Of the half-dozen westerns Jimmy Stewart made with ace genre director Anthony Mann in the 1950s, this is widely considered the best. Stewart plays a bounty hunter whose situation gets stickier than expected when he crosses paths with an old prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a shady lieutenant (Ralph Meeker) who’s been booted from the cavalry, and his crafty prey (Robert Ryan) tries setting the three men against one another. (Janet Leigh is the tomboy love interest.)
Made at a time when Stewart was developing his screen persona in interesting directions, relying less on his natural aw-shucks demeanor and leaning into obsession, The Naked Spur is a kind of dress rehearsal for the full-on dementia of Stewart’s greatest performance, in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. On a larger scale, it builds on the concept of the western antihero, studying avarice and folly with the same keen eye Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood would employ a decade later in their more self-aware spaghetti westerns.
Finally, as a movie movie, it’s just a lot of fun, with sharp dialogue, engaging performances, beautiful photography in Colorado’s San Juan mountain range, and a clever, keep-an-eye-on-this-guy plotline. Its recent release on DVD fills another big hole for movie buffs.
Originally published in the White Plains Times, August 24, 2006.