January 13, 2015

The Naked Spur (1953)
Grade: 60/100

Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan

What it's about. James Stewart is a bounty hunter tracking cunning murderer Robert Ryan in Indian territory after the Civil War. With the help of two newfound and unwanted partners, failed miner Millard Mitchell and dishonorable discharged soldier Ralph Meeker, he manages to corner and bind Ryan. But he has a surprise confederate: Janet Leigh, who is neither his mistress nor a relative. She's not his prisoner, and not his henchman, either. Actually, I'm still not sure exactly what she is to Ryan, except that she is there with him, and remains that way for the rest of the movie, even though she is cross with him most of the time.

But she is young and attractive, and soon playboy Meeker is flirting with her. But it is Stewart she falls for. Or is she just pretending, for the sake of saving pirate Ryan, who is being directed against his will toward a hanging in Kansas.

How others will see it. The Naked Spur is a respected entry in the Stewart filmography. It received only a single Oscar nomination, for its screenplay. The Golden Globes ignored it entirely. It provides a typical Stewart western role from the 1950s. Ryan's duplicitous character is reminiscent of his despicable bad guy in Crossfire. Leigh benefits the most, since her tomboy character is more than merely a love interest for the leads.

At imdb.com, the user votes are respectable but less than sensational. They fall in a narrow demographic range of 7.1 to 7.5. The vote total of 6734 shows a continued interest in the movie, perhaps the reason why it was added to the National Film Registry in 1997, a few months after James Stewart's death. Two other Stewart films, Rear Window and How the West Was Won, were also added that year.

How I felt about it. There are two major problems with the story. The most obvious is the miraculous healing of Jimmy Stewart's leg. One night, he is delusional with fever and is barely able to drag his leg about the next day. Then, miraculously, he is cured, and can crawl across is a cave and outwrestle a younger and bigger man. He can climb a cliff and pull a corpse out of a river.

The less obvious, but still significant plot hole, is Janet Leigh's character. Stewart and his two unwanted partners would regard her as an accomplice, one of Ryan's gang, particularly after she attacked Meeker upon first sight. She would be tied up like Ryan, and not trusted. Such an unpredictable woman would not be regarded as wife material by Stewart, who has recently been double-crossed by a wife, and is obsessed with using the bounty to recover his farm.

Yet another problem is Mitchell falling for Ryan's obvious tall tale about a nearby bountiful gold mine. Anyone can see that Ryan simply plans to be alone with Mitchell at length, then jump the old fool when he is asleep or distracted.

Still another plot hole is Stewart's initial plan to return Ryan to Kansas for his appointment with the hangman. He would have to hogtie Ryan every night, untie his feet every morning. For meals, he would have to bound Ryan's feet, then untie his hands. Stewart would have to sleep with his rifle under his body at all times, then hope that the burly Ryan doesn't manage to knee his throat during the night.

Then there's the Indians that show up only long enough to get massacred, and the log that shows up out of nowhere to take out Meeker. We wonder why Meeker would carry his dishonorable discharge papers instead of burning them. He is also unlikely to wander upon Stewart and Mitchell during their one hour siege of Ryan. Here is a movie that is long on plot but short on credible story. But at least it is well acted, and presents a picturesque countryside.

James Stewart became one of the most successful actors during the late 1930s, and retained his status as a major moviestar throughout the 1950s. As he aged out of romantic roles, he sought a tougher image. The western genre, and director Anthony Mann in particular, were key to expanding his screen persona.

Their collaboration covered eight films between 1950 and 1955. Their first pairing, Winchester '73 (1950) was a classic, but it proved to be their best effort. Bend of the River (1952) followed in the same vein, but was good instead of great. The Naked Spur continued the gradual downward ascent, which five films later wrapped up with the curious Man from Laramie (1955).