Lost in the Movies: The Naked Spur

The Naked Spur

I don't have too much to say about The Naked Spur, given that a good deal of my reflections have already been summed up quite succinctly by Jonathan Rosenbaum - even to the point of quoting, as I had planned to, the prospector 's line (confusedly turning his shotgun from person to person: "It's gettin' so I don't know which way to point this no more!") as an appropriate summation of the film's morally ambiguous ethos. Ah, the ignominy of being scooped by a published critic (years in advance, no less!) However, I really wanted an excuse to use this picture on my blog, a picture which I found in a google search, saved with reservations (thinking well, I guess it'll work), and now somehow can't get enough of it. Something about the surprising richness of a primarily brown palette, I suppose. Though the print I saw televised was poorly maintained - discolored, faded, and wildly unbalanced from frame to frame - Anthony Mann's vision still came across.

This is actually the first Mann film I've ever seen and what struck me was the consistency with which he presents his figures and the landscapes - usually in conjunction with one another - in an uneasy balance that keeps the people centered but the landscapes omnipresent. The scenery is rustic and wooded, made up of hard-scrabble brush and rocks, treacherously steep trails, and caverns in which one can hide from the rain and briefly take refuge from the omnipresent, vaguely hostile terrain. And Mann shoots in a square frame on the cusp of the widescreen era (while I'm serving as link central, I'd be remiss not to point you to Nathan Gelgud's celebration of the film's aesthetic, coupled with a damnation of Cinemascope - a point with which I don't entirely agree, yet concede has some merits - at New York Film Review).

But what most compelled me about The Naked Spur was its story. Like 3:10 to Yuma, which I reviewed last month, Naked Spur could be considered a "revisionist" western, one which darkens the genre, sprinkling the stew of conventions with shades of moral ambiguity. However, I think that supposed revisionism is actually an excavation of the genre's truest appeal. After all, what makes the frontier experience so unique? It's the lack of a safety net, or as Rosenbaum gamely puts it, "the excitement of an existential context in which characters forge their own personal destinies the moment they encounter or take leave of strangers." Not just their personal destinies, but their character and even their intentions, seems to be in constant flux. The movie is about a bounty hunter, initially posing as a sheriff, who captures an outlaw (and the outlaw's girl too). By enlisting the aid of a disgraced but cheerful soldier and a perpetually unlucky aged prospector, the bounty hunter inadvertently cuts them in on the reward, and as they escort the outlaw to civilization, he does his best to play on divisions amongst them for his own benefit.

James Stewart plays the bounty hunter, in one of his postwar "aw, hell" rather than "aw, shucks" performances - Jefferson Smith baptized by fire and burned in the process. Sour, pulling a gun by way of greeting, lying about his motives, this ostensible hero seems less trustworthy than the outlaw, a likable Robert Ryan, whose female companion (Janet Leigh) claims he was framed. But as the girl warms to Stewart, so do we, and the portrait softens. Meanwhile, other character, like the increasingly wily outlaw and the cheerful soldier (revealed to be a probable rapist with an itchy trigger-finger who singlehandledly initiates a battle with Indians) become more suspect. Actually, and stop reading if you don't know how the film ends, I was a bit disappointed with the concluding developments. The outlaw is made too villainous - I accept that he's murderous, and even dishonest, but did he have to be dishonorable too? When he shoots the prospector and waits to ambush the others he becomes too evil, and the story's intriguing moral ambiguity is shot to hell.

No matter; while the movie doesn't end the way it might, neither does this turn of events diminish the power of what came before. Besides, if it weren't for the ambush, we wouldn't get that compelling picture up top, would we? Anyway, I guess I had a bit more to say on the subject than I though. So I turn the table to you, readers. What did you think of the film - and are their any other observations you'd like to add (not that I'm ever not looking for comments after a post, but you get the idea).


Ed Howard said...

