Sunday, February 09, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Naked Spur (1953) at UCLA

I returned to UCLA's Anthony Mann Festival tonight for another double bill pairing a film noir title with a Western.

First up was HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948) which I first reviewed in 2008 and which I saw again on a big screen at last year's Noir City Film Festival.

I had initially thought I might skip tonight's movies, since I'd seen HE WALKED BY NIGHT relatively recently, but I enjoyed THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955) so much I decided it would be worth watching HE WALKED BY NIGHT again in order to see THE NAKED SPUR (1953).

I'm really glad I made the trip, as I enjoyed seeing HE WALKED BY NIGHT again tremendously. Mann did uncredited directing work on the film and is believed so have been a major influence on its style. The film has everything a docu-noir fan loves: a booming voiceover by Reed Hadley, great shots of '40s Los Angeles, interesting procedural and "CSI" angles, wonderful character actors -- I especially love a scene with John Dehner and Byron Foulger -- and truly stunning black and white cinematography by the great John Alton. The shots of police cars racing out of the station and the shadows in the final tunnel chase are pure noir beauty. Anyone who loves film noir needs to see this key title. (March 2017 Update: Here's a brief piece on seeing it again at UCLA's 2017 Festival of Preservation.)

Moving on to the second film of the evening, it was a great pleasure to see THE NAKED SPUR for the very first time on a big screen. It was a compelling 91 minutes which I very much enjoyed.

THE NAKED SPUR is a five-person drama following the oft-used Western formula of disparate types united on a perilous journey. It's a film of the highest caliber thanks to excellent performances, a well-paced script, and beautiful location shooting in Colorado. The movie was filmed on location in Technicolor by William C. Mellor.

James Stewart plays Howard Kemp, who's closing in on "wanted dead or alive" outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). Just before capturing Vandergroat, Kemp meets up with an old prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), and a dishonorably discharged soldier, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker). Both men help capture Vandergroat and are surprised to learn that Kemp's not a lawman, but a bounty hunter -- and they each want to claim their share of the reward money.

Matters are further complicated by Lina (Janet Leigh), the daughter of Vandergroat's dead partner, who's been traveling with him and is determined to help him escape.

Until this past week the only Stewart-Mann Western I'd seen was BEND OF THE RIVER (1952). With THE MAN FROM LARAMIE and especially THE NAKED SPUR, I'm now finally getting a deeper look at the justly lauded intense, disturbed characters Stewart played in these Mann Westerns. Stewart's Kemp is filled with a rage and sadness which is only gradually revealed. It's quite an intense performance, and when Kemp finally breaks down at the end, it's also deeply moving, as the viewer hopes he's put his demons to rest at last and will find a measure of peace in a new future.

Ryan's pseudo-friendly villain, who proves to be a cold-blooded killer, seems to foreshadow the kinds of villains played by Lee Marvin or Richard Boone in the later Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher movies. For that matter, some of the Scott-Boetticher movies also focused on small groups of travelers, with crooks in the mix -- notable examples being SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956), RIDE LONESOME (1959), and COMANCHE STATION (1960). It's interesting to compare how each of these films takes a genre convention and turns it into something memorably unique.

Ryan could play this type of dark role well in his sleep, and he's as riveting as usual. One of the interesting aspects of the movie is that as the film begins, it's the bounty hunter who's the scarier character and the villain who's genial; slowly and inexorably our perceptions of the characters shift, and then comes a moment when Vandergroat reveals once and for all he's a man who deserves everything he's got coming.

I particularly enjoyed seeing Millard Mitchell -- R.F. Simpson of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) -- as the grizzled Jesse Tate. Sadly, the talented Mitchell died of cancer the year this film was released. IMDb says Denver Pyle did uncredited work in the role which led me to wonder if he doubled for Mitchell due to his illness.

