Cast & Crew
In 1868, Howard Kemp encounters an old prospector, Jesse Tate, in the Colorado Rockies. Howard says he has come from Kansas in search of a man who killed a marshal, and offers to pay Jesse twenty dollars if he will help him find the fugitive. They set off together but are soon ambushed on the trail by a man on a ledge above them, who starts a rock slide. Howard shoots at his attacker, and although the man escapes, Lt. Roy Anderson rides up in response to the shots. Roy tells Howard and Jesse he is an Indian hunter, and shows them his recent dishonorable discharge from the Cavalry. Roy succeeds in scaling the cliff and confronts the outlaw, Ben Vandergroat, but is attacked from behind by Ben's companion, Lina Patch. While the two men are struggling, Howard and Jesse come to Roy's aid and capture Ben. Jesse, who had always assumed that Howard was a sheriff, is surprised when Ben informs him there is a five-thousand dollar bounty on his head. Jesse indignantly returns his twenty-dollar fee and insists that he and Roy share in the reward money. Howard has no choice but to agree, and as the group sets off for Abilene, Ben shrewdly begins sowing discord and suspicion among his captors. After Lina rebuffs Roy's romantic advances, Ben explains that he was a friend of her late father and has made himself the young woman's guardian. That night, at the campfire, Ben chides Howard for bounty hunting, and alludes to a woman in Howard's past. The next day, Howard and Jesse sight Blackfoot Indians, and Roy admits they have been pursuing him since he left the fort because he took advantage of the chief's daughter. Not wanting to share his fate, the others force Roy to ride off alone. The Indians approach the rest of the group peaceably, but when Roy ambushes their leader, a gun battle breaks out that leaves the Indians dead and Howard wounded in the leg. Roy rejoins the group, and when Howard passes out from the pain, they set up camp for the night. In his delirium, Howard calls Lina "Mary" and assures her he will soon be home from the war to marry her. Ben tells the others that Howard signed over his cattle ranch to a woman named Mary before going to war, only to discover upon his return that she had sold it and run away with another man. The journey continues, and one night, Ben asks Lina to distract Howard, who has begun to show tender feelings for her, so he can escape. Fearing that Ben will kill Howard otherwise, she agrees. Later, while Jesse and Roy are asleep, Lina listens as Howard talks wistfully about buying back his beloved ranch when he collects the reward money. Howard asks Lina to join him on the ranch, and they kiss. Just then, Ben attempts to escape but Roy stops him. Roy proposes that they kill Ben, but Howard is unable to shoot him in cold blood. Howard refuses to let Roy kill him either, and the following day, Ben watches with amused satisfaction as Howard fights savagely with Roy to protect him. Ben secretly offers to lead Jesse to a rich gold mine in exchange for his freedom, and as they sneak away that night, Ben insists that they take Lina with them. On the road, Ben takes Jesse's rifle and kills him, to Lina's horror. He then drags Lina to a rocky cliff from which he can easily ambush Howard and Roy. Lina tries to grab the gun, but he knocks her out, and a shootout ensues. Howard removes a spur and uses it to make his way up the rocky face of the cliff. He hurls the spur at Ben and catches him in the face just as Roy comes from the other direction and shoots the outlaw. Ben falls into the river below and is carried away by the current. Roy attempts to retrieve Ben's body from the rushing water, but is struck by a log and killed. Howard uses a rope to bring Ben ashore and flings the body over his saddle, but when Lina says she will go with him, Howard realizes what he has sunk to and weeps with disgust. After burying Ben, Howard and Lina ride off together.
Harold Jack Bloom
Stephen Collins Foster
Howard W. Koch
Edwin B. Willis
William H. Wright
Best Writing, Screenplay
The Naked Spur
It may be difficult to comprehend today what a risk Stewart took when he began, in the 1950s, to accept roles far removed from the sweet-and-gawky persona he had, by then, perfected. Popular memory may think of Stewart's films with Alfred Hitchcock as the definitive break from his ebullient Frank Capra roles, but it was with Mann, not Hitchcock, that Stewart first began playing characters at war with their inner demons. Of course, It's a Wonderful Life (1946) showed this side of Stewart - just think of him on the Bedford Falls bridge, terrified and suicidal in the moment before Clarence dives into the churning water. But not until he began working with Mann did Stewart play a character whose very being was in torment.
In each of the five Westerns he made with Mann, Stewart plays essentially the same character: a hard-nosed loner (though often with an older male sidekick), either out to avenge a past wrong or to redeem himself after committing a wrong against others. In Winchester '73 (1950), he hunts down his patricidal brother; in Bend of the River (1952), he is a former bounty hunter trying to "go straight" when an old acquaintance (the underrated Arthur Kennedy) shows up to test Stewart's newfound commitment to peace. In The Naked Spur, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a Civil War veteran who returns home to find that he has lost his land. To get his property back, Stewart decides to become a bounty hunter and he enters the Colorado territory in pursuit of outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). Along the way, Stewart picks up two companions, played by Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell. Vandergroat is accompanied by the young and beautiful Lina Patch (Janet Leigh). In this physical and psychological journey, the five characters shift alliances and blur moral lines until, at last, Stewart's deeply buried humanity rises to the surface. But this is at the film's end. Throughout most of The Naked Spur, Stewart is as unsympathetic as the villain. In one scene, Stewart uses his gun to beat an Indian to death and his vengeful demons keep him beating the man until long after his death is apparent. Not until John Wayne's portrayal of Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers (1956), would audiences see a Western hero more tortured, more possessed of hatred.
