James Stewart carries over his persona from Bend of the River (1952) to continually redefine his career in the post-war years. He is a man under a different name who nevertheless is seething with the same raw fury.
In this regard, there are numerous parallel themes in this subsequent collaboration between Stewart and director Anthony Mann culling the recesses of one man’s mind to showcase his unswerving resentment. There’s not an ounce of amiability in the performance which is almost unheard of.
It winds up being a bit of an open-air paradox with gorgeous Colorado visuals which are nevertheless infused with the tension of a near suffocating chamber piece. Because it proves that such an incongruity is possible. Freedom of movement does not necessarily prohibit continually duress of another nature.
The cast is compact but a mighty group of talent with five individuals that you cannot help but remember. Stewart is the leader in all regards as Howard Kemp who has been tracking Ben Vandergroat for some time now since the other man murdered a Marshall in Kansas.
Millard Mitchell is the crusty prospector, the first man that Kemp runs into, and they form an uneasy partnership with Jesse Tate believing the other man to be a Marshall. It’s true that Kemp is always barking orders at everyone. It continues when a Union soldier helps them scale a rock face and close in on Kemp’s target.
Ralph Meeker always gives the impression that he’s ogling and that distinctive voice that would serve him well as Mike Hammer instantly labels him as a tough customer. His tattered military record suggests something else. He’s not exactly to be trusted as a soldier recently discharged for being “morally unstable,” whatever that means.
Janet Leigh despite her undeniable beauty does well to drop her ingenue image and play a tougher, earthier role as the doting girlfriend of the wanted Marshall-killer. But in her you see much the same conflict as all the other characters. Something is driving them to continue down the road they are traveling. It’s simply a matter of deciphering just what it is.
Arguably most important of all is chortling Robert Ryan as Vandergroat egging Stewart on with continuous catcalls of “Howie” as he commences the mind games that comprise most of the meat of the story. He dispels any misconceptions the other two might have about Kemp. He’s no Marshall and he’s hardly doing this out of the kindness of his heart. There’s a $5,000 reward for the wanted man.
Whether he read his Bible or not, Ben knows enough about human nature and the reality that a house divided against itself cannot stand and he’s looking for any way to pit his captors against each other. Chatting them up constantly and using his girl to try and soften up the other two while scheming here and dropping little remarks there to wheedle under Howard’s skin.
It’s a long stretch of country ahead. Final destination: Abilene, Kansas. He knows as well as they do that a lot can happen in that length of territory. He’s aiming to get himself out from under a hanging tree and so he’s mighty keen to chip away at them as much as possible.
Though he’s very much an instigator, there’s little question that Vandergroat gets some unsolicited help. Anderson’s shady past with a Native American princess means he’s soon caught up in a skirmish with a pack of warriors bent on some form of justice. While initially keeping their noses clean of the whole squabble, there’s finally no recourse but for Kemp and the prospector to get involved. Howard winds up with lead lodged in his leg and he’s hobbling feebly for the rest of the trip.
One must note that the American Indians are utilized solely for their agency to the story. They are not human as our leads are human and that is a shame. Because aside from that major oversight, The Naked Spur is a splendid Western that takes a scenario deeply-rooted in the tradition and yet uses it to more closely still examine the human psyche. Most specifically we see in each character the things that drive them and how men can so easily be weaponized against one another.
Tate immediately gets a renewed hankering for gold when Vandergroat lets him in on a little secret. He happens to be sitting on a gold mine. But only he knows where it is. Then of course, the soldier has a thing for the ladies and is looking to earn some money as much as the next fellow. For Howard, it’s his unbending sense of revenge that he must complete at all costs.
He’s practically dying, plagued by cold sweats and hallucinations but there’s a doggedly resilient quality about him. Proposing cave shoot-outs and fording rivers relentlessly. In a textbook Mann shot of brutality, his anti-hero is getting choked to death rolling around in the dirt only to live to fight another day. That is the ongoing motif that Stewart never allows us to forget for a minute up until the film’s pinnacle.
While not as heralded as a Ford and Wayne type partnership one could argue that Stewart and Mann was a no less important or formative collaboration. The Naked Spur and a slew of other pictures stand as cogent proof.