Ralph Meeker is appropriately slimy as the soldier who initially seems to join up with Kemp for the challenge but who has his own agenda, which is finding safety in numbers. The fact that there's a shapely young woman underneath Lina's boyish garb is added inducement for him to stick around, and he clearly doesn't have the best of intentions. That same year Meeker appeared in MGM's CODE TWO (1953); his best-known role may be that of Mike Hammer in KISS ME DEADLY (1955).

Janet Leigh is fine as the confused young woman whose loyalties gradually shift. Hers has not been an easy life, which apparently accounts in part for her tomboy appearance, and life gets harder still as she must confront brutal deaths several times in the span of a couple of days.

The 35mm print screened at UCLA was excellent, save for some brief rougher patches when the reels changed. This was an absolute treat to see on a big screen, and I very much hope to also see WINCHESTER '73 (1950) and THE FAR COUNTRY (1954) at UCLA later in the series.

Those interested in this series may want to read a column by Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times.

THE NAKED SPUR is available on DVD in the James Stewart Signature Collection. It also had a VHS release.

The DVD can be rented from ClassicFlix or Netflix. The movie can also be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

Earlier films seen in this series: DR. BROADWAY (1942), which was paired with the previously reviewed TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE (1945); and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955), shown with the previously reviewed STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (1944).

September 2021 Update: This film will be released on Blu-ray this month by the Warner Archive Collection. My review of the Blu-ray may be read here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review,Laura. I love this western and envy you seeing it on the big screen.

12:35 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Excellent review, Laura. I first saw "He Walked By Night" at a John Alton retrospective at The National Film Theatre in London 1971-3ish, same time as I first caught "The Black Book" as reviewed at Colin's Blog. It is a really enjoyable Noir.
"The Naked Spur" is the Stewart/Mann western I enjoy the least (that said they are all classic westerns and favourites of mine),probably because I found the instability of the hero uncomfortable when I first saw it.My problem really........

Please do make the extra effort to catch both "Winchester 73" and "The Far Country", they are well worth the stretch. Classic westerns and "Winchester" features both Dan Duryea and the great John McIntire. The latter is also in "The Far...", a film that is gloriously enhanced by the bickering of saddle partners Stewart and Walter Brennan.

2:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought you would like this one. For me, it's probably the best of the Mann/Stewart westerns, but there's really not that much between them all to be honest.
Stewart really sears the screen in The Naked Spur though, and that ending something to behold. I don't know what Stewart drew on in those moments, but it must have been something powerful and primal.


6:34 AM  
Blogger DKoren said...

How fun! This is the double-feature I wanted to try to attend, but was unable to, because I'd love to see The Naked Spur on the big screen. I'm so glad to read your review and share in it that way!

7:37 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

It's a pleasure reading you on the Mann/Stewart Westerns, Laura, and I imagine I'm not the only one here envious that you are seeing most of these for the first time in such a concentrated period (and JOHNNY GUITAR in the same weekend as this one too). For a lot of us Western fans, those days are never going to come again!

Unless my eyes glazed over it, you didn't mention screenwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, but I think they should be. This was an unusual situation of an original spec script bought by a major studio when the writers were virtually unknown and basically just starting out--yes, they truly lucked out in a way a young writer might only dream of, with a great director at the peak of his powers, a dream cast, A list cinematographer, ideal Rocky Mountain locations--but they definitely deserve some credit for this too, because it's a superb script even on its face.

I'm mainly writing because of what you say about the final scene to which Colin also alludes. I will agree you are right to say that one "hopes" Howard has at last found a measure of peace, but only because one cannot absolutely know what happens after the fadeout of a movie. But at the same time I cannot think of any other movie where the ending so clearly intimates that a character has indeed made peace with things and left the painful past behind. The thrust of the whole movie is toward this. I hope you will not mind if I hijack a little space and share my entry on this from DEFINING MOMENTS IN MOVIES where I talk about the scene.

1953 / The Naked Spur - The release
USA. Director: Anthony Mann. Cast: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell.

