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cinemaspeak59

The Naked Spur (1953)

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Watching The Naked Spur (1953), set in 1869, I kept wondering why Robert Ryan’s character Ben Vandergroat was grinning so effusively after being captured by James Stewart’s bounty hunter Howard (Howie) Kemp.  I found it strange.  Another character fond of showing his pearly whites was Roy Anderson, a cavalry officer, played by a mustachioed Ralph Meeker, who two years later would play Mike Hammer in the great noir Kiss Me Deadly.

 

As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Ben and Roy are borderline sociopaths. Ben is wanted for murdering a marshall, and Roy ambushes peaceful Indians to cover up past transgressions.  The scene of the Native American massacre, today, is exponentially more horrifying.  But Howie is no epitome of virtue:  Emotionally damaged, and betrayed by his wife while fighting in the Civil War, Stewart’s Howie is hardened and ruthless and concerned only with returning Ben to the authorities so as to collect the $5,000 reward.  What drove Howie to his state is revealed in a fever-fueled delirium, with Howie drenched in sweat thinking he’s back home with his wife.  

 

In with this group is Jesse, a sad old prospector looking for one last score: gold.  He’ll follow any lead, trust any crook, as long as they bring the prized fortune he’s been exhausting most of his life seeking.   Jesse is played by Millard Mitchell, who gives a touching performance, much like his work in Winchester ’73 (1950).   Janet Leigh plays Lina, Ben’s girlfriend; the only person not blinded single-minded greed.   All five of them set off on a long journey from Colorado to return Ben to Kansas and hand him over to the authorities. 

 

The introductory titles are a bold red-orange, set against the Rocky Mountains.  The green pine trees surrounded by white mountain peaks under a blue sky make for gorgeous scenery, clean and pure.  This setting is the opposite of the men on screen.  In the end, Lina and Howie are the only two left standing.  After fighting to preserve the Union, and fighting to save his marriage, Howie finally gets his reward - and it’s not the $5,000. It is Lina.

 

I’m glad TCM has showcased Anthony Mann westerns.  Host Tiffany Vazquez provided insightful introductions.  It seems westerns can have a sub-genre in Anthony Mann-directed westerns: They are among the finest, and are so much more than just good vs. bad. 

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I enjoyed reading your take on NAKED SPUR very much.  I think Ben grins so much because he is playing everybody and he enjoys it so he just can't help himself.  Anthony Mann westerns are among the best of the genre.

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