NEVER LIKED WESTERNS. It's only in recent years that I've changed my tune about them and have caught up with quite a few excellent ones. A large enough number, in fact, to make me something of a fan. Some I have a particular fondness for are those strange westerns directed by Anthony Mann and starring Jimmy Stewart. Now believe it or don't but Stewart worked with Mann more than any other director and half of those movies were westerns. The latest one to scrape across my corneas was THE NAKED SPUR and it's one of the best. Mann has his own little niche in the genre and his westerns don't feel like anybody elses. I had previously known the director for his two films noir: the excellent T-MEN and the even better RAW DEAL. And he brings something of this film noir attitude to these westerns, too.
The supposed hero of this film (as well as THE FAR COUNTRY and BEND OF THE RIVER) is expected to be Jimmy Stewart, of course. However, he is never really the true blue cowboy but instead is depicted usually as having a rather shady past and some serious character flaws. In all these films, the good guys aren't totally good and the bad guys aren't totally bad. You never really know from one scene to the next where you stand with many of the characters. In BEND OF THE RIVER, Jimmy Stewart's old friend Arthur Kennedy turns on him while shady gambler Rock Hudson eventually proves a reliable ally. And lovely leading lady Julie Adams appears set up for a romance with Jimmy Stewart but, after taking an arrow in the shoulder and convalescing away from him for a month, she is engaged to marry Arthur Kennedy. (SIDEBAR: It is interesting to note that the two actresses in BEND OF THE RIVER, Julie Adams and Lori Nelson, were the leading ladies in two separate CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON movies).
In THE NAKED SPUR, too, Jimmy Stewart is a rather dark and bitter character who also proves to be quite often ineffectual. Stewart went off to the Civil War and turned the deed to his property over to his fiancee so she could legally tend to it while he was away. When Stewart returns after the war, he finds his fiancee has sold his property and run off with another man. Now, in order to get money to buy back his land, Stewart has turned bounty hunter and is trailing outlaw Robert Ryan across Colorado. Before too many sprockets have spun through the gate after the opening credits, Stewart comes across a grizzled old prospector (played by an actor previously unknown to me -- Millard Mitchell -- in a role tailor made seemingly for Edmund O'Brien) and gives him $20 to help him corral the outlaw. Before too much longer, a wandering, dishonourably discharged soldier (played by Ralph Meeker who will always be known to me as the robotically violent Mike Hammer in KISS ME DEADLY) comes by and, presumably out of boredom, aids Stewart as well. Tagging along with Robert Ryan is not-quite-girlfriend Janet Leigh. Ryan is captured and it is revealed that Stewart has been keeping the fact of a $5000 reward from his partners. The five suspicious and rather venal characters then begin a long, tense trek across the wilderness to bring Ryan in for the reward. . .all the while giving Ryan an opportunity to foment discord amongst them all. Quite a bit of distrust bubbles up between Stewart and his circumstantial partners Mitchell and Meeker -- and Leigh swings back and forth between loyalty to Ryan (a friend of her father's) and her growing attraction to Stewart. All the while, a giggling Ryan plants seeds of doubt and suspicion into all of their brains one by one. Oh, and in case you're wondering there IS a noteworthy scene involving a spur. In typical Anthony Mann "sudden violence" style, someone takes a spur to the neck. Ouch!
As in all these Anthony Mann/James Stewart westerns, the technicolor photography just pops and the real locations (here featuring the Rocky Mountains) are beautiful. The cast, as you can see, is really superb. A bright blue sky hangs over all these Anthony Mann westerns; perhaps in sharp contrast to the muddy personalities of his characters. The action too is unlike most run-of-the-mill westerns in that Mann focuses on character conflict rather than endless shootem-ups. There are fist fights and gunplay in THE NAKED SPUR but they arise naturally from the situation. And the ending of the film reveals quite an ugly side to James Stewart's character. Well, having seen these three Mann westerns (as well as the non-Stewart Mann directed THE TIN STAR with Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins), I'm quite eager to get a look at THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, WINCHESTER '73, (both also starring Stewart) as well as the intriguing-looking THE FURIES with Barbara Stanwyck and MAN OF THE WEST with Gary Cooper.