#254. The Naked Spur (1953)

I can’t pin down where I’ve heard this, or what exactly’s been said about it, but I’ve gotten the vibe that, among Western aficionados, Jimmy Stewart rodeos are held in almost as high an estimation as those of John Wayne, and that their personas within the genre might actually exist a bit like Chaplin vs. Keaton: Wayne is the irrefutable king of his form, like Chaplin was the king of his; so much so that they each became the face of it (Wayne of the western and Chaplin of…cinema overall, technically, but now mostly of silent-era comedy). Keaton, contrasted against Chaplin, was more concerned simply in doing his very best, making demands of himself and fulfilling them. He wasn’t tryna move the world to tears like Chaplin was.

            When John Wayne, at his peak, struts around in a western you get a vibe like he’s carrying on his shoulders the weight of the genre, maybe of cinema itself, and Chaplin gives off the same vibe. With Keaton, on the other hand, there’s no feeling of pretense. Just a commitment to the task at hand. He isn’t trying to be an icon, he’s just trying to make a good movie.

            And there’s something similar here with Stewart. He’s committed to the role in earnest. He’s also clearly a natural fit for the genre. But he’s not tryna be the genre.

            The only other Jimmy Stewart Western on the List up to now has been Winchester 73, which apart from being a solid picture is now one of the movies I obsess over when thinking critically about narrative structure, and I think the highest praise I can pin to his shirt, insofar as The Naked Spur exists in relation to that last film, is that Stewart manages to make his characters very different even though they’re literally doing the same thing: chasing a man down over lots of difficult terrain with the intention of apprehending him.

            In Winchester 73 he’s chasing a dude (who turns out to be his brother) after that dude steals a rare rifle that Stewart’s character, Lin, wins in a contest. Here, at the start of Naked Spur, Stewart’s character, a dude named Howard Kemp, is pretending to be a lawman while chasing a fugitive whose villainy is communicated, if not by reputation, then by name: Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan).

            He picks up a coupla helping hands along the way and when they finally apprehend Vandergroat it comes to light that Stewart’s no lawman at all. He’s just some dude tryna collect on a $5,000 bounty for Vandergroat’s head. Now the two dudes he’s come along with want equal shares of the bounty. The movie reflects its era when Vandergroat starts manipulating everybody with little private chats in which he rouses their sense of worry, compels them to turn on one another.

We also know he’s a villain cuz he looks a little dirtier than the rest.

            Stewart, though: his performance as Lin in Winchester 73 suggests an earnest and virtuous dude who’s fine to get grifty and violent but whose compass points him toward doing the right thing. Here, as Howard Kemp, he’s got that north star of virtue but it seems suppressed, and the man seems hardened.

            Both movies are directed by Anthony Mann and it looks, from what I’m seeing online, like their collaboration, across several pictures, is celebrated along the lines of Wayne’s relationship with director John Ford. And it’s a solid picture. Maybe better than Winchester in the way that it feels so claustrophobic, and how the story’s structured in such a way that we’ve got all these shifting alliances. Sounds counter intuitive but I think it’s harder to tell an interesting story like this one, with just a cast of five people (including a super-young Janet Leigh, who looks almost unrecognizable compared to the chisel-cheeked Mary Crane of Psycho a few years hence) than it is to tell a huge story like Winchester, with something like a dozen main characters and vastly different settings and several intersecting storylines.

            It raises the issue of a filmmaker (or any kind of artist) stepping their game up and pursuing projects that are somehow fundamentally different from stuff they’ve done in the past—which, when you’re operating in the same genre, can be tough to figure out–while still flaunting your personal touch. Tarantino comes to mind: he was so proud of the basement scene he’d shot for Inglourious Basterds, where a card game suspends a line of tension that pulls tighter and tighter over the course of twenty minutes before exploding in violence. Then he tried to stretch that kinda tension out to feature length, two movies later, with The Hateful Eight—and I think he failed. Not miserably; it’s still a good movie with lots of Tarantino’s trademark strengths. But I think its fundamental handicap is that it was born from its creator’s interest in challenging himself. The impression I get is that Tarantino wanted to do a kind of parlor mystery, do something interesting with a bunch of characters locked in a room, and he also wanted to one-up what he’d achieved with that basement scene in Basterds.

And I’m glad he did it, even though the movie doesn’t really work for me. It’s an interesting chapter in Tarantino’s development. (It’ll be interesting to look back at it from the vantage of his new movie when it comes out at the end of the month. See if he learned something.)

            I’m not sure if Mann said to himself that here, with Naked Spur, he wanted to do the kinda story where a small cast of characters are constantly shifting alliances and growing suspicious of one another, but it’d make sense if, coming off the success of Winchester 73 (which earned three times its budget at the box office) he decided to do something a little riskier. Something that flirts with tedium. Because there were so many characters in Winchester that, though some of them are memorable and striking, the movie is floated by the busyness of its plot(s). The characters don’t need to be particularly rich in order to hold the audience’s attention.

He doesn’t exactly have a macho look, but he plays his part like a persuasively formidable dude.

Here, with a much smaller cast and a much less galvanizing setting, he’s gotta bring the characters to life in a way he didn’t have to last time out.

            And he pulls it off!

            I’m not in love with Naked Spir, and I thought that the ostensible epiphany our hero has at the end of the movie was gallingly stupid (even though Stewart himself plays the scene brilliantly), but it’s a good enough time. I suspect I’ll explore Anthony Mann’s filmography in depth at some point, alongside of or after the Project, and I think this’ll warrant a second viewing within the context of his artistic development.

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