Saturday, June 08, 2019

The Naked Spur (MGM movie from 1953)




The Naked Spur (1953)

Director: Anthony Mann

The titles appear, in the kind of lettering that is reserved for westerns. Then, close-up on the shining steel spur of a rider. He is riding urgently through the scenery of the Rockies. He dismounts. Cut to an old-looking bearded man with mules, who is boiling coffee at a camp-fire. The rider steps out of the brush with his gun pointed –- Don’t move! The two get talking, at first suspiciously. The bearded man is Jesse, a keen but unsuccessful gold-miner, garrulous and amiable. The other is Howard Kemp (James Stewart) –- a lot of grey in his uncut hair, stern and possibly upright. Jesse persuades Kemp to put his gun away and to have some coffee. Kemp is searching for a man who shot someone in Kansas City. He takes a poster from his pocket and unrolls it. Jesse recognizes the picture. He has seen the man recently, and they finally reach an agreement; Jesse will lead him to the killer for 20 bucks; ten now, and ten more when they capture him.

We follow them to the spot. There’s signs of recent habitation, but the killer (who knows Kemp is on his trail), has moved on. They start to track him, interpreting the signs. The quarry are moving slowly –- there’s more than one of them, and it seems they have an injured horse. Just as Kemp and Jesse are ascending a narrow path below a cliff, they’re nearly taken out by a rockfall. Is it natural? They try to make the ascent again –- again the rocks come crashing down. So now they know that the killer is somewhere up there on the cliff-top.

They retreat out of range and make a plan. Jesse is to keep the outlaw busy by remaining below and firing frequently, while Kemp will try to scale a sheer part of the cliff and surprise him by emerging from another direction. But at this point in their deliberations they are interrupted. A stranger comes riding past. His name is Roy and he’s a discharged trooper. He doesn’t make a very favourable impression – blonde, handsome, moustached and cynical. It seems he’s caused trouble by seducing the daughter of a Red Indian chief. His discharge note calls him “morally unstable”. Roy asks what they’re doing and Jesse tells him. They’re expecting Roy to continue on his way, but in the event he tags along behind them to the foot of the cliff, apparently as an indolent observer. Jesse begins the diversionary action as planned. Rocks tumble down, Jesse keeps up a mechanical fusillade. Kemp starts to climb the cliff-face, but half-way up he makes a mistake and falls, winded. Then Roy steps forward –- why don’t I have a go? We see Kemp’s reluctance and distaste. But Roy proves to be an athletic climber and he makes it to the top.

Cut to the cliff-top. Ben, the killer, is up there, and holed up with him is a good-looking blonde girl with a shorn “orphan” cut –- Leena (Janet Leigh). Roy leaps on the outlaw, and the others follow close behind. After a brief struggle Ben (Robert Ryan) is overpowered. Apparently he was out of ammunition, hence the rockslides. He is dirty, unshaven, has a mass of curly dark hair, bright eyes and a lot of blarney. He will prove to be cunning and resourceful; and Leena is his ally.

At this point Kemp tries to pay Jesse off with the remaining ten bucks and to get rid of Roy. From now on, he insists, he’ll manage alone. But Roy has already figured that there must be a reward for Ben’s capture. And so there is. Ben quickly unfolds his own copy of the Wanted poster for his arrest –-“$5,000 Reward, Dead or Alive”, it says (Kemp had cut off the bottom line). Jesse and Roy now point out that they have played a big part in capturing Ben. So a scowling Kemp is forced to take on two partners.

They tie Ben’s hands in front of him – this apparently means that he can’t escape. Why had he holed up and not kept on going? Because one of their horses was sick. They walk over to inspect the horse -– it’s Leena’s. It’s lying down and has difficulty breathing. Kemp decides to shoot the horse –- Leena pleads, and Ben takes her aside and puts his arms over her head to hug her, his hands still tied. This is an image that will recur several times. Is it fatherly or sexual? And we hear the shot. Not much to endear Leena to Kemp at this stage.

