This Mann Failed to Spur Me On
"The Naked Spur" is one of the few James Stewart and Anthony Mann westerns which left me speechless and not because it was either very good or very bad. Rather "The Naked Spur" left me speechless because it's so average which is a surprise because it has an interesting idea, one of a criminal being brought in trying to play off his captors against each other to try and escape. It should be riveting stuff, fraught with drama as Ben Vandergroat plays games with his 3 captors but it too often feels rather cliche. Saying that "The Naked Spur" will entertain and there are some brilliant moments of action and acting, but they are just moments, the occasional scene which really stands out and makes you pay attention.
Having spent weeks tracking down killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan - The Sky's the Limit), bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart - Bend of the River) finds himself getting close to his prey but having to take on a couple of partners, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) an old prospector and Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) a dishonourably discharged Union soldier, to finally catch him. But having caught Vandergroat, Kemp's problems don't end their as the cunning criminal works about manipulating Tate and Anderson in the hope of playing them off against Kemp and fashioning an escape with the beautiful Lina Patch (Janet Leigh - Halloween H20) who has found herself caught up in the mess.
What is interesting is that "The Naked Spur" has a rather cliche set up, a criminal tracked down, captured and what follows are various stereotypical issues which happen as his captors try to bring him in. There is quite a nice scene where Vandergroat is trapped high on a mountain and causes rock falls every time Kemp and Tate come close. And there is a nice scene later on where they all find themselves thrown into battle with Indians. But it has another level, what should be a psychological level as the criminal tries to play off his 3 captors against each other even resorting to trying to make a female acquaintance distract them.
Unfortunately it's as if director Anthony Mann wasn't sure how to deliver this deeper level and as such he misses a trick. We watch Vandergroat trying to manipulate all 3 of his captors but rather than being clever it ends up feeling cliche and a bit too heavy handed. As such the whole psychological level, the clever manipulation is lost and in place of that Mann favours the more dramatic action, which he most certainly is more comfortable with.
The knock on effect of this is that the characters end up feeling a bit out of place even hammy. James Stewart fills Howard Kemp with an inner anger, fire in his eyes as he harbours a strong hatred but it ends up coming across as over the top because Mann doesn't play to the movies hidden depth. Ralph Meeker as Soldier Roy Anderson equally creates a strong character an almost playboy womanizer but once more it ends up feeling over the top because the drama isn't there to make this big character fit in. And I could go on because all of the performances including those from Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan and Millar Mitchell end up feeling out of place because of their marvellous work to make fascinating characters feels wrong in what ends up a rather normal western.
If it wasn't that the storyline lends itself to a more complex movie "The Naked Spur" could have been a very good movie. Anthony Mann is so comfortable in delivering some great scenes of classic western action and he draws out these good performances from a small cast. It just doesn't feel like Mann was comfortable in exploring the other levels of the storyline, preferring to make the traditional western elements strong and letting the psychological aspect sort it self out. The end result is a movie which feels a little odd in places because where the dialogue lends itself to something more exploratory it is skimmed over.
What this all boils down to is that "The Naked Spur" isn't a bad movie or a good one just an average one which to me feels like an opportunity lost. The storyline surrounding a criminal trying to escape by playing his captors off against each other lends itself to a more psychological western. But what Mann delivers is a movie which all too often feels generic and occasionally odd as the strong performances from its stars are at odds with what Mann shoots.