Friday, September 3, 2010

The Naked Spur

The Naked Spur, 1953
Dir: Anthony Mann

Another great Western from Anthony Mann. And under Mann’s control, Jimmy Stewart delivers another one of his better performances. His blunt, unsympathetic turn as Howie Kemp really helps makes this a winner. He dramatizes the internal duality of thee character in every aspect of his performance; his guilt, indecision, and ethical introspection are practically tangible. It also probably helps that, like many of Mann’s heroes, Stewart doesn’t really have much to say. This bodes well for the film for two reasons, one because the audience doesn’t have to deal with Stewart’s far too familiar voice that often and two, it reinforces the “contemplative” nature of Mann’s cinema as well as the notion that he is pretty much the best genre film director ever.

Bounty hunter Howard Kemp (Stewart) captures long time rival and outlaw, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) and plans to turn him in for the $5,000 reward. However, he needed the help of shady ex-cavalryman Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and hard-on-his-luck old prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) to do so. The men reluctantly decide that they must split the money three ways. Greed begins to get the best of everyone and to make things worse as Ben sows seeds of discord, making the trip is take much longer than expected. In addition, Howard begins to fall for Ben’s "girlfriend," Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), which only deepens the complications of the scenario.

This is far less subtle than Winchester '73 (1950), and it probably has to do with the fact that we are with the same characters the whole time instead of following around an inanimate object (a gun). The back story of Howard Kemp and his wife’s betrayal is a nice touch, but Mann’s hints at it are pretty obvious. There’s one particularly embarrassing sequence in which a dazed Kemp starts speaking to Lina as though she was his ex-fiancé. I would have greatly preferred for such exposition to end at the little mention that Robert Ryan makes at the very beginning. Other than that, though, this is standard Mann, which is to say it is pretty much amazing. The addition of technicolor provides for some of the most lush visuals moments in the history of Hollywood filmmaking (I mean, seriously, look at these snapshots). Then again, I expect nothing less from Mann.

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