"Do business with the Devil and you get it every time...."
What do I like about the western? Oh goodness, there so many things. I like the untamed feeling of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), the bravado of The Searchers (1956) and even the lesbian undertones of a western like Johnny Guitar. The western is a genre that can focus on so many things because it is not a genre of substance. Any film based in the "old west" is a western. Because of this, it is a genre that can convey all sorts of messages. That is the brilliance of a film like The Naked Spur.
Though this film is classified as a western, it plays out more like a stage drama. Instead of featuring several Native American stereotypes, tobacco spitting renegades or ruthless backwoodsmen, The Naked Spur focuses on emotions and inner dealings. It is smarter than almost any western that I have ever seen. In fact, it is one of the few westerns to ever be nominated for an Academy Award in the writing category. As the third successful Anthony Mann/James Stewart collaboration, this a film that leaves its mark - even after an incredibly uneventful ending.
The Naked Spur tells the story of a bounty hunter named Howard Kemp (Stewart) who is looking to capture a killer named Ben Vandergroat. In the very early moments it seems like Kemp has caught his man. He enlists the help of two bystanders in order to bring Vandergroat to justice. After their man is captured, the two helpers realize that Kemp is only after Vandergroat because he has a $5,000 reward on his head. Now these men are partners and demand an equal share of the money.
This would all be very simple if Kemp did not have a hidden need for the $5,000. Once a successful farmer, Kemp lost his ranch and needs the reward money to buy it back. His new partners are not moved by the story, and Ben very quickly figures a plan to save himself from a hanging.
While on the trip to collect the reward money, Vandergroat uses human greed as a weapon against his three captures. He manages to turn them against each other and even convinces one of them to help him escape. This is what separates The Naked Spur from other films. It deals specifically with flawed men who try to do right by themselves. There is no perfect hero, and no real reason to side with anyone. The closest thing we get to a hero is Howard Kemp. But as he gets closer and closer to cashing in, even he loses focus on the human life at stake. He only sees Ben as a bag of reward money. He has become obsessed.
All of this emotional action serves as a background for a blossoming love story. When Vandergroat was captured, he brought along his "friend", Lina Patch. Played by Janet Leigh, Lina is young, naive and will follow Ben on his every word. After she sees him trying to commit horrible crimes, she begins to fall in love with Kemp. This love triangle theme only adds to Vandergroat's plans for escape. It is a complicated scheme that he is trying to pull off, and it almost works.
Jimmy Stewart is not an actor that carries himself as a cowboy. In fact, his look is almost the opposite of what you would expect for a leading man in a western. With that being said, he still managed to have a very profitable career making films like this. The Naked Spur is my favorite Stewart performance because he uses all of his range as Howard Kemp. He is sensitive, love-stricken, crazed, confused, strong and submissive. And he is perfectly complemented by his perfect cast mates and skillful director.
For me, this film does have one ENORMOUS problem. The ending is incredibly anticlimactic. By the time the film is over, you forget the idea of winners and losers because The Naked Spur doesn't really give you a reason to cheer for the winner. It drags you through an emotional plot for almost an hour and a half - just so it can dump a formula ending on the top of you. This was a film that came close to perfect, but falls short when it wraps the story. It was a major disappointment.
Jimmy Stewart is a Hollywood legend, and his westerns are some of the greatest ever made. If you are interested in this wide genre, I would strongly recommend The Naked Spur (which is obviously supposed to stand for greed). This is a film that could have had it all, but falls just short. Still, it is a fun and memorable film with an original plot and interesting performances.
The Naked Spur: B-
My Next Film...The Last Laugh (Murnau. 1924)