Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 4, 2021)
Director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart paired for eight movies from 1950 to 1955. For the third of these, we go to 1953’s Western The Naked Spur.
Bounty hunter Howard Kemp (Stewart) pursues outlaw murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). When Vandergroat proves elusive, Kemp becomes forced to take on two partners: aging prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and former Union soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker).
After the trio catches Vandergroat, they attempt to return him and his female partner Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) to custody. However, Vandergroat uses the trek to sow distrust among the partners and scheme for his escape.
Tales of greed and fractured relationships didn’t seem novel even in 1953. Just a few years earlier, 1948’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre offered a classic take on the subject.
That doesn’t mean Spur can’t turn into a solid story in its own right, though. Happily, the film offers a pretty taut exploration of its themes and characters.
When Spur falters, it does so due to diversions. I could live without the love triangle that develops, and side narratives such as one that involves Native Americans feel like unnecessary distractions.
Nonetheless, enough of Spur focuses on the main drama that it becomes an engrossing affair. With so few characters involved, the movie can dig into them with reasonable gusto.
Should you expect any of the roles to elevate above fairly stereotypical origins? Not really, but the film allows them enough screentime that we don’t really mind their inherently one-dimensional nature.
A solid cast helps. Stewart plays somewhat against type here, as Howard seems shadier than the typical Stewart character. He manages to give the role the appropriate moral uncertainty.
Ryan nearly steals the show as the cocky outlaw, though. Even when the character’s situation seems dire, Ryan gives Ben a charismatic sense of confidence that makes the role consistently compelling.
The same goes for Spur as a whole. Despite a few minor missteps, this turns into an engaging Western.