known for both his crime pictures and his westerns, especially the five he made with Jimmy Stewart. While it is very hard to judge all of them against each other, I have often cited The Naked Spur as not only my favorite Stewart/Mann western, but one of my favorite Stewart performances.
Jimmy Stewart had made his mark in the late 1930s playing the boy-next-door, earnest American everyman in movies like Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can’t Take It With You and Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner to name just a few. But after Stewart returned from WWII, where he served as a decorated bomber pilot, the movie-going public’s tastes had changed and Stewart, who wasn’t sure he wanted to continue acting, had to adapt.
What emerged was a darker personality. Starting with Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life and moving into his work with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann in the 1950s, Stewart began to display a more paranoid and morally ambiguous side to his characters. This would come full-circle with the Mann westerns, where Mann’s noir influences would show through in the actions of Stewart’s anti-hero protagonists.
The Naked Spur was the third western Mann and Stewart made together, following Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River. The plot is actually relatively simple. Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a man whose background we don’t know until later in the movie. The film opens with Kemp chasing after Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), who is wanted for murder in Kansas. As he is riding on Vandergroat’s trail, Kemp happens upon failed prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), who thinks Kemp is a lawman. Tate agrees to help Kemp in return for some small compensation.
The two track down Vandergroat to a hill on the trail, and they attempt to scale the rocky sides to get to him. Seeing this capture attempt is recently discharged Lieutenant Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) who also offers his help. The three are able to corner and capture Vandergroat, who is accompanied by a woman, Lina Patch (Janet Leigh). After talking to Anderson, Kemp learns that his discharge papers read “morally unstable” and that Anderson is wanted by the local Indian tribes.
Vandergroat sets the record straight that Kemp is no lawman, and that he had hidden the fact that there was a $5,000 reward for capturing Vandergroat. Tate and Anderson demand their share of the reward money, and decide to stick with Kemp until Vandergroat is delivered back in Kansas. Vandergroat realizes the brewing distrust between the three men, as well as their individual pressure points, and sets about working them against each other so that he can ultimately escape.
Early in the journey, the small group have a run-in with the Blackfoot Indians who are after Anderson. After sending Anderson away to fend for himself, the group is attacked when he brings the battle back towards Kemp and the others. They fight the Indians off, but Kemp is wounded in the leg.
As Lina tends to Kemp, it’s revealed that he lost his ranch back home after leaving it with the woman he loved when he went to fight in the Civil War. When he returned, the woman had left with another man and sold the ranch out from under him. Kemp hoped that Vandergroat’s reward money would buy back his ranch, but splitting it three ways won’t be enough.
Vandergroat tries to convince the group to leave Kemp behind to catch up with them, but Kemp smartly insists that they stick together. Vandergroat tries sabotaging Kemp’s saddle by unbuckling the cinch and trying to knock him down a cliff as his saddle comes loose. After this fails, Vandergroat tells Lina, who is slowly falling for Kemp, to seduce him as a distraction when they camp at a cave for the night. She does, but Vandergroat is caught trying to escape.
The final showdown takes place near a raging river after Vandergroat and Lina manage to get away from camp. Having promised Tate to show him where a prosperous gold vein is, Vandergroat and Lina are able to ride away with Tate’s help. Vandergroat then kills the man in cold blood with a shotgun, and he and Lina take to high ground. Having heard the shots, Kemp and Anderson come in pursuit. Lina, having finally realized that Vandergroat is despicable, saves Kemp when she grabs Vandergroat’s barrel and causes him to miss his shot. Kemp throws his spur into Vandergroat’s face, which allows Anderson to get a shot off. Vandergroat falls into the river below. Knowing that the reward was dead or alive, Anderson tries to wade into the rushing water to retrieve Vandergroat’s body, which is hung up on a tree. Anderson is rushed away by more river debris as Vandergroat’s body is hauled in by Kemp.
Lina begs Kemp to leave Vandergroat and start fresh with her in California, but Kemp is dead-set on taking the body back for the reward money. He finally breaks down and decides to put the past behind him and begin anew, and the film ends with the burial of Vandergroat and Kemp and Lina riding off to their new beginning.
Stewart is at his paranoid best here. From the start, his morals are questionable, and he’s ruthless. The interesting thing about Jimmy Stewart to me is how this lanky and unassuming man could all of sudden portray a man on the edge. Eyes wide and teeth gritted, there was no doubt that these Stewart characters were not to be messed with. Yet at the core of these characters were troubled men with checkered pasts. Things had been done to them and it was almost natural that they wanted to avenge those wrongs. In the end, even after blood had been shed, there still was a redeeming quality to Stewart’s anti-heros in that the payoff wasn’t easy, nor was it necessarily right or totally satisfying. I think this can be seen in the final scene of The Naked Spur when Kemp pretty much has a breakdown over bringing back Vandergroat’s body for the reward, what he’s been chasing after for so long, and what the “right” thing to do in the present is.
The Naked Spur was mostly filmed around the area of Durango, Colorado, which historically started as a railway town for the Rio Grande Railroad. According to writer and historian Frederic B. Wildfang, it was during the filming of The Naked Spur that Jimmy Stewart dedicated a monument in town, marking the area as the “Hollywood of the Rockies.”¹ While there is a ruggedness to the San Juan Mountains, it’s an interesting setting for a tale of individual and interpersonal struggle as there is a lush beauty to the mountain landscape that seems almost in opposition to the band of weary characters that traverse its vistas.
Apart from its one action scene with the Blackfoot, this western focuses mostly on the psychological interplay between its five characters. While there is some gunfighting and fisticuffs between them, most of the fighting is verbal. As good as Stewart is in this role, Robert Ryan matches him blow for blow as the crafty Vandergroat. While Meeker’s Anderson is wonderfully slimy the entire time (morally unstable is correct), it is Mitchell’s Tate that elicits the most sympathy as the gullible, down-on-his-luck prospector who is just trying to get a break. Leigh is also good here, although honestly her role doesn’t give her much to work with, and at times her character is treated with quite a bit of misogyny, which is difficult to watch.
The Naked Spur remains one of my favorite westerns because it’s a smart film that seeks to push the genre out from its action movie, good vs. bad stereotypes. It’s in many ways a noir in color, a revenge tale with a questionable hero. The Naked Spur demonstrates that wide open spaces and cowboy hats can be just as claustrophobic and tense as cityscapes and trench coats.
¹Frederick B. Wildfang, Images of America: Durango (Charlston: Arcadia, 2009), 89.