Naked Spur, The (1953): Anthony Mann’s Superb Oscar-Nominated Western, Starring Jimmy Stewart, Robert Ryan, and Janet Leigh

The Naked Spur is a superb Western from director Anthony Mann who, along with Budd Boetticher, created an outstanding series of engrossing, thoughtful, and challenging films that helped keep the genre fresh and vital during the 1950s.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Jimmy Stewart plays Howard Kemp, the obsessed, disillusioned Civil War veteran who returns home to find he had lost his land.  To raise the money need to regain his land, Kemp decides to become a bounty hunter and enters the Colorado Territory in search of the escaped killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), who has a 5,000 reward on his head.  Van is accompanied by Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), a lonely woman wishing to escape to California.

While searching for Van, Kemp picks up a pair of companions: Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), a grizzled prospector, and Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), a dishonorably discharged Union soldier.

The two drifters believe Kemp to be a lawman and agree to help him capture Vandergroat; they corner the fugitive and Patch on a rugged hillside and take them as prisoners.  However, when they learn that Kemp is just a bounty hunter, they demand an equal share of the reward.  Kemp refuses and Van sees a chance to escape via a clever campaign to pit the men against each other during a seven-day trip through dangerous Indian territory back to Abilene.

In this tightly directed Western, Mann’s protagonists, once again, allow the desire for vengeance to consume their sense of honor and decency. The journey becomes a process of near-religious revelation that ultimately allows one of them to achieve a state of grace.  On-location shooting of Colorado’s rugged landscape greatly benefits from the masterful touch of cinematographer William Mellor.

Actor-Director Collaborations: Stewart and Anthony Mann

The Naked Spur is one of the eight films that star Jimmy Stewart made with director Anthony Man in the 1950s in what’s one of the most fertile collaborations in Hollywood’s history.   Mann, like Hitchcock but unlike Capra, brought out another facet of Stewart’s all-American persona, one that’s edgier, moodier, and darker.

The third of five Western collaborations between Stewart and Mann, The Naked Spur followed the equally impressive “Winchester ’73” (1950) and “Bend of the River” (1952).

That same year, Mann and Stewart made two other films, “Thunder Bay” and the blockbuster his, “The Glenn Miller Story,” making Stewart one of Hollywood’s busiest and most popular stars.

Robert Ryan, known for his roles as ruthless villains and hard-boiled cops, would work with Mann again in “Men in War” (1957) and “God’s Little Acre” (1958).

Janet Leigh had starred alongside Ryan in Fred Zinnemann’s film noir “Act of Violence” (1948). We seldom think of Leigh as an actress in the Western genre, but she gives a strong performance (not to mention sexy, dressed in blue jeans and boots).

Oscar Nominations: 1

Story and Screenplay: Same Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom

Oscar Context

The winner in this category was “Titanic,” scripted by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard Breen.

Commercial Appeal

The movie was commercially successful, earning $2.4 million in the US and $1.4 overseas, generating revenue of about $1 million.

Cultural Status:

In 1997, The Naked Spur was added to the US National Registry, as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.