The westerns that James Stewart made with director Anthony Mann in the 1950s infused the genre with a psychological intensity and psychopathic edge and brutal The Naked Spur (1953), their third collaboration, may be their best.
Stewart is the hard, angry bounty hunter Howard Kemp tracking outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) through the deceptively beautiful mountain wilderness of the Midwest. He finds himself saddled with two unwanted partners, a sourdough prospector who sees his motherload in the bounty on Ben’s head (Millard Mitchell, who played Stewart’s sidekick in the earlier Mann western Winchester ’73) and a dishonorably discharged cavalry officer (Ralph Meeker). And when Howard finally catches up with Ben, the outlaw’s tomboyish sidekick Lina (Janet Leigh) becomes increasingly torn between duty to her desperate guardian and her growing attraction to Howard.
It becomes a battle wits and wiles as Ben probes and prods at the tenuous alliance of his captors. Mann sets it against a rugged landscape of jutting peaks, narrow passes, and torrential rivers that that mirrors the emotional turmoil of the drama. It’s as gorgeous as it is dangerous: a well-protected plateau becomes a sniper’s perch, an old mine turns from protective cave to dangerous cave-in. It all culminates in a brutal stand-off next to a white water churning of a raging river, where Mann brilliantly uses jagged landscape as a deadly battleground where nature itself becomes an enemy.
Stewart delivers the most ruthless performance of his career as a man haunted by betrayal unwilling to trust and unable to love and Ryan’s jovial banter and charm masks a cold-blooded savagery. Ryan once claimed that it’s his favorite performance.
The DVD features a bonus vintage short and a classic cartoon.