With the exception of the dark scene in the cave, the entire film was shot on location in Rocky Mountain National Park. Cinematographer William Mellor (who won Oscars for his work on A Place in the Sun  and The Diary of Anne Frank, 1959) uses crisp Technicolor to capture the harsh landscape. Mann's films regularly use the landscape to express the characters' inner states. As critic Jim Kitses notes, "the terrain is so colored by the action that finally it seems an inner landscape, the unnatural world of a disturbed mind." During filming, the actors stayed in cabins 25 miles from the town of Durango, Colorado. According to Janet Leigh, Jimmy Stewart and his wife, Gloria, stayed "in the same quarters Clark Gable and Lady Ashley lived in when Gable shot Lone Star (1951) in this area a year or so before. Evidently Lady Ashley had done some remodeling so theirs boasted the most modern decor."
On the set, Stewart was as nice as they came. Leigh tells of a scene between she, Ryan and Stewart. Because of lighting problems, they weren't able to shoot Leigh and Ryan's close-ups. According to Leigh: "Howard Koch, the A.D. dismissed Jimmy for the day, since his work was done. Jimmy, as only he can, said, "Well, I can't do that, you see, because, well, that just wouldn't be right, now would it? I think I'll just - hang around - and be off camera - for my friends there." And he stayed the entire tedious afternoon, only to play the scene in back of the camera, while it was focused on us. Now, that is a pro!"
For Leigh, The Naked Spur was a major departure from the forgettable ingenue roles that MGM had foisted on her. Her husband, Tony Curtis, had a minor role in Winchester '73, Mann and Stewart's first Western collaboration, but this was of little help to Leigh as Curtis' career had yet to prosper. Leigh did a screen test with Stewart and, as she says in her autobiography, they "sparked the proper chemistry." The rest of the cast is superb, especially Robert Ryan, whose portrayal of the laughing Vandergroat almost steals the movie (Mann so liked Ryan that he cast him in two of his non-Westerns: Men in War (1957) and God's Little Acre, 1958). Stewart, though, remains the focal point. His performance here is so good, so brutal, that his former aw-shucks persona is most definitely laid to rest.
Stewart made more films with Mann than with any other director, and although their films together aren't often mentioned in the same breath as those of Stanley Donen and Audrey Hepburn, or John Ford and John Wayne, theirs is one of the most successful collaborations in film history. And The Naked Spur is one of their best. The screenplay by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom was nominated for an Oscar, a rare recognition for a Western (it lost out to the screenplay for Titanic).
Producer: William H. Wright
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Sam Rolfe, Harold Jack Bloom
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Editing: George White
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: James Stewart (Howard Kemp), Janet Leigh (Lina Patch), Robert Ryan (Ben Vandergroat), Ralph Meeker (Roy Anderson), Millard Mitchell (Jesse Tate).
C-92m. Closed captioning.
by Mark Frankel
The Naked Spur
Naked Spur, The - James Stewart in Anthony Mann's THE NAKED SPUR on DVD
The title of The Naked Spur refers to a piece of gear worn by the main character, introduced during the credits with an abrupt pan from picturesque mountains in the distance to a jarring closeup of the spur. With the flair and economy that distinguish Mann's best movies, this prepares us for both the setting of the story-it starts and finishes on mountain heights--and its emphasis on the characters' intense, sometimes brutal emotions.
The plot centers on Howard Kemp, a former rancher who's hunting down Ben Vandergroat, a nasty galoot with a $5,000 price on his head. Unable to climb a steep mountainside and capture Ben at the top, Howard accepts help from two strangers who happen to cross his path: Jesse Tate, a gold prospector with rotten luck, and Roy Anderson, recently kicked out of the Union army for his "unstable" character. They soon get hold of Ben and his reluctant girlfriend, Lina Patch, and all five characters start a trek to Kansas, where the three "good" guys plan to turn Ben in and split the reward.
Ben does everything he can to get them fighting among themselves, of course, and the tension grows thicker when we discover that Howard isn't the bounty hunter we've assumed him to be. Quite the opposite, he's an ordinary guy who's been consumed by grief and rage ever since his fiancée stole everything he had while he was away on military service. But he's acting like a bounty hunter even if he doesn't feel like one, and his awareness of this is tearing him apart. His growing attraction to Lina doesn't simplify matters, either.
