' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Naked Spur (1953)

Friday, March 05, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Naked Spur (1953)

If in previous Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart western collaborations I’ve seen, the leading man displayed an impressive amount of edge, occasionally even malice, in “The Naked Spur”, as bounty hunter Howard Kemp, Stewart essentially goes over the edge, displaying next to no irredeemable qualities. In one potent shot with his gun drawn, the camera looking up, those baby blue eyes don’t rhyme with the big blue sky above him but conspicuously stand out, like icicles. And when he tells the outlaw he’s tracking to shut up, Stewart’s whole body shakes, like he’s trying to tamp down some painful memory; he looks like he could bite the head off a live chicken, I swear. His zealousness for his goal stems from his past, one he’ll get to in monologue as the movie advances, but hinted at in how the camera looms over his shoulder as the movie opens. If he’s sneaking up on someone else, the past is forever sneaking up on him, the vastness of the American frontier not providing a place to disappear or even start over as endlessly confront what you’ve become and how you wound up here. 

If westerns often involve motley crews evolving into makeshift families, the motley crew of “The Naked Spur” never quite becomes a family, not even a dysfunctional one, each individual remaining so, beholden to his/her own motivations. And each of those characters becomes a clever skewering of a familiar western archetype. Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), who Howard encounters as the movie opens, is a prospector, one who has only ever struck out no matter how many different locations he’s tried, Mitchell’s performance exuding a good-natured attitude shading into weariness, unsure his rose-colored glasses have proven worth it. Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) wears a Union soldier’s uniform, cutting the figure of a hero, though Meeker’s devious air betrays that he’s not fit to wear the uniform even before we learn he’s been dishonorably discharged. And Howard initially masquerades, at least vaguely, as law enforcement until it becomes clear he’s a bounty hunter, looking out for only his own. 

The three men tentatively unite to capture the outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), dug in on a hill but outflanked by his opposition. It’s not just Ben, though, whom this small takes prisoner but his gal too, Lina Patch (Janet Leigh). Almost immediately, however, Ben gleefully presses his captors’ buttons. He does this as much to hatch an eventual escape as he does to have fun with their egos. Indeed, Ryan’s distinct laugh, almost a kind of giggle, feels like a put-on considering how he acts when he’s alone with Lina, cunning and insistent, using her as blatantly as he’s pitting Howard and Jesse and Roy against one another. Though they are marching toward civilization in the form of a faraway fort, they never reach it, the movie eternally mired in the wilderness, which for all its inherent beauty proves a savage place of ravines and rapids that can easily consume a man. Some Native Americans appear too, intent on killing Roy who proudly boasts of all the Native Americans he’s killed, and though they are expectedly one-dimensional, “The Naked Spur” never portrays the white men battling them as anything less than savage.

Howard is the most savage of all. Another movie might have planted seeds of a long simmering feud between the bounty hunter and his prey but, revealingly, there is none. Howard needs the reward to start a new life, meaning Ben is nothing but a means to an end, alive or dead, whichever. That new life ties back to a woman, as it so often does in the genre, who Howard loved but who walked out on him, taking their hard-earned savings with her, leaving with nothing but the bitterness so starkly on display. Lina becomes something akin, then, to both a ghost and an angel, representing to a seething Howard what was but also what could be. If initially what could be feels more like a cruel sleight, Lina masquerading at having affection for Howard at Ben’s prodding to help him try and get away, gradually comes around to genuine affection as the movie goes along, though “The Naked Spur” never quite sees Lina as a person as clearly as it sees the men. But if romance is suggested as the movie ends, there is nevertheless something about the way Stewart mentions trying California that still doesn’t sound all that rosy-hued, not a promised land but a last stand.

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