Bucket List Movie #470: The Naked Spur
One of my pet peeves in fiction is when all the characters must be morons just so one character be smart. Cloris Leachman once complained this was the problem with the Lassie TV series, that in order for Lassie to outsmart the humans, the humans had to be dumber than a box of nails.
One thing I can glowingly say about today's BLM, 1953's The Naked Spur, is that it doesn't have that problem. Our antagonist, sociopathic outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) is able to think one step ahead of his captors and turn their weaknesses against them, but it never feels like he's too clever by half, or that his captors or too dumb to hold their own. They are all of reasonably average intelligence, but they are afflicted by the same problematic flaws that are all too prevalent in human nature: excessive ambition, greed, mistrust, and fear.
The Naked Spur was directed by Anthony Mann, who made a name for himself directing "psychological westerns". They weren't your standard, "shoot the Injuns, get the girl" westerns, but rather sly tweakings of the familiar cowboy image and virtues, making audiences question tropes they'd become all too comfortable with. This was one of many, many, many films he directed starring James Stewart, and Mann effortlessly coaxes out Stewart's dark side better than any other director (save for Alfred Hitchcock).
The Naked Spur opens with bounty hunter Howard Kemp (Stewart), hot on the trail of Vandergroat, who is wanted for murder and has a delectable $5,000 reward on his head. Along the way, Kemp meets Grizzled Old Prospector (don't you just love that trope name?) Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), and disgraced cavalry officer Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), who assist him in locating Vandergroat. They eventually track him down, tying him up and taking him prisoner. Vandergroat isn't alone; aiding him in his journey is troubled Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), who grudgingly goes along with his captors. It doesn't take Vandergroat very long to peg his captors and what they want: Howard wants the reward money to buy his own ranch after his fiancée sold his while he was at war. Jesse has been looking for gold for years and hasn't come close, and he's chomping at the bit to get his hands on some. Roy is a scummy womanizer, since he was discharged for having a fling with an Indian woman, and now he has his sights set on Lina. All the men want a piece of the reward, and none of them fully trust the other. Vandergroat sneakily provokes each man with insinuations and hollow promises, turning them against each other, and hoping to make his escape. What he doesn't count on is Lina falling for Howard and fixing her own moral compass. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, but not in the ways you'd expect.
Amidst the lovely Technicolor and subtle music score by the great Bronislau Kaper (though I wasn't crazy about "Beautiful Dreamer" being Lina's theme), The Naked Spur bears strong similarities to Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which touched upon themes of greed and broken trust. My theory is that while the conventional western is designed to make you yell "hell, yeah!" whenever John Wayne takes down a bad guy, psychological westerns make you think and question who is truly worth rooting for. All the men are complicated in their dreams and goals, and each compromise their morals to some degree to get what they want. Vandergroat is a clear-cut villain, but no one, not even Howard, is a flawless good guy.
The Naked Spur did make me question my own moral viewpoints, especially at the end. I won't spoil it for you, but I would have done things differently than Howard did. I guess I've just gotten more pragmatic as I've gotten older, but this brings me to one of the strangest prejudices ever, one The Naked Spur touches upon (but doesn't go into great detail): the irrational disdain society has against bounty hunters. I've heard the criticisms, such as "they're only out for the money!" And? Seeking profit doesn't automatically make you corrupt (I desperately wish people would let go of this naïve philosophy). "While they're seeking one criminal, dozens of others are still committing crimes!" So? Bounty hunters aren't law officials, that's not their job, that's what we have the police for. Whenever a fugitive is brought to justice, I'm not going to waste time questioning on the intentions of the person who brought them in, I'm just going to be happy they were caught. I think being rewarded for catching a criminal when you didn't have to is fine and dandy. The thought doesn't always count, in my opinion.
My other two complaints are the romance between Howard and Lina, and Lina herself. This is credited as the part that helped Leigh break out of her dainty ingenue roles. All well and good, but Lina, who starts out promisingly as a spitfire with a heart of gold, eventually becomes just the token chick who seems to be in every western. True, she does play a very important part in the climax, but even that pales in comparison to what everyone else is doing. Why are there so few memorable heroines in old westerns? The women in High Noon, Maddie in True Grit, and Julie in The Big Country are only a precious few I can come up with (but maybe I've just seen too few westerns, something I plan on rectifying).
And the romance feels hopelessly tacked-on. Stewart and Leigh really don't have that much chemistry, and the reasons they're drawn together feel contrived. Howard was hurt by his fiancée, Lina's kind-of boyfriend is a cagey outlaw, so everything about their relationship screams "settling for the rebound and lesser of evils".
At least The Naked Spur is pretty to look at, and smarter than your average cowboy flick. There are some potentially cringe-inducing Indians, but they are gone as soon as they appear and won't leave much of an impression. Stewart is excellent as Howard, a role that Bogart could have played at one time. I honestly think Stewart was at his best in his less likable parts (is it bad that I prefer his Hitchcock films to the Capra ones?), and the supporting cast is solid. I usually don't care for Ryan, who had one of those punchable faces and a screen presence less interesting than his name, but he sinks his teeth into the part of Vandergroat and is actually memorable for once.
Whether you're a diehard western fan or want a different kind of western, The Naked Spur deserves a look.