The Naked Spur (1953)


(director: Anthony Mann; screenwriters: Sam Rolfe/Harold Jack Bloom; cinematographer: William Mellor; editor: George White; music: Bronislau Kaper; cast: James Stewart (Howard Kemp), Janet Leigh (Lina Patch), Robert Ryan (Ben Vandergroat), Ralph Meeker (Roy Anderson), Millard Mitchell (Jesse Tate); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William H. Wright; MGM; 1953)

Wonderfully intense psychological Western built around a simple story of greed and the chance to start life over again after failure.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Anthony Mann (“The Man From Laramie”/”Man of the West “) directs this wonderfully intense psychological Western built around a simple story of greed and the chance to start life over again after failure. The taut complex psychologically driven story is penned by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom. It stars James Stewart (the third of five Western collaborations between actor and director) as bounty hunter Howard Kemp from Abilene, Kansas, who ventures to the Colorado Rockies (filmed on location) to bring back either dead or alive lawman killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) for the $5,000 reward.

A sullen and self-absorbed Howard Kemp comes upon scruffy, friendly, luckless, old-time prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and pays him $20 bucks to locate where he saw a campfire, while leading him to believe he’s a sheriff. Kemp then meets on the trail dishonorably discharged cavalry lieutenant Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), a happy-go-lucky type who insists on trailing along for the sport of it. Ben is spotted on a mountain top but causes a rock slide so Kemp can’t get to him. But Roy is able to use his rope to scale the back side of the mountain and get the jump on the outlaw. Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) is with Ben, she’s a hometown gal whose deceased dad was Ben’s best friend and the feisty gal has joined him so that he can safely take her to California to start over again her unhappy life. Unable to bring the wanted man in alone without the help of the others, Kemp accepts their help and after his prey is captured plans on bringing him back alone. But when Ben informs them he’s no sheriff but a bounty hunter, the others insists he’s to split the reward with them. This doesn’t sit right with the brooding man, who needs the entire reward to piece his life back together after his faithless wife sold his ranch when he went off to fight in the Civil War. Kemp has spoken with the current owners and they’re willing to sell the ranch back to him for the reward money.

On the ride back Kemp and his oddball partners, who refuse to leave, are manipulated by the cunning Ben into being played off against one another. Mann expertly plays the beautiful landscape against the flawed nature of the men as slowly each of their dark sides is revealed, and the trek home through the wilderness is fraught with many dangers that include the jolly Ben slyly getting his warped captors to try and kill each other off for the whole reward, a party of Blackfeet Indians brutally ambushed after chasing Roy for his womanizing with a squaw, the wily prospector turning swinish and being tricked into letting the charming Ben escape so he can lead him to a gold mine, and the lonesome Kemp falling in love with the equally lonesome Lina and having to choose between money and love after the brutal concluding events leave him wondering if he has completely lost his sense of humanity and values.