This is the type of plot where everything hinges on who is carrying the guns and where said guns are pointing. In Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur, none of the characters brandishing Colts are entirely trustworthy, including the usually folksy James Stewart.
Stewart plays Howard Kempe, a bounty hunter who picks up wanted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), but has to contend with a prospector (Millard Mitchell) and dishonourably discharged soldier (Ralph Meeker) who want a cut of the $5000 reward. Vandergroat slyly manipulates his uneasy captors, playing them off each other and using his companion Lina (Janet Leigh before Psycho) as visual distraction. All the ingredients are here for a taut “seige” picture of moral dilemma not dissimilar to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Unlike Huston’s film there are not many redeeming morals for the story’s proceedings. A peaceful encounter with a band of Blackfoot natives turns into a pointless bloodbath; Millard and Anderson are both duplicitous, as is Leigh’s complicated Linda, who works for Vandergroat but begins to fall for Stewart. Stewart goes through most of the movie grunting and snapping at the other actors, a growing anxiety under his carbuncular twang. His emotional collapse is startling (check out Johnny DiLoretto’s interesting piece on Stewart’s conflicted portrayal of mascunility).
Mann is an unfussy director, using the beautiful technicolor back drops of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Range and Bronislau Kaper’s menacing score to give the film a sense of space without losing its intense psychological focus on the five characters. François Truffaut calls Mann’s game “straightforward, he calls a horse a horse and doesn’t try to make us believe he’s shooting anything but a western.”