The significance of the title "The Naked Spur" is twofold. On the one hand it has a literal meaning, referring to an incident in which one character, attempting to climb a rock-face to take an adversary by surprise, is betrayed by the noise his spurs make against the rock. On the other, there is also a symbolic reference to the motives of the characters, spurred on by naked greed.
None of the characters is altogether free of this vice, which is surprising given that the leading role is played by James Stewart, an actor who in most of his previous films had played men who were unambiguously sympathetic. In this film, however, he was clearly attempting to extend his range. His character, Howard Kemp, is a bounty hunter trying to capture an outlaw named Ben Vandergroat, who is fleeing from Kansas, where he is wanted for murder, to California. Kemp intends to take Vandergroat back to Abilene to stand trial. He is not, however, motivated by indignation at Vandergroat's crimes or by sympathy for his victims, but rather by the $5000 reward he will receive.
Along the way Kemp has, somewhat reluctantly, acquired two companions, an unsuccessful elderly gold prospector named Jesse Tate and Roy Anderson, a former soldier dishonourably discharged from the Army. (His discharge, however, does not prevent him from continuing to wear military uniform). With their help he manages to capture Vandergroat who, to his surprise, has a female companion, his mistress Lina. The five begin their journey back to Abilene, but it is clear that Kemp's problems are only just beginning. Vandergroat may be a rogue, but he is a cunning and plausible one. He tells Jesse and Roy about the reward money for his capture, something of which Kemp has deliberately kept them ignorant. In a bid to regain his freedom, he skilfully manipulates the weaknesses of his captors, Roy's eagerness for a share of the reward, Jesse's hunger for gold and Kemp's growing attraction to the beautiful Lina.
Visually, this is one of the most attractive Westerns ever made, with breathtaking photography of the Colorado Rockies. Apart from its visual splendours, it is also a very good example of a type of Western which was becoming more popular in the fifties, the psychological, character-driven Western which concentrated more on interactions between the various characters than on action. All the main roles are well played, including Robert Ryan as the vicious but wily Vandergroat, Ralph Meeker as the aggressive, amoral Roy (one can well understand why the Army decided it could afford to dispense with his services) and Millard Mitchell as Jesse. This role owes something to another elderly prospector, Howard in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", but unlike Walter Huston's character, Jesse has not been taught by experience to beware of what gold can do to men's souls. (I wonder if the fact that Kemp has the Christian name Howard is a reference to the earlier film).
The two most morally complex characters are Lina and Kemp, the only two who survive at the end of the film. Although Lina might be the daughter of one outlaw and the lover of another, she is basically a decent person who has been deceived by Vandergroat; he has falsely assured her that he is innocent of the accusations against him. Kemp also has a spark of decency within him. Although he is by no means an unambiguous hero, neither is he a straightforward villain. Although the reward for Vandergroat is payable "dead or alive", Kemp always refuses to kill him, preferring to take him back to Abilene alive so that he can stand trial. In the course of the film we learn exactly why he is so obsessed with claiming the reward for Vandergroat's capture. While he was away fighting in the Civil War (the action takes place in the late 1860s, shortly after the end of the war) he was deceived by his fiancée who not only left him for another man but also sold his farm and kept the proceeds. He needs the $5000 in order to buy the farm back and, as he sees it, regain his self-respect. The ending of the film, in which Kemp abandons that ambition in favour of a new life with Lina, can be seen as his redemption scene as he realises that self-respect cannot be bought by hunting a man down for the price on his head. James Stewart's decision to abandon his normal clean-cut image to play a flawed, ambiguous character was clearly a wise one, as he gave one of the best performances of his career.
The film received one Oscar nomination but was otherwise overlooked by the Academy. Admittedly, 1953 was a strong year, but I suspect that this neglect may have owed something to the Academy's traditional disregard of the Western genre, seen as providing only cheap entertainment. Today, however, we can see from films like "The Naked Spur" (and others from this period such as "High Noon" and "The Big Country") that it is a genre capable of far more than that. 8/10
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