Mann's westerns have received much praise for their unusual psychological complexity and their recognition of violence as both destructive and self-destructive, not just a stylized vehicle for action-movie thrills. The psychology in The Naked Spur isn't just complicated, it's downright ornery, with a self-hating "hero" and a villain more good-humored and easy-going than his three captors put together. This is supplemented by some of the most jolting violence in any '50s western--from an Indian battle, where Howard kills a foe with his gun-butt, to a showdown, where Howard positively begs Ben to draw on him, even though Ben's hands are crippled from being tied together.
The Naked Spur earned high grosses in 1953. The screenplay by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom garnered an Academy Award nomination, and in 1997 the movie was added to the National Film Registry's list of culturally important pictures. This and the other Mann westerns helped consolidate Stewart's transformation from the swell-guy roles of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) to the conflicted-guy roles of Vertigo (1958) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), which stand with the finest accomplishments of his career.
The success of The Naked Spur paved the way for three more Mann-Stewart collaborations, two of which are westerns, and for two more Mann movies starring Robert Ryan, whose devil-may-care portrayal of Ben provides some of the film's most unsettling undercurrents. The story's sole woman is solidly played by Janet Leigh, still warming up for the triumphs ofTouch of Evil and Psycho, and Ralph Meeker, an extremely busy actor in the '50s, plays the soldier with an understated strangeness that clearly conveys what we'd now call a borderline personality. Millard Mitchell brings out the dark side of the prospector, making him refreshingly different from the clichéd comical sidekicks played by the likes of Gabby Hayes and Walter Brennan.
Another much-lauded aspect of Mann's westerns is their expressive camerawork, and William Mellor's cinematography for The Naked Spur shows why, etching sharp Technicolor contrasts between the emotional impact of facial close-ups and the ambiguity signaled by the mountainous terrain, filled with beauty yet looming with danger. The film also makes imaginative use of Bronislau Kaper's music, boldly omitting it during much of the action-filled climax. Too bad it isn't omitted during the romantic finale, though, when strains of "Beautiful Dreamer" push sentimentality into gloppiness.
In its psychologically acute screenwriting, its against-the-grain performances by Stewart and Ryan, and its attentiveness to mental and physical suffering, The Naked Spur embodies Hollywood's effort during the '50s to compete with television by offering grittier and truer visions than small-screen entertainment-or movies of previous decades-could provide. It also shows Mann at the peak of his powers, carving out a unique niche between the thrillers and noirs that he'd honed his talents on and the expansive epics that concluded his career in the 1960s.
Warner's crisp-looking DVD edition supplements the feature with sparkling MGM examples of the "extras" seen by moviegoers in '50s theaters: a funny Pete Smith Specialty short called Things We Can Do Without, detailing the downsides of modernistic houses, and Little Johnny Jet, a colorful Tex Avery cartoon. That's entertainment!
For more information about The Naked Spur, visit Warner Video. To order The Naked Spur, go to TCM Shopping.
by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt
Naked Spur, The - James Stewart in Anthony Mann's THE NAKED SPUR on DVD
Choosin' a way to die? What's the difference? Choosin' a way to live -- that's the hard part.- Ben Vandergroat
Now ain't that the way? A man gets set for trouble head-on and it sneaks up behind him every time!- Ben Vandergroat
That's life.- Roy Anderson
They're men, honey, and you ain't. Remember that.- Ben Vandergroat
You sat up with me?- Howard Kemp
Yeah.- Lina Patch
Why?- Howard Kemp
Somebody had to. You was raving so. No one could sleep.- Lina Patch
Why should you care?- Howard Kemp
Here you are. Breakfast in bed.- Ben Vandergroat
What's this?- Howard Kemp
You better eat it *before* we tell you.- Jesse Tate
The five principal actors in The Naked Spur, all of whose names appear above the title in the opening credits, are the only characters in the film, aside from non-speaking extras. The screenplay of The Naked Spur was later adapted as a novel by Allan Ullman (New York, 1953). According to a New York Times news item, Ullman believed that the $5,000 bounty on "Ben Vandergroat" was unrealistically high. His research indicated that the top bounty paid for killers in 1868 was about $800, so he reduced the reward to $1,500 in the novel. A February 1952 item in the "Rambling Reporter" column in Hollywood Reporter stated that M-G-M originally sought Richard Widmark for the role of Ben, and that Robert Horton had been cast in the part. Robert Ryan was borrowed from RKO for this production.
The film was shot on location in Durango, CO. According to information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at AMPAS Library, The Naked Spur was banned in India. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay. Many modern sources credit The Naked Spur (as well as Anthony Mann's other Westerns) with helping to redefine the genre, citing its dark psychological themes and dramatic use of open landscapes.
Released in United States February 1953
Released in United States June 1989
Released in United States March 1976
Released in United States Winter February 6, 1953
Shown at Film Forum in New York City June 6 & 7, 1989.
Selected in 1997 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in United States February 1953
Released in United States Winter February 6, 1953
Released in United States March 1976 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The 48-Hour Cowboy Movie Marathon) March 18-31, 1976.)
Released in United States June 1989 (Shown at Film Forum in New York City June 6 & 7, 1989.)