Now the journey to bring Ben to justice in Abilene begins. This is the essential image of the film –- these five people out in the wilds. We will never see a single building. (“Shot on location in the Rockies”, the credits say proudly.) This is a cut-down account of the film, from one viewing, and a few details may be wrong. 

Ben has already begun to create tension between his captors. The others are journeying to collect a handsome reward; he’s journeying to be hanged. He may be (as Roy later says) “not a man, just a sack of money”, but he is a human being out here –- he eats, sleeps, rides –- and he can talk and make trouble. He alone knows Kemp, though probably less well than he pretends --  (he over-familiarly calls him “Howie”)  -- and he takes advantage of this to breed fresh suspicions.

Roy, a serial womanizer, tries to get fresh with Leena from the start. Ben doesn’t seem to mind. He starts to stir up sexual jealousy by predicting to Roy that Kemp will soon make an aggressive move on Leena. That’s the kind of man he is. “What he wants, he takes.”

Ben also chatters away to Jesse about gold-mining. Jesse is quite open about it; he’s been searching for years but he’s never made a strike. Ben tells him about a fellow he knew who did find a rich strike, just round here in fact, but who never could exploit it for lack of water.

Finally, Ben reflects, in everyone’s hearing, that a reward split only two ways would go a lot further than a reward split three ways.

The dialogue cracks along, while we watch the party organizing who’s going to ride behind whom, discussing directions, making camp under the stars. Around them is nothing but wild, wooded scenery, mountains and rivers.

Ben’s back aches, he complains of stiffness from riding with his hands tied. He likes to get Leena over to massage his back. Partly so they can have quiet conversations in which he can encourage her to use her good looks to cause dissent. Are you really hurt, or do you just like to be rubbed? she asks him – “A man needs what a man likes,” he replies. Since Ben is a captive up against the odds, there is a potential sympathy for him in our minds, and at such moments we, like Leena, have a soft spot for him and would like to think he is not a murderer.

The camera tracks up through a group of pale tree-trunks, and rests heart-stoppingly on a watching Indian*, mounted and armed. Seasoned viewers of westerns know that an Indian episode is always a colourful diversion, though here, as often, the film’s deeper interests do not include them.

[*Adopting the term used within the movie. Native Americans, of course. (Though the extras who played them probably weren't.)] 

Kemp has been the least talkative of the party. Ben makes sly innuendoes about Kemp’s past, hinting that he’s being driven by disappointed love for a woman who betrayed him. Ben is hitting him where it hurts, but Kemp manages not to lose it; he becomes ever more peremptory and bad-tempered. Is he fundamentally a good, principled, dutiful man in a hard land, or is he just after the money, or deranged by lost love? The portrayal of Kemp rides a thin line, casting doubt on whether these alternatives make sense. Is Kemp truly a real Man in some sense that is denied to Jesse, Roy and Ben? Is a hero anything other than a killer without a sense of humour? Is Kemp’s dream really of settling, or of ownership? – why does he seem to think that there’s a moral value to possessing a ranch? 

How Leena fixed up with Ben isn’t very clear, but she was an implausibly footloose orphan, and she thought that by going along with him she’d have a chance of settling in California, which appeals to her as a place where you can start a new life, and where no-one knows who you are. Ben has always claimed to her that he wasn’t the Kansas City killer. Kemp tells us the victim was found with a bullet in his back.  
When Kemp kneels over someone (the sick horse, or Ben), his leather chaps reveal a bright blue, baboon-like behind. Later, we’ll see Leena kneeling over Kemp and revealing her own plump, shapely ass in lilac, high-waisted slacks.

Kemp and Jesse have gone on ahead of the rest of the party, when they suddenly catch sight of a dozen Blackfeet, a hunting party south of their usual territory. “Hunting for what?” Kemp wonders.

They return to the others. Roy (a self-professed Indian killer) is for attacking the Indians. Why make trouble for ourselves? asks Kemp -– and more acutely: What are you afraid of, Roy? Roy is forced to admit that he realizes these Indians are looking for him, seeking revenge for his seduction (or rape?) of the chief’s daughter. Roy’s presence puts the rest of the party at risk. Kemp orders him to clear