THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013




The title and the poster would seem to indicate that the main focus of this Western is sex and violence. The posters of the day, not to mention the trailers, always overstated the case.

DIRECTOR: Anthony Mann; PRODUCER: William H. Wright; WRITERS: Sam Rolfe, Harold Jack Bloom; CAMERA: William C. Mellor; STUNTS: Virginia Bargas, Ted Mapes, Frank McGrath, Chuck Roberson

CAST: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell

"Now ain't that the way? A man gets set for trouble head-on and it sneaks up behind him every time." -- Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan)

Stewart-Mann Westerns.
This is the third of five Westerns that starred James Stewart and were directed by Anthony Mann, one of the most successful star-director collaborations in the history of Western filmmaking.  It is my opinion (the only one that I am qualified to give) that THE NAKED SPUR is the best of an excellent group of films produced by the duo.

Not everybody, of course, would agree with that assessment -- or this one.  Here's my ranking of the five films: 1). THE NAKED SPUR; 2). THE FAR COUNTRY (Universal, 1954); 3). THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (Columbia, 1955); 4). BEND OF THE RIVER (Universal, 1952); 5). WINCHESTER '73 (Universal, 1950).

One of the factors that can spoil an otherwise good film is casting.  Unfortunately, that is the one thing that mars these films and keeps them from being even better than they are -- and they are very good.

I'm in the process of making a list of actors who should never have been given roles in Westerns.  Some of them are good actors -- maybe very good in other genres -- but out of place in a Western.

Near the top of that list is Dan Duryea.  He is the principal reason for ranking WINCHESTER '73 last in the above list.  I think Arthur Kennedy was a great actor -- in non-Westerns -- but I always had a hard time accepting him in Westerns, even though he appeared in quite a few, including BEND OF THE RIVER and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (probably his best Western role).  In the latter film we also get a miscast Alex Nicol.

I also think that Ralph Meeker, a great Mike Hammer, is the weak link in the otherwise great small cast in THE NAKED SPUR. But I'm glad he got the part instead of Dan Duryea.

One reason that I rank THE FAR COUNTRY as high as I do is the casting which is much better than in the other four films.  Better, but not perfect.  In that picture only Corinne Calvet was miscast -- or perhaps it was the way her character was written.

In each of these films James Stewart pretty much plays the same character -- much like Randolph Scott in the Scott-Boetticher films.  Stewart is an anti-hero, at least in the beginning, who is tormented by inner demons, by rage and obsession, and a desire for revenge.  But by the film's conclusion his repressed decency and morality rise to the surface at which time he becomes a true hero or at least something much closer to one.

(L-R) Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Millard Mitchell

The Plot.
Howard Kemp (Stewart) is a bounty hunter on the trail of outlaw and accused killer Ben Vandergroat (Ryan) who has a $5000 price tag on his head.  With the assistance of an old prospector (Mitchell) and a cashiered and mentally unbalanced ex-army lieutenant (Meeker), Kemp captures the outlaw.  Traveling with Vandergroat is a young woman (Leigh) whose outlaw father, a friend of Vandergroat, has been killed. Against his will Kemp is forced into agreeing to share the reward with the two men who assisted him in the capture.

Robert Ryan is an outlaw with a price on his head and a rope around his neck.  Ralph Meeker holds the rope.

This all happens at the beginning of the story.  What follows is a “journey” Western as Kemp attempts to return Vandergroat in order to collect the reward. The other three people traveling with him complicate his efforts since Vandergroat is a shrewd judge of human nature and uses his knowledge to turn the other three against Kemp and against each other.

Howard Kemp's (Stewart) traveling companions: (L-R) Millard Mitchell, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker

Kemp is not the average bounty hunter.  He has a special reason for wanting the reward money.  That reason is an important part of the plot and I don’t want to reveal it for anybody who has not yet seen the movie but would like to. I'll leave that for those who don't mind doing such a thing. The odd title becomes self-explanatory in the film's concluding scenes, but I think that there could have been a better one.

In some ways the plot of THE NAKED SPUR reminds me of the Scott-Boetticher film, RIDE LONESOME (Columbia, 1959).  In that one Scott also portrays a bounty hunter who has an ulterior motive for capturing an outlaw and after doing so finds himself traveling with unwanted companions, including a woman, which makes the situation even more complicated than it would otherwise be.
James Stewart, pre-WWII

James Stewart, post-WWII

The Actors.
Much has been written about how the James Stewart persona underwent an obvious transformation as a result of either growing maturity or his experiences as a bomber pilot during WWII -- or both.  I won't belabor the point here except to say that even after WWII Stewart was still very much the Everyman, but one with a dark side, which made for some interesting and enjoyable performances.