This is one of my favorite Manns as well, though all his Westerns are amazing (and Man of the West and The Man From Laramie both edge this one out). It's typical of the Westerns he made with Stewart in that the star does not play a conventionally heroic role but is wracked with guilt and moral conflicts, and hesitates to do the "right" thing until the very last moment. Mann seems to be interested in the conflicts between morality and self-interest -- and he sees morality as severely disadvantaged in that battle. I don't really agree with you about the ending here, because the focus of Mann's ambiguity is always on his hero: the villain is the villain and will act as evil as the story requires of him, but the twist in Mann's films is just how debased the hero can be at times. Mann has many craven, purely evil villains in his films, because his essential theme is how ordinary people respond to evil, which is generally to ignore it and hope it goes away. Even here, Stewart isn't going after Ryan because he's evil, or because of justice, but because it's in his own self-interest to do so.

Joel Bocko said...

You're right that Stewart remains ambiguous to the end, but I guess I was surprised by Ryan's character because he didn't seem purely evil until the end.

I've got Man From Laramie on my DVR too so I look forward to it.

Dean Treadway said...

I couldn't have said it better than Ed Howard. It's interesting you reviewed this today, cause I just watched the final Anthony Mann western I haven't seen, MAN OF THE WEST. Compared to NAKED SPUR, TIN STAR, and especially WINCHESTER '73, I feel that it's a bit of a step down in the series. I think my main problem is the casting; Cooper's too taciturn, Lee J. Cobb is acting to the cheap seats, and the female lead was rather bland. Plus, the band of villains Cobb had with him were rather toothless (though I did enjoy Royal Dano's non-speaking role). And I felt the situation was just too outlandish to be believed.

But there's something about all the Stewart/Mann westerns that just clicks together. Their scripts are all complex dissections of motive and action, on both sides of morality, and each film is impeccably cast and performed, right down to the smallest roles. I think Mann was thrown by having Cooper instead of Stewart, and it brought MAN OF THE WEST down a notch right at go.

Ed Howard said...

Dean, I don't think Man of the West is hurt by its casting, but it's definitely a different film than it might've been with Stewart in the lead. Cooper's square-jawed do-gooderism is quite different from the raw nerves and moral ambiguity that Stewart brought to Mann's films. With Stewart, the tension in the film arises from the possibility that he will fail to do the right thing, while this is never genuinely in doubt with Cooper. Instead, the tension in Man of the West arises from seeing such a good man thrust into a situation that seems to call for a more morally ambiguous figure. It's different than the other Mann Westerns in that way, but no less interesting for it. It's also one of Mann's most visually fascinating films; he makes great use of the widescreen format, especially in some of the showdowns.

Incidentally, Mann did want Stewart for the role in that film, but they had a falling-out when Mann declined to direct the Stewart Western Night Passage. As a result, Stewart refused to work with the director anymore.

Dean Treadway said...

I agree with a lot of what you're saying. But I also submit that, while Cooper is well-cast as a moral man, it's where it's revealed that he was at one time an immoral one that's hard for me to believe--he's too squeaky clean to believe. On the other hand, for instance, Gregory Peck played, in THE GUNFIGHTER, a formerly immoral man trying to go straight. But he's believable. So is Clint Eastwood in UNFORGIVEN, a similar role. Eastwood and Peck both are tenacious in showing their reformed sides, but their nasty side easily peeks through, and it makes the tension between the two harshly palpable. I don't think this ever works with Cooper. He never looks mean; even in his most violent moments, there's not much of a sign that he's actually digging getting another taste of his former self. I have other problems with Cooper--he's largely boring here, a far cry from the fireworks of Will Kane in HIGH NOON. I dunno what the problem is; he largely seems to be sleepwalking here.

You're absolutely right about Mann's trenendous use of the widescreen. I forgot to trumpet that; there are some incredible vistas and well-used empty spaces between the characters, particularly in its final third. It's not a bad movie; it's just not on the level of the Stewart westerns for me. Still, it's essential viewing.

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