Why It's Key: Working from a brilliant original screenplay by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, Mann brings into play all his gifts as a filmmaker and carries one of the greatest of all Westerns to an apotheosis of moral and spiritual beauty.


The catharsis of The Naked Spur begins in its stunningly realized climactic sequence of rocks, river and death, but it is most fully felt in the aftermath, when the bitter past of Howard Kemp (Stewart) dissolves inside him as he grasps Lina (Leigh) by the shoulders and cries - the moment that signals his self-renewal. The outlaw Ben (Ryan) is dead, as are Howard's unwanted partners Roy (Meeker) and Jesse (Mitchell), and death has been cruel and violent for all three men. Now there is only the bounty which will buy back the ranch a faithless woman had sold. Howard drags Ben's body to his horse in a final paroxysm of fury, but then turns to Lina and sees in her face the light of unconditional love and a new beginning, and at last relents. The tears and cracking voice of Stewart in close shot are a high moment of this great actor's career, perfectly complemented by the softer yet no less vibrant playing of Leigh. It is Mann, though, whose artistry is most fully felt. His sense of space, forceful compositions, and use of Rocky Mountain landscapes have throughout worked hand in glove with the characterizations to carry every level of the drama, and as the camera moves up into the sky, then follows a dissolve to come back to the two characters moving through dead trees within an open expanse, one sees in these images that there is a spiritual rhythm within life, and that "choosing a way to live" can happen even in the roughest passage.

Blake Lucas



12:30 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...


In a lot of commentary about these Mann films, the emphasis now seems very strongly on the dark side of Stewart's persona that they brought out. This isn't wrong--he is variously obsessed--with revenge or with something else, neurotically selfish, at times disturbed and psychologically or morally out of balance. But to emphasize this too much obscures the most fundamental point about these characters, who are, after all, the heroes of these films. They are all essentially decent men--and part of one's emotional investment in them is to see them come back to themselves and to be whole again. Stewart can carry us through this journey, make us care even about him even when his behavior is most questionable and forbidding, and that's one reason why he plays in these movies on a plateau few movie actors ever reached.

In this context, it's worth noting that the musical theme for Howard, heard several times in the movie and conspicuous in that final scene is the Stephen Foster classic "Beautiful Dreamer."

What you say about villains in your piece was very interesting, and you especially make a good point about the link between Mann and Boetticher, as both have villains who are times highly insightful and say things that are true, one of the things that makes them so interesting. And this was never more true than in THE NAKED SPUR--I quoted part of a line that is one of the great lines in Westerns and so much of what this movie and many great Westerns are about. The whole line is "Choosing a way to die…what's the difference Choosing a way to live…that's the hard part." The line is not given to the hero, Howard, but to the villain, Ben, who says it to Howard in a way that feels genuine.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Had to split by comment because there was a word limit. The DEFINING MOMENTS entry was all in the first post. The second was additional thoughts.

That reference to Denver Pyle was something I never heard and surprised me. I doubt it means much--most of the movie was shot on location (the cave sequence is the main exception) and Mitchell was plainly always there--he would have been doubled for any stunts by a stuntman. Maybe if he was ill on a given day after the return to Hollywood, Pyle might have looped a line or something.

I know I took a lot of space. Thank you for your indulgence, Laura (and anyone who read it too).

12:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful response(s) there Blake - a pleasure to read.


2:27 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Vienna! It was a wonderful experience.

Jerry, how wonderful to have seen a John Alton retrospective. I had the pleasure of seeing THE BLACK BOOK at the Noir City Festival here in 2012; what a beautiful film to look at, it would be enjoyable even with the sound off (grin). I will definitely make every effort to see the other two Stewart-Mann Westerns, especially as WINCHESTER '73 is on my list of "10 Classics" to finally watch in 2014!

P.S. Love John McIntire -- one of my favorites is his scout in AMBUSH with Robert Taylor.

