The Naked Spur (1953)

"The Naked Spur" is another of the pairing between actor James Stewart and director Anthony Mann. It's not a western in the strictest sense, but it certainly has all the tell-tale signs of one: the law, the criminal, the unrest, the Indians, and the scenery. The fact is that "The Naked Spur" comes across more as a thriller than anything else, and I'm completely fine with that, because it works on that level too.
Howard Kemp (James Stewart) is traveling through the mountains when he comes across Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), a prospector whose luck never strikes gold. After a brief conversation, Kemp lets the gold-searcher know that he's looking for an outlaw, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). This criminal killed a man in Kansas, but Kemp doesn't think he's in Kansas anymore...sorry.
He's been pursuing the man through many states and he offers money to Jesse for the knowledge of a trail that Ben might have left. Jesse takes him to a few dead fires that he came across and before you know it, they've gotten Ben cornered on a cliff and he keeps sending rock slides down their way when they try to climb up.
Along rides Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), a lieutenant who has gotten dishonorably discharged pending questionably morality and sanity. He's pretty unstable and he wants to join in on the action of catching Ben.
It's only a few minutes into the movie before Ben gets captured. He has been shacking up with a young woman named Lina (Janet Leigh) who seems to have taken some sort of Stockholm syndrome relationship with him. A woman in the mix shakes, not stirs, things up.
But the truth soon comes out: Kemp is no law man. To be fair, he never claimed to be a sheriff, but he never contradicted Jesse's assumptions. The truth is that there is a $5,000 reward on Ben's head, dead or alive. Now there are three men who want to collect on the reward and they agree, reluctantly, to bring in Ben together and split the reward money into thirds.
Yet they, and we the audience, know that the money would travel farther if there were less people to share it with.
Perhaps the most enjoyable character here is Ben, who ruthlessly stirs the pot with his words. He can manipulate almost every character with simple sentences. His commentary, his self-preservation, and his smarts make him a worthy adversary for the "morally superior" Kemp.
"The Naked Spur" devotes the entire length of the film to a quest of sorts: bringing Ben Vandergroat to justice.
The question arises: what is justice? Certainly there are moment in the film when we would like nothing more for Kemp to shoot everyone and there are other times when we are glad that he has some sort of self-control.
"The Naked Spur" has a lot of faults, most of all how it meanders and has many useless scenes like an Indian attack; but the characters are all enjoyable and colorful enough to make us forgive this.
Filled with cliches, but still having some space left for genuine surprises, "The Naked Spur" never reaches the insanity level of "The Searchers", but it is the grandfather of movies like "The Fugitive"'s quite fun.

Score: ★★★

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