He was never better than in THE NAKED SPURHe is tense, obsessed, filled with rage, but events transpire in such a way to allow a latent decency and sense of justice to overcome his negative traits.  After all, he is James Stewart.  In other words, Howard Kemp is typical of the other characters developed by the star and the director in their other Western films.

Janet Leigh proved in THE NAKED SPUR that she wasn't just another pretty face. She was quite believable in the role of a young woman whose outlaw father had been killed and who therefore had seen no other resort but to go on the run with Ben Vandergroat.  It was one of the few times in her film career that she was called upon to stretch her horizons as an actress.

As mentioned earlier, I found it hard to accept Ralph Meeker as an authentic westerner.  I could believe him as a mentally unstable, cashiered army officer, which he portrayed in this film, but not as one who served on the western frontier.

But he was a very good actor and two years later he would receive good critical reviews as Mickey Spillane's hardnosed private detective, Mike Hammer, in the film noir classic, KISS ME DEADLY (UA, directed by Robert Aldrich).  And perhaps he knew that Westerns were not his strong suit since he appeared in only one other, the forgettable RUN OF THE ARROW (RKO, 1957), starring Ralph Steiger, who heads my list of actors who should never have been cast in Westerns. 

Millard Mitchell gives a strong performance as the down on his luck prospector who helps Stewart to capture Ryan and then demands that he share in the reward when the outlaw is turned over to the authorities.

This was Mitchell's second Stewart-Mann Western.  As Stewart's sidekick in WINCHESTER '73, his performance had been instrumental in the success of that film.  He is also remembered as Jimmy Ringo's (Gregory Peck) friend in Henry King's classic Western, THE GUNFIGHTER (Fox, 1950)

Unfortunately, there would be no more classic Westerns in the actor's future.  THE NAKED SPUR would be his last.  He died the same year that the film was released.  He was 50-years old.

Robert Ryan could play good guys or he could play scoundrels.  And even his good guys seemed to be on the verge of becoming a scoundrel.  A WWII veteran who had served in the Marine Corps, he had made his film debut in 1940, but his breakthrough role came after the war in CROSSFIRE (RKO, 1947), a film noir that tackled the issue of anti-Semitism, and starred three Roberts -- Young, Mitchum, and Ryan -- along with Gloria Grahame.  Ryan is the main villain and for his outstanding work he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.  It would be his only nomination.

The three Roberts, (L-R) Young, Mitchum, and Ryan, in a publicity still from Ryan's breakthrough film, CROSSFIRE (RKO, 1947).  I wonder why the villain is the only one smiling?

Robert Ryan's character in THE NAKED SPUR is the plot's driving force.  All the other characters, including Stewart's Howard Kemp, react to him.  And the script gives him the best lines in the story.  All in all, it is one of his best performances in a long and distinguished acting career.

"Choosing a way to die?  What's the difference?  Choosing a way to live -- that's the hard part." -- Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan)

It has been reported that MGM originally wanted Richard Widmark for the role and he would have been good because he and Ryan played similar characters during their respective careers.  But would he have been better than Ryan?  I don't think so.

Ryan would be given the lead roles and would give strong performances in two other Mann films: MEN IN WAR (UA, 1957) and GOD'S LITTLE ACRE (UA, 1958).

Locations, Camera, and Screenplay.
John Ford preferred Monument Valley with its distinctive mesa and butte topography and desert environment for his Westerns.  Budd Boetticher's favorite Western location was the arid, tan and grey, boulder-strewn Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California.

Anthony Mann preferred the mountains, especially the Rockies.  THE NAKED SPUR is beautifully photographed with the majestic San Juan range of the Colorado Rockies serving as the primary backdrop.

Janet Leigh, James Stewart and the Colorado Rockies

William C. Mellor was a four-time Academy Award nominee for Best  Cinematography and was twice named the winner.  His two winning films were A PLACE IN THE SUN (Paramount, 1951) and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (Fox, 1959).  Both of these were in black and white and the latter film is composed almost entirely of interiors.  But with THE NAKED SPUR he proved that he also knew how to film panoramic outdoor productions in Technicolor. It is a gorgeous film.

Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom were each only in their late twenties when they wrote the film's screenplay.  It was their first and they struck pay dirt.  They were deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.

wanted poster for Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan)


"THE NAKED SPUR...has hewed to the old-fashioned concept that motion pictures should move.  It does so in a thoroughly adult, convincing and entertaining style." -- The New York Times
"The rugged beauty of the Colorado mountain location where the film is shot is splendidly shown in William Mellor's camera." -- Variety
"This is an extraordinary Western. -- Phil Hardy in The Western

"One of the best Westerns ever made; a tough, hard little film...strikingly directed and photographed on location in the Rockies." -- Leonard Maltin

"...splendidly effective acting by the small superb cast; if anyone stands out it is Ryan but they all are stunning." -- Brian Garfield in Western Films: A Complete Guide 

Anthony Mann, Director
Comments are always invited.

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