The first time I saw Jimmy Stewart in a Western was in The Naked Spur. It was an unforgettable experience. Stewart had achieved an almost-wild-eyed sense of emotion during scenes of previous roles, but, in this movie, he sustained a dark shadowy intensity during most of the film.
Director Anthony Mann was the defining force behind this powerful Western that showed a landscape very much unlike the dramatic dry landforms of Monument Valley, the favorite setting of director John Ford. Monument Valley becomes an emblematic character, used by Ford to depict the U.S. West as unforgiving, even as this director defined the men who dared defy that land as unyielding in the face of that unforgiveness.
The Western landscape of Anthony Mann was still largely unpopulated in 1952 when The Naked Spur was filmed in Technicolor. It was vast, a land open and wide with boundless beauty and sounds. The sound effects in particular, missing to a great extent from Monument Valley, reverberate throughout the open-air theatre of the expansive land of this era. Here was the American West that too quickly became history.
Anthony Mann focused upon that grand, heroic, cavernous landscape of the West, carving a niche in cinematic art that remains unparalleled. He too used the setting of the American West as a character, but in ways that were as subtle as they were dramatically symbolic.
The land itself becomes a force in itself, the character that threatens these characters even more than they threaten themselves and each other. Cagily menacing and caustically imperiling, the land and the characters play their parts, united, divided, and in myriad positions ranging between integrity and perfidy.
The outdoor film locations provided director Mann with untamed forests, one heck of a rushing river, majestic mountains, and stark boulders and canyons. The breathtaking beauty and drama were captured by veteran cinematographer William C. Mellor. This director of photography was a technical artist who excelled at outdoor and location photography. These filming locations attest to his extra-ordinary talents:
The Rocky Mountains; the vicinity near Durango, Colorado, featuring an immense rock outcropping of a tributary of the San Juan River; the San Juan Mountains; and, on the western edge of the Great Basin, on the back side of the Sierra Nevada, Lone Pine, California.
The town of Lone Pine, in Inyo County, is situated at an elevation of 3727 feet. Extreme temperatures range from a high desert climate of hot summers to frigidly cold winters. Those physical extremes added to the sense of havoc wreaked in The Naked Spur.
The actors had to contend with all of this natural grandeur as if it were a rival for the story they had to enact, against backdrops that easily could have stolen the show. The landforms are always there, ready to pounce upon the actors and intrude upon their superlative thespian story-telling. The acting and the story must therefore be compelling to even begin to compete with such magnificent settings on such an enormous stage. And the acting and the story are riveting; indeed, they are!
The Naked Spur is a sparse film in terms of the number of actors: Only 5 major actors appear in this movie that runs the length of 91 minutes. James Stewart is joined by Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Millard Mitchell, and Ralph Meeker.
Each performer is almost palpably suited to the role, as if the part were made for him or for her. I won’t give away any plot details or story lines, other than to state:
Stewart plays a very reluctant hero as a rancher out for revenge. He’s a tightly compressed mix of bitter and sweet and bittersweet. Janet Leigh presents a lovely, quite touchingly complex heroine. She’s just past the ingenue phase of her career here and she’s breathtakingly real. Ryan and Meeker compete for ultimate stinkers. Millard Mitchell died shortly after the production of this film; he puts in a performance that is heartfelt and extremely memorable.
The screenplay of The Naked Spur was written by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom (both of whom later worked on “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”). In a rare tribute for a Western, this film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The dialogue is compressed, spoken with the high-stakes tension that runs throughout the entire film. The only exceptions are the tender momentous scenes between Stewart, as Howard Kemp; and Leigh, as Lina Patch. The instrumental version of “Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster plays in the background like a wandering angel, whispering to each character to remember that the meek shall inherit the earth.
I consider The Naked Spur to be one of the best Westerns ever made by Hollywood, and that list is very long. The film has every element a good Western should embody: good vs. evil; love vs. fear; conscience vs. greed; courage vs. cowardice; one set of principles vs. competing beliefs; the individual vs. the group.
The viewer can’t be sure until the end of this movie just how the moral compass will turn: north toward triumph with virtue, or south toward the snare of revenge. You’ll sit on the edge of your seat, or at least get a lump in the throat, and maybe even a few tears in your eyes. The Naked Spur is a two-fisted event, with one hand on the remote control, the other on a glass of iced lemonade.
Keep a hankie handy nearby, just in case the spigot gets turned on for those sentimental waterworks.