Film Recommendation: The Naked Spur

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

12 thoughts on “Film Recommendation: The Naked Spur”

  1. Also, Stewart had a very active and distinguished war as a bomber pilot; his service changed him, something he was reticent about but which he drew on in his post-war films.

  2. Stewart was always my favorite actor. Aside from the gifts you described, he had an innate feel for light comedy as well. One of the cable channels has been running The Man From Laramie, another of my many favorite Stewart westerns.

    For those who prefer a differnt genre, try Call Northside 7777 in which a young Stewart plays an investigative reporter who reopens a long dormant murder case in Chicago.

    My favorite of all may have been Anatomy of a Murder opposite George C. Scott, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and a memorable collection of character actors where Stewart’s character defends a soldier who may or may not have been legally insane when he killed the man who allegedly raped his wife. This movie is blessed with one of the great scores ever composed for film, by none other than Duke Ellington!

  3. I could not agree with you more. The Naked Spur and Winchester ’73 are two of the most gripping Westerns ever, and Stewart is a revelation. The Man From Laramie (thanks, Redwave72) is outstanding, too.

  4. Robert Ryan has always been one of my favourite actors. He played good guys and bad guys with equal dexterity. Off-screen, he also lived a very interesting life.

    One of my favourite arthouse-cinema moments was back in the late ’90s at a packed-house Friday-night screening of ‘The Wild Bunch’. As you may recall, there’s the scene where Ryan’s Deke Thornton snarlingly dismisses his posse as “you egg-suckin’, chicken stealing gutter trash” – as he spat those words out with great venom and his men cowered, the cinema audience cringed as well 🙂

    Jimmy, of course, is in a class all of his own. One of the best tributes to him that I have ever read can be found in Dale Thomajan’s ‘From Cyd Charisse To Psycho: A Book Of Movie Bests’, a very re-readable book also in a class all of its own.

  5. Speaking of Anthony Mann, Jimmy Stewart, and Netflix: coming up on my queue are Mann-directed T-Men and Stewart-starring The Shop Around the Corner. The latter is well-known to your readers, I’m sure, but T-Men may not be so familiar — it’s good (and the great John Alton was the cinematographer) — check it out, everybody!

    Another Mann/Alton collaboration was Border Incident; it not only stars a serious Ricardo Montalban but (a real bonus for old leftists) George Murphy gets killed.

  6. Karl: I love T-men!
    Few people know that He Walked By Night is also a Mann/Alton collaboration, because Alfred Werker was the Director of record (not sure why he got the credit and not Mann). It’s a suspenseful police procedural film that inspired the creation of Dragnet, and includes some superbly lighted chase scenes reminiscent of the Third Man. I got it and T-men and a bunch of good Edgar J. Robinson films on one of those zillion movies for $5 bucks DVD packets (It was called “Suspense!”–sorry can’t find it on line I bought it at Fry’s).

  7. Kudos on the recommend! Naked Spur and Winchester 73 are two films I love steering people toward. Props to Anthony Mann (he packs more action–and not just action for action’s sake, but intensely character-driven action–into a smaller space than damn near anybody) and to Robert Ryan (no one could do the workaday Mephistopheles like RR: see also Billy Budd) but the true revelation in these films is that they show you explicitly what makes Stewart Stewart. That dark dimension inflects his performances throughout his career, and it’s what allows him to come across on the screen as a fully-rounded and sympathetic character. (Think of Philadelphia Story, when as the proletarian reporter he snaps that bit into the telephone about the rich being cursed “to the seventh son of the seventh son”: it’s a joke, but it’s not a joke, and you feel it.) Anger usually puts people off, but Stewart was uniquely able to display anger as painful; in his characters, anger isn’t an indulgence, it’s an affliction, and it pulls you toward the character instead of pushing you away. No one else has ever done that anger-as-pain thing quite the same way.

  8. Thanks for the tip, I’m stopping at a Fry’s as soon as I get off work today (and yes, He Walked By Night is most excellent); we call these films noir but I prefer the other French term “policier” to describe the genre, it’s not unknown in English — I don’t know why it never caught on. Keep up the recommendations, you are now as trusted a source for movies as you are for medicine.

  9. That darkness in Jimmy Stewart can be seen from his earliest roles. Such as After the Thin Man, the film that first really brought him to everyone’s attention.

  10. I’m so glad to see this tribute to Robert Ryan — check out “Day of the Outlaw”, which is really a noir, disguised as a Western. The character he plays there has elements of both hero and villain.

  11. I am delighted to see that there are so many Jimmy Stewart fans on RBC, had no idea.

    RedWave: Yes on Man from Laramie, just watched that again not long ago and it holds up very well. Northside 777 is also excellent I agree, in part because of the great chemistry between Stewart and his boss, Lee J. Cobb. In Anatomy of a Murder, look fast in the nightclub scene to see Duke Ellington actually in the film, he’s at the piano in a nightclub scene IIRC.

    David: Yes, Stewart made general I think, and while he could have used his fame to avoid service, admirably chose not to do so.

    C.S.: I thought about that film when I wrote, but decided not to mention it because I think that was a bit different in that it was not until virtually the last scene that he displays the rage, and it seemed mainly to surprise us because it was in contrast to his usual image (I guess I am saying it was a bit contrived, script wise)…it didn’t work as well as when it was integrated into his character as it was in later films. But still the movie is well worth watching, the best of the sequels to the classic The Thin Man.

    karl: I hope I did not send you on a wild goose chase and you find the DVD with They Walk by Night. I have a hunch the one I bought was made by a fly by night operation it may be hard to find. Good luck (and thanks for the kind words).


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