Thanks, Colin, I did indeed like it! A really substantial Western which gives the viewer much to think about both during and after the film. That's a great description, "sears the screen." Stewart just about broke my heart when he broke down!

Deb, I owe you an email!! Have had trouble keeping up with all the running around I've been doing (grin). Do you think you might be able to come up to L.A. for one of the other Western nights? Would be fun!!

Will answer Blake separately as this is getting long. :)

Best wishes,

12:03 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Blake, can't thank you enough for taking the time to share your thoughts at length, including your entry from DEFINING MOMENTS IN MOVIES (which sounds like something I need to read!). For me one of the great pleasures regarding movies is not just watching them, but thinking and reading about them afterwards.

You're right, although I mentioned liking the screenplay, I didn't mention the authors by name, so I appreciate you filling in that aspect here. That's fascinating that it was a spec script. Great background.

That's a beautiful description of the final scene. As I said to Colin above, Stewart just about broke my heart when he cried. It was one of those amazing movie moments -- indeed, I can certainly see why you chose it for "Defining Movie Moments." I like your thoughts on Howard having definitely made peace after that cathartic moment.

It's interesting, because I think I was distracted a bit by also pondering more mundane, practical questions at the end of the film, such as whether Howard would miss the neighbors he'd described, and wondering how they'd make it in California.

That's a great thought that the Mann-Boetticher villains are not only genial, they often have interesting insights. Part of what makes these Westerns as great as they are!

Thank you so much, Blake!

Best wishes,

12:22 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

May I just say that, like Colin, I really enjoyed your detailed response, Blake. Yup, it was a joy to read.
And Laura, how I agree with your choice of John McIntire's role in "Ambush". Such a compelling actor. Did you ever see him in "The Phenix City Story" (1955)?? He is the central character in that and just superb.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Thanks, Laura, Jerry, and Colin.

Jerry, I'm sure you're right that John McIntire will be one of the pleasures for Laura in both WINCHESTER '73 and THE FAR COUNTRY. She's been on record here for admiring McIntire. And who wouldn't? One of the great character actors in American cinema. I can't even imagine it without him.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

The Naked Spur is just behind Winchester '73 for me as the best of the five Mann/Stewart westerns. I'm jealous that you got to see it on the big screen! I really loved the simplicity of this tale and the tension between the performers, especially Stewart and Ryan.

You definitely need to see The Far Country and Winchester '73 like the others have said. I watched all five a few years ago, and it was a great experience.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jerry! Haven't seen THE PHENIX CITY STORY yet but I do have the DVD set with it and will bump it higher in my viewing stack. :)

I love the contrast of McIntire's performance in AMBUSH with a film he made in the same time frame, SCENE OF THE CRIME. In one film he's a hearty outdoorsman and in the other he's a somewhat frail older man. What a chameleon.

Blake, you and everyone else have me determined to see WINCHESTER '73 and THE FAR COUNTRY at UCLA if at all possible! :)

Dan, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts as well. My viewing this year will be the richer for having seen so many Mann films, and particularly the Mann-Stewart films.

Best wishes,

12:05 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Yes, with your obviously very busy schedule, Laura, it is very definitely worth you pulling out the DVD with "Phenix City Story". It is one of those little films with no real star names (McIntire tops the cast) and is directed superbly by Phil Karlson. Gritty and compelling. I would love to hear your thoughts after watching it.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Ron Scheer said...

Lucky you getting to see vintage movies on the big screen. Until I moved from Westwood a couple years ago, it was a rare treat to catch a noir or western at the Hammer or on campus. Now there seem to be so many screenings.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I moved PHENIX CITY STORY higher in my viewing stack, Jerry! I'm also a big fan of Richard Kiley and looking forward to seeing another of his films.

Ron, I enjoy your blog and also want to again wish you the best in your recovery!

Best wishes,

8:12 PM  

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