August 29, 2006

The Naked Spur: Two views

Two reviewers, two very different opinions on the Anthony Mann Western The Naked Spur. Either way, both agree you should check out Mann's Westerns in general. Read on:

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ***½

After starting his career in Hollywood as an assistant director (for Preston Sturges, among others), Anthony Mann went on to direct a string of tough B-movies in the mid-1940s before really hitting his stride as a director of noirish crime dramas. But it was for a string of Westerns - the first of which was Winchester '73 in 1950 - he made with James Stewart that Mann made his mark.

While 1953's The Naked Spur is not the best of the Mann-Stewart collaborations - I'd reserve that slot for Bend of the River and The Man from Laramie, and The Far Country (aw, heck, they're all good!), Spur remains a taut, intelligent Western all the same. (Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum considers it his favorite of Mann's pictures.)

Beautifully shot in luscious color, and - unusual for pictures in that era - on location in the Rockies, giving it both a larger than life and natural feel at the same time, the film starts right in with the story; Mann doesn't screw around. With the help of Millard Mitchell's down-on-his luck Tate (the movie's Gabby Hayes/Walter Brennan-ish crotchety prospector character, only more subded) and an obnoxious Civil War veteran (Ralph Meeker), Stewart's embittered bounty hunter Howard Kemp, a refreshingly paranoid, occasionally clumsy hero, tracks down Robert Ryan's Ben Vandergroat, wanted for killing a marshall. Ben's companion Lina (Janet Leigh - overplaying the melodrama a bit) protects Ben before her allegiances are ultimately tested. The men's boorish behavior towards her is, unfortunately, likely realistic, with Leigh's orphan character representing the last remnants of civilized behavior. There's nothing creepier (and more memorable) than Ryan's way of asking Leigh for a backrub - "Can you do me?"

Ryan's character plants a few seeds of doubt among the other members of the group - and even the audience - when it comes to Stewart, and this is quintessential Mann, honoring his noir-ish origins: everyone has a dark side. Some of the action moments seem a little dated now - dig that rock slide with the styrofoam rocks, or the safety cable visible in one cliff-climbing scene - but Naked Spur maintains intensity throughout, with the palpable friction between the quintet of characters driving it along. In a Mann Western the characters truly engage with each other. Each man's darker side and troubled past is revealed gradually as time passes as the film builds to an exciting climax - the only one it could - and an ultimately redemptive ending. Mann's also an ace in creating haunting atmosphere (here courtesy of underrated cinematographer William C. Mellor), particularly in the night scenes, characters dimly lit in the dwindling campfire and waning moonlight, in stark contrast to the earlier scenes set in sweeping daylight.

There are awkward moments, as when the Indians are ambushed, making it's hard to feel sympathetic for any of the protagonists - but the latter aren't meant to be embraced and they castigate Meeker for starting the bloodshed in the first place. Another debit: The film score's (over)use of the melody Beautiful Dreamer is a bit on the nose and maudlin. But overall, The Naked Spur is a memorable component of Mann's Western canon, and the new DVD - which looks decent but (as James notes below) should have looked better - is still highly welcome. (Note: The disc also includes the cute Tex Avery cartoon "Little Johnny Jet," which has nothing to do with Mann save the common studio.)


Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ** ½
(Okay, give it three if you're particularly keen on James Stewart, Robert Ryan or are a Western-phile)

Recently released on DVD as part of James Stewart: The Signature Collection (baseball, airplanes, G-Men and westerns - some mix!), The Naked Spur, from 1953 and directed by Anthony Mann, comes saddled with a noteworthy reputation, including an Academy nomination for Best Screenplay. More than a half century later, I'd say that reputation is tarnishing. Compared to William Wellman's subtler, similar, and in every way superior Yellow Sky (1948), Spur pales, and not only because of its surprisingly poor DVD transfer, which looks no better than your average videotape. From its very title (Hello: all spurs are naked. Cover them up and they won�t do their job) to the opening, complete with typically bombastic 1950s musical score that hits you over the head and then knocks you across the room, the film is heavy-handed. Even the vaunted character development is simply not there. Each of the film's five characters changes not a whit: they come complete the first time you see them, and you can predict every bit of their behavior from what you learn from their initial appearance.

Along the way, certain set pieces are simply silly. There's an Indian attack in which the redskins appear to be doing "stunts" rather than trying to kill the enemy or preserve their own lives. (To its credit, the movie quietly acknowledges their unnecessary slaughter.) My favorite bit is an amazingly lengthy talking-in-his-fevered-sleep scene, during which a character spills more expositional beans than are usually managed in an entire movie (when one is awake, to boot). Spur has its good points, of course. The cast of only five (plus characterless Indians) and the 92-minute length gives the movie a lean, focused viewpoint; the Rocky Mountains scenery is pretty (if blurry); and the performances are as good as the somewhat obvious script allows. Stewart brings as much darkness as light to his semi-hero, Robert Ryan has fun as the laughing villain (gracefully channeling, in his open, wonderfully physical manner, Richard Widmark's Tommy Udo from the previous decade), and Janet Leigh is properly na�ve and spunky. Both the climax (in which a tossed western accoutrement outdoes a firearm) and the denouement (where character behavior turns on a dime - and on itself) are unbelievable, even by the relatively lax Hollywood standards of the 50s.

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Posted by cphillips at August 29, 2006 3:16 PM | TrackBack