If the Western genre is considered John Ford’s playground, then it has to be Anthony Mann’s back-alley. Taking the economy of storyline from film noir, and infusing it into the Western, Mann makes the West into a lawless, seedy place, strewn with boulders, snapped pines, rivers raging beyond passage, and no heroes in sight. His collaboration with James Stewart on five Westerns in the 1950’s should rightly place alongside Ford’s partnering with John Wayne as the greatest tag-team duo in the history of Westerns, with Leone-Eastwood taking home a door prize. Compared with Ford’s poignant and often sentimental Westerns, Mann’s films are taut, dark and realistically violent, providing a unique contrast to that most American of genres.
The Naked Spur is probably Mann’s greatest Western, and features the epitome of his style in the genre. We’re introduced to Howard Kemp (James Stewart), who might as well be a “Man with No Name”, tracking a wanted killer, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) through the Colorado Rockies. Stewart is a bounty hunter, desperate for the $5,000 reward for some reason we’re not initially made aware of. Mann’s film is coy about his motives, but we realize that Howard is a cold and dark being. He happens across Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), a gold prospector, whom he pays to help him pick up the trail where he lost it. Soon, they find Ben, and with the aid of disgraced Union Soldier, Lt. Anderson (Ralph Meeker), they are able to catch Ben at the top of a cliff after a brutal struggle to reach the top. When they do, they also find Ben has a woman with him, Lina (Janet Leigh), who is the daughter of a deceased friend. Of course the crux of the psychologically fraught film is that Howard now has two other fellas with him that want to share in the reward they feel they rightly deserve for helping to catch Ben. Ben rightly assumes he has a better chance of getting free if he turns each of the men against each other, by playing on their greedy desires. Furthermore, Ben convinces Lina that she use her sex appeal to get between the men and stir up dissent.
Mann’s film was shot nearly entirely in the high ranges of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, eliminating the wide open spaces of
so favored by Ford, replacing them with steep cliffs and boulders, dense forests and forbidding rivers. It seems at every turn, the party is faced with some natural deterrence, further highlighting the psychological obstacles and tensions the team faces by directly paralleling the landscape to the psychology. Stewart also probably spends more time rolling in the dirt in a fist fight than actually on his horse. He’s also shot, rope burned, gets a fever and night terrors, and routinely is disturbed by thoughts of his past. We learn in the middle of the film, that he was betrayed by someone, leading him on this quest for money. It’s the one shred of background information provided to us on his character. There’s little exposition provided, and as I mentioned the economy of storyline is one of the film’s attributes, something that the other Mann Westerns share in common. Monument Valley
Stewart’s Howard presages the revisionist Western characters that would populate the landscape in the coming decades, making protagonists into anti-heroes with deep personal flaws, or just plain cold-blooded killers. Howard Kemp is a desperate and ugly man on a mission. Stewart’s performance is tough and grizzled. There’s definitely a bit of Howard Kemp in The Searchers' (1956) Ethan Edwards. Robert Ryan is also memorably snarky as Ben, one of the best villains in the history of Westerns as he plays games with his captors, turning them against each other. He’s funny, evil and terribly clever in this role. But this is Mann’s show, as his taut and tough directing style perfectly establishes the correct point of view for this story, which penetrates deeply and remains quite fresh today. In fact, although John Ford is probably considered the established voice of the American Western, I wonder whether Mann consistently represents the more realistic portrayals, filled with greed, fear and obsession, lacking in sentiment.