Blu-ray Review: The Naked Spur | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, December 7th, 2021  

The Naked Spur

Studio: Warner Archive

Oct 22, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The third of five westerns they’d make together in the 1950s - and the third of eight collaborations overall - The Naked Spur starring Jimmy Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann is possibly the best of their films together, which is saying something. Most of the westerns they made together - including Bend of the River, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie - cast Stewart as a man with a dubious past who finds redemption by helping those less fortunate than himself. The Naked Spur is something of a different beast; a stripped down survivalist drama with only five major speaking parts and a performance from Stewart that might rank as the meanest of his career.

Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a bounty hunter tracking outlaw Ben Vandergroat through the Colorado Rockies in 1868. He along the way he forms an uneasy alliance with Jesse Tate, an ornery old prospector, and Roy Anderson, a dishonorably discharged cavalry officer. Once the uneasy trio catch up with Vandergroat and his girlfriend Lina, the five of them must rely on each other to make it back to civilization through miles of wilderness and Blackfoot war parties.

It’s easy to see the influence of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on The Naked Spur. Released five years earlier to box office success and critical acclaim, Sierra Madre set a clear template for the psychological-thriller-as-Western, with a trio of carefully calibrated performances and a fixation on selfishness and greed. The Naked Spur takes some clear cues from it - both broadly in its overall premise and more specifically in the form of Millard Mitchell channeling Walter Huston’s Oscar-winning performance as a kooky prospector - but grafts it to a more traditional 1950s western structure. Like most of the other Mann/Stewart westerns, the film is shot in bright Technicolor and utilizes the majestic landscape of the American west, specifically the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado.

Less traditional is Stewart’s performance. His westerns with Mann generally cast him as a harder man than he traditionally played, a departure from his more famously folksy roles in the films of Frank Capra. But the character of Howard Kemp takes it a step further, with Stewart embodying a bitter, single-minded loner who sees hunting and killing other men as a means to an end. In retrospect, it plays as a preview of the darkness he’d explore five years later in his final Hitchcock film, Vertigo. Mann smartly balances Stewart’s bitterness with a villain who’s a bit more fun. Robert Ryan found a niche in Hollywood from the 40s through the 60s playing violent, intense bigots, something that bothered the openly liberal Ryan in real life. Vandergroat is a bit of a twist on his typical villain roles, a jocular sociopath who spends most of the film laughing at his own jokes.

The Warner Archives release of The Naked Spur makes an attempt to resurrect the terrific “Warner Night at the Movies” special feature that defined their DVD releases in the 2000s. Each film would include a newsreel, a trailer, a live action short and a cartoon from the year the movie was released, all of which could be watched in sequence before the feature, recreating the experience movie-goers would have had seeing these film in theaters upon initial release. Featured here are two shorts from 1953; “Things We Can Do Without”, a infomercial-style short film that mocks the “modern” home conveniences of the 1950s, and “Little Johnny Jet”, a Tex Avery cartoon about an out of work WWII fighter plane trying to support his wife and baby in a post-war America. Any metaphors about the experience of veterans after the Second World War will be lost amid the questions the short raises about how plane procreation works.

(The Warner Archive Store)


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