NY Times profiles the career of the talented actor Robert Ryan. The profile is headlined by a photo of an under-appreciated gem of a Western called “The Naked Spur”, directed by the under-appreciated Anthony Mann.
Mann cut his teeth on film noir and carried that sensibility over to the Western genre. He found the perfect crossover star for his efforts in Jimmy Stewart. Stewart was known for his decency, kindness and All-American wholesomeness in films such as Harvey and Destry Rides Again, but Mann was one of few directors (Hitchcock being the other) who appreciated how much rage, grief and darkness Stewart could call up on screen. Glimmers of this ability are evident as early in his career as It’s a Wonderful Life (A frequently bitter and dark film now mis-recalled as a light bit of Christmas fluff), but it came to full flower after his service in World War II when his career was on shaky ground and Mann came to the rescue.
In Winchester ’73, when Stewart’s grief-ridden character (Lin McAdam) mashes Dan Duryea’s face into the bar and painfully twists Duryea’s gun arm, the rage in Stewart’s eyes is frightening; Duryea looks scared that Stewart is really going to hurt him. The Naked Spur features another psychologically damaged Stewart character who cannot accept that what is lost is lost forever, no matter how much vengeance you take. With able assistance from Mann and two other noir icons (Ralph Meeker of Kiss Me Deadly and Robert Ryan of the Set-Up), Stewart delivers a cowboy movie with psychic weight. The mix of emotions with which you leave the theater is reminiscent of those evoked by Client Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning Unforgiven (A long-standing admirer of Stewart, as he describes here).
If you live in New York City, do yourself a favor and see this great film on the big screen when it plays at the film forum. Otherwise, remember that The Naked Spur is one of the reasons that God gave us Netflix.