Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jimmy Stewart Naked!

Well, maybe not. More accurately, thankfully not. However, yesterday's viewing selection for me was the James Stewart western The Naked Spur.

World War II obviously had a major effect on Stewart. After he returned to Hollywood from the war, he began to play much more complex, seemingly troubled, characters, who were set apart somewhat from the rest of society. From George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life to the professor who inadvertently gives two murders an idea in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope to the peeping tom photographer in Rear Window, it's a character type that was much darker than what Stewart had done before the war, and which Stewart usually did quite well.

In The Naked Spur, things are no different. Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a man in pre-statehood Colorado searching for an outlaw. He meets gold panner Jesse Tate (played by Mallard Mitchell), and enlists his help for the princely sum of $20 in gold coins. Eventually the two find the outlaw, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan doing another good job as the heavy) holed up atop a rock formation; with the help of a third man, discharged Army officer Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), they capture Ben, and find that he's there with his girlfriend Lina (Janet Leigh in her first major role).

It's here that things really get interesting: Kemp hasn't been entirely forthcoming about what he's doing; specifically, there's a $5,000 reward on the head of Ben, and Kemp wants that money so he can buy back his ranch. Ben realizes that Howard's two new friends would want some of the money, too, and begins a psychological campaign to drive wedges between the three men, as they try to bring Ben back to justice in Abilene, Kansas. The Naked Spur is not without action, however, as there is a shootout with Indians, and the eventual climax which involves another shootout on yet another rock formation and a raging river.

Direction is handled by Anthony Mann, who made several westerns with Stewart in the 1950s. Mann filmed on location in Colorado, and in Technicolor, although the print TCM showed seemed a bit blurry (but not particularly faded). It's an effective movie, and one I have no qualms recommending, but to be honest, it does feel as though there's something missing. However, it's available on DVD for viewing whenever you want.

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