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Howard Kemp is a bounty hunter who's been after killer Ben Vandergroat for a long time. Along the way, Kemp is forced to take on a couple of partners, an old prospector named Jesse Tate and a dishonorably discharged Union soldier, Roy Anderson. When they learn that Vandergroat has a $5000 reward on his head, greed starts to take the better of them. Vandergroat takes every advantage of the situation sowing doubt between the two men at every opportunity finally convincing one of them to help him escape. Written by
What I imagine makes THE NAKED SPUR stand out among other Westerns is its close, intimate focus on a small band of characters--for once, the motivations of the cynical bounty-hunter, the luckless gold prospector, the brash ne'er-do-well, the slick outlaw are actually all explored and explained as best as psychology can allow. The focus isn't on the action, though there's plenty of that too; one really gets the idea that the action is peripheral to the character development, to the glimpses of history given by snatches of dialogue. James Stewart turns in a riveting performance as Howard Kemp, the embittered rancher turned bounty-hunter, who is seeking outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) for the $5000 price on the latter's head. What Howard doesn't gamble on is the people added on to his journey along the way--the prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), who's been running after gold all his life but has never managed to catch up to it; the reckless ex-soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), discharged from the army for being 'morally unstable'; and the young feisty Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), Ben's companion.
Throw this bunch of opposites in a trek back to Abilene, Kansas is a recipe for great drama: for example, the mini Indian massacre Roy brings about that gets Howard shot in the leg; the rock avalanche Ben starts to try to escape after sending Lina to distract Howard... even the even-tempered, apparently rational and loyal Jesse being so blinded by his life's pursuit that he frees Ben in return for gold and certainly winds up regretting it. Throughout the trek, one sees Ben's true duplicitous side, as he charmingly manipulates each and every other member of the group into distrusting one another. He knows Howard as well, from back in Abilene, and he is the one who lets us in on some of Howard's painful past. (Brilliantly illustrated by the fevered dreams Howard suffers from while still in shock from the bullet in his leg.)
The entire small cast is excellent. Ryan is slimily charming, Mitchell plays Jesse straight and honestly, Leigh brings off a rather thankless, almost characterless role well (her character is probably the least well developed in the film). It is James Stewart, however, who really deserves special mention for his portrayal of Howard Kemp... particularly since he'd first thought that he was supposed to be playing the role of Ben Vandergroat, and had to be talked into taking the risk and playing Howard Kemp. One can certainly see why: Stewart's stock-in-trade is as the undeniably good hero, with whatever--if any!--psychological darkness (see George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life) always lurking just beneath the surface but never enough to damage the character's positive standing in the audience's eyes. So of course, it's not easy to accept Stewart as the cynical, rude Howard at first--this probably is the least sympathetic character he has ever played, since the cracks in his tough, mean veneer come very seldom during the course of the film (and kudos to the writers for not having Stewart's innate goodness shine through more often and therefore use the audience's sympathies for the actor to bring some for the character).
Howard is driven and relentless, as evidenced with the near psychosis he brings to his task of capturing Ben. From his sullenness when Ben reveals how much the capture really is worth, through to the final exciting sequence when Kemp pulls himself up the rock to face his nemesis (thereafter making it clear why the film is given the title of 'The Naked Spur'), Howard Kemp is evidently a man who no longer trusts even *himself* to do the good thing. Quite a twist on the James Stewart persona, and certainly one he pulls off with great aplomb. His final scene with Janet Leigh, as Howard has to decide whether he can stand to lose his future to his past, definitely stands proud as some of Stewart's greatest work.
I watched this film largely because of a great review I'd read of it for Stewart's performance, and there is no denying that that is surely a good enough reason to watch this film. Stewart outdoes himself. Still, I got a lot more than I'd bargained for, because this really is an excellent, psychologically-charged Western as well--the kind that makes you feel and think, and it's only the better films that make one do that.
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