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”The Naked Spur” is the second collaboration between director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart to make the List (the former was ”Winchester ´73) and this time the stakes are upped with some glorious Technicolor.
James Stewart is this time a rancher turned bounty hunter to make enough money to buy back the ranch his unfaithful wife sold while he was off fighting a war. The man he is hunting is an old acquaintance, though no friend, of his and it is quite impersonal. Howard Kemp, as he is called just want the money.
The movie plunges us right into the thick of it as Howard is closing in on his prey. He enlists the help of an old prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and soon they have Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) cornered. This is the moment where Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) shows up. He is an army lieutenant who has been discharged in disgrace and is certified unreliable (He got a paper saying that), but he arrives at just the right time to root out Ben. They catch him with a little bonus price as it turns out Ben has brought along a girl, Lina Patch (Janet Leigh).
The rest of the movie is essentially Ben trying to escape his captors using all the cunning of his devious mind. No trick is too cheap. Anything that can set his captors up against each other is worth a try. First shot is the reveal that there is a price on his head and a substantial one at that, 5000$ to be precise, which Howard sort of forgot to mention to his two helpers. Ben appeals to Jesse’s lust for gold and he sets Lina on to Howard and Ralph. In the end it is almost working and in the ensuing gunfight several of the characters dies. Only Lina’s rebellion saves Howard.
There are ties to a well-known theme of greed where three men strives to win a fortune. The two first dies for their greed, while the third by giving up on the price survives and win another unforeseen reward. Howard could take Ben back to town to get his money, but decides to give up on it and go to California with Lina instead.
There are good things and less good things to say of this movie and the result is on of mixed feelings.
The very first thing you notice is the glorious filming. The mountains in Technicolor are the real stars of this movie. Every single shot is using the terrain to the utmost and in these colors the vistas are breathtaking. You would be excused to think that Technicolor was invented to showcase such landscape. The impressive thing is that almost all the movie was filmed on location. That may not sound like a big deal today but Technicolor equipment is extremely cumbersome and requires an insane amount of light. I am not sure who did the actual filming, but the only other person who could have pulled this off would have been Jack Cardiff.
I also liked the story arch. We may think that we are getting an early climax with the shoot-out, but that only marks the beginning of the trouble. Greed is the real enemy and that is a lurking disease. Of course it leads up to a traditional finale, but the way there is interesting.
Then there is the acting. Oh boy, oh boy. The acting and ultimately the direction is dilettantish on the verge of the cartoonish. Every sentence uttered is so exaggerated and staged that I fear they had a bunch of idiots in mind when they considered the target group of the movie. Ralph hitting on Lina, Lina upset about the shooting, Ben plotting against his captor, Jesse mumbling about gold and Howard crying for his lost wife and ranch. They are literally screaming these thing in the face of the audience and making themselves caricatures of their characters. This started already in the opening and they never let up. As the movie progressed I found it more and more difficult to cope with and it ended up bothering the crap out of me.
I felt sorry for James Stewart. He is an actor I always like, but with this direction he fell flat. That is quite unusual.
I know that this being a story about greed Howard had to give up on his price to save himself, but the way it happened seemed unnecessarily dumb. Ben is dead and Howard just needs to ride back to town to cash in 5 grand. Lina wants to go with him to California to start a new life and she does not even like Ben anymore. Why not go to California with 5000$? They are essentially throwing away a fortune for no reason I can fathom, except maybe a small detour and the smell of a corpse. I dare say they probably do not smell too good themselves. We are supposed to think that Howard has to choose between greed and a free life with Lina, but I do not really see that he needs to choose. If Lina had liked Ben, yeah maybe, or if there had been some curse on the money, but as it is it just seems stupid.
While these things bothered me a great deal I must also add that the show around the dialogue was great. There is a lot of action in this movie and a lot of nail biting and those parts are well directed. Had they all shut their mouth I would have loved this movie.
“The Naked Spur” is a movie to see, not one to listen to. Maybe I should try watching it on mute.