“The Naked Spur” (1953) starring James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, & Ralph Meeker

Packed with Technicolor Thrills! -A tagline for the movie

A former rancher/Civil War vet, Howard Kemp (James Stewart), has been searching for a murderer, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), for a long time. Circumstances compel Kemp to take on 2 partners- an old prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), and a dishonorably discharged Union soldier, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker). When they learn that Ben has a $5,000 bounty on his head, greed starts to get the better of Jesse and Roy. Howie and Ben have a (troubled) history, and Ben takes every chance he can to sow doubt btwn the other 2 men. To add to the drama, there is a beautiful/young woman riding w/ Ben- Lina Patch (Janet Leigh in one of her early leading lady roles).

You can take any of the great dramas- it doesn’t matter if it’s Shakespeare or if it’s any of the Greek plays- you can always lay them in the Western and somehow, they come alive. There is this kind of passion and drama. You can have patricide, any kind of -cide- but if you’re in a Western, you can get away w/ it… b/c it’s where… all action took place. -Anthony Mann, director

The Naked Spur (directed by Anthony Mann- who started in B-movies of the noir genre) is the MOST successful Western movie of 1953. It’s a “psychological Western” filmed on location (mainly in the Colorado Rockies) and doesn’t shy away from (gritty) violence. There are several scenes of exciting action, plenty of character development, and terrific dialogue. This is the 1st screenplay by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, who shared an Oscar nom; they went on to have long/successful careers as writers/producers. Mann and Stewart would collaborate on a total of 11 films, incl. 5 Westerns!

Ben [to Howie]: Choosin’ a way to die? What’s the difference? Choosin’ a way to live – that’s the hard part.

As the bitter/troubled Howie, Stewart (44 y.o.) reveals darkness, intensity, and vulnerability; the actor was working to let go of his bumbling/youthful/Everyman image (after returning from WWII). A strong protagonist needs a strong antagonist; Ryan (43 y.o.) wears his black hat (villain role) perfectly. As Ben, Ryan (unshaven/floppy-haired) effortlessly switches btwn grinning nonchalance and deep-thinking (in what is considered one of his best roles). Meeker (a leading man on Broadway) looks at ease as the volatile/sleazy womanizer; the Method-trained actor (32 y.o.) sports a bushy blonde mustache. Paul Newman was Meeker’s understudy in a Broadway play. Leigh (at just 25 y.o.) does a fine job alongside her (older/more experienced) co-stars; she gets a few moments to shine (rare for women in Westerns). Even if this is NOT your fave genre, you may enjoy it a LOT! You can rent the movie on Amazon Prime.

[1] Spectacular location photography in the Rocky Mountains lend a ring of authenticity to the story.

[2] …Ryan’s charming, snake-like villain who dominates this rugged western despite strong performances from the entire cast. He obviously relishes his role and is a joy to watch.

[3] …an outstanding western and has lost none of its glow over the years and like all classic westerns it just gets better and better with the passing of time.

[4] …Mann directs very assuredly, James Stewart is wonderfully ferocious and Robert Ryan is very charismatic in a more convoluted role. The film looks great, with wonderful sets, scenery, costumes and photography, the music adds to the mood of each scene without feeling too intrusive, the dialogue is excellent and the story- even with the well-worn themes and such- is very compelling.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.