“The Naked Spur” is all about flawed people. It’s about people who have made mistakes in their life, or maybe have had a run of bad luck. It’s about people who are bitter at the world, and who have been burned too often to trust anyone else. It’s about redemption, but it’s the kind of redemption that only comes once blood has been spilled. By the end of the film, there’s hope, but there’s a tinge of sadness that carries over its hero, leaving to question if he’ll ever be happy.
We begin with Howard Kemp (Jimmy Stewart), a bounty hunter, trailing a killer named Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) for a reward of $5000. Kemp wants the money for himself to buy back his land which was lost to him by an unfaithful woman who left him for another man. The experience left Kemp a bitter and broken-hearted man. But it’s not going to be as cut and dry as he had hoped for. In order to apprehend Ben, Kemp will have to enlist the unwanted help of two other men. They are an elderly gold prospector named Jesse (Millard Mitchell) and a disgraced calvary officer named Roy (Ralph Meeker). What follows is an uneasy alliance, where the men say they’ll split the reward money three ways, but as is usual in a case such as this, why split it three ways when one person could take the money all for himself?
Along for the ride is the one woman of the group, Lina (Janet Leigh). She is Ben’s companion, and the daughter of one of his friends. Lina is completely loyal to Ben, but she’s mostly the innocent in this greedy game. She believes Ben is not a killer and criticizes the others for bringing him in to hang over money. She specifically chides Kemp who is the most determined to finish the dirty job so he can get back what’s rightfully his. It could be easy to mistake Kemp for the real villain at the beginning of the film, the only thing that tips us off he’s not is that he’s played by Jimmy Stewart.
One might have the illusion of the old westerns being full of wide-spread open spaces, and heroes roaming through fields or desert country. “The Naked Spur” is in the wilderness full of trees, treacherous mountaintops, and raging rivers. It’s claustrophobic, it might have more things in common with an urban film noir than anything associated with John Ford’s vast landscapes. The land is unforgiving, and unrelenting, which especially comes into play at the climax when all of the pent-up rage of the film let’s loose in a shockingly violent finale.
Then there’s Jimmy Stewart, an actor with so much rage, so much emotion, so much inner turmoil, one should question what we mean when we call him the American every man. As directed by Anthony Mann who made eight films with Stewart, the actor is unhinged, even scary. In one moment in the film, a wounded Kemp wakes up from a nightmare and lets out a scream so disturbing, and so primal it’s as if it’s coming from a wounded unchecked portion of the soul.
“The Naked Spur” is a mean film in many ways. It’s what happens, when you focus on the lives of lonely and desperate people, whose humanity has been scorched by the hardness of the world.