Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Naked Spur

James Stewart’s most well-known screen persona is of the decent, soft-spoken everyman, as personified by roles like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s only part of the Stewart legacy, however. In the fifties, he collaborated with director Anthony Mann on a series of hard-edged Westerns that changed the genre forever. Stewart’s characters in Mann westerns like Winchester 73 and The Man from Laramie were obsessive, revenge driven men with all the warmth of a fistful of ball bearings. Mann had done a lot of Film Noir in the forties, and he brought a lot of Noir’s morally ambiguous sensibility to the Western. As a result, Mann’s westerns are the jumping off point for stuff like John Ford’s The Searchers, and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood.

1953’s The Naked Spur is one of the greatest of the Mann-Stewart westerns, and it follows the formula mentioned above. Howard Kemp (Stewart) is on the trail of a killer and when we first meet him, he approaches an elderly prospector (Millard Mitchell) with gun drawn. His first instinct is that this man is not to be trusted, and even after he’s convinced that the guy is OK, he doesn’t let down his guard one iota. He enlists the prospector to help him track the guy, and they meet another stranger on the trail, a Cavalry officer named Roy (Ralph Meeker). The Roy character is interesting. He’s been dishonorably discharged from the army, and gives off a strong vibe that he shouldn’t be trusted.

The three soon encounter and capture the killer (Robert Ryan) and his girlfriend Lina (Janet Leigh), and the film settles down into its groove. Westerns always gave us a black and white world. Heroes were valiant and true, and villains were black-heated scoundrels. This movie mocks those conventions. Kemp is the ostensible hero, but he is cold and blunt. Ryan is the villain, but he’s jovial. Both the prospector and the Cavalryman have called Kemp “Marshal” early in the film, and when one of them does it again in front of Ryan he says “Did he tell you he was a lawman?” Kemp is simply a bounty hunter, and his not fessing up casts a shadow on his character. Early in the film, Kemp has shown the prospector the wanted poster of the man he is tracking. When Ryan is captured, he shows the same poster to the group, and we notice that there is a sizable reward. Kemp had torn that part off his copy. Again, seeds of mistrust creep in about him.

Ryan’s Ben has murdered a lawman – shot him in the back, but from the beginning, it’s hard to reconcile that act with the man himself. He professes his innocence, and is friendly and engaging, so it’s easy to begin to like him somewhat. Lina is also is still devoted to him, and she doesn’t come across as a naïve moll. Is it possible that Kemp is hounding an innocent man for reward money?

A small window into Kemp’s anger is opened one night as he sleeps. He talks in his sleep about “Mary”, and it is revealed that she was a woman that he was going to marry, but she sold his farm out from under him while he was away in the war. He wants the reward in order to buy back his land.

Ben quietly sets to work undermining the trust amongst the others. He slyly suggests that “The reward splits better 2 ways.’ He’s not coming right out and saying that they should murder one another, but there’s no mistaking his intent either. Meeker’s Roy has already been established as a shady womanizer, and the thought of getting all of the reward seems to take a tenuous hold on him. To top it off, he also wants Lina. There’s a marvelous scene in a cave where all the mistrust bubbles to the surface, and the prospector exclaims “I don’t know who I should be pointing the gun at!!!”

The prospector seems at first to be the only wholly good character, but that turns out not to be the case, either. He has mined for gold all around the area, finding nothing. Ben keeps mentioning a friend who struck it rich in these parts, and the prospector finally arrives at the conclusion that Ben himself is the friend. He gets a proposal – Ben’s freedom in exchange for the claim. Had he looked at things with a clear mind, he might have realized he was being duped, but the lure of the gold overcomes him, and he makes a fatal error.

If I have a quibble with this film, it’s over the Janet Leigh character. She is supposed to be Ben’s woman, but we really don’t believe that they belong together. Her role falls into the Hollywood tradition of only being there for the hero to fall in love with. Were they to ever remake this film (and I think it would be a great remake), her character could easily be written out.

The other film I thought about while watching TNS was John Huston’s great Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Both films are meditations on the destructive consequences of unbridled greed. The Huston film takes a harder line on it, as Fred C Dobbs’ avarice leads to his destruction. Stewarts’ Kemp goes right to the precipice, and then thinks better of it. He can have his reward, but it would come at the cost of his soul.

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