172) The Naked Spur (1953) Dir: Anthony Mann Date Released: February 1953 Date Seen: June 7th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
There's an unusual spontaneity to Anthony Mann's normally meticulously composed images of bodies in The Naked Spur. You can see it in the way that you can't always get a clear shot of Jimmy Stewart when he's tussling with Robert Ryan or how the camera hesitates a little more than it should during group shots of Stewart's posse and his bounty right before he transitions to a close-up. You can also see it in the way that, just after Robert Ryan says what deceptively sounds like the film's tagline--"Plain arithmetic. Money splits better two ways instead of three"--the camera accidentally crash zooms into Janet Leigh before showing Millard Mitchell and Stewart clumped together on her right.
That last bit of unrehearsed visual experimentation reflects the curiously jerky nature of the film's melodrama. Stewart plays Edward Kemp, a sweaty, beleaguered bounty hunter on the trail of badman Ben Vandergroat (Ryan). Kemp and Vandergroat don't have a personal score to settle--Kemp is simply turning in Vandergroat because of the $5,000 price tag hanging over his head--but they do squabble over Lina (Leigh), Vandergroat's girl. While the feud between Kemp and his two new partners, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), takes the foreground of the film's drama, the tug-of-war for Lina's hand quietly commands the film's focus, making what looks like a botched zoom seem fraught with veiled insinuations.
Lina bounces from Vandergroat to Kemp and back so roughly that it's no wonder that Mann's wandering camera had trouble picking her out from the rest of the boys. She's the one rare exception to Mann's sustained dedication to fleshing out all of his characters, which is especially admirable in Roy's case considering how he could have just as easily been tossed aside like a necessary means to an inevitable end (hint: Vandergroat doesn't stay tied up forever). There's never a moment when she enjoys the limelight like the other guys, not even when she's justifying her love to a snarling but out-of-breath Kemp at film's end.* She's a rough edge that screenwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom weren't quite able to smooth out but considering how many great one-liners and individually memorable scenes they supply the film with, it's no wonder why it's one of the cornerstones of Mann's career.
*Stewart's brutal performance in this one surprised me. Just goes to show ya how versatile the guy was. Why, Mr. Smith, what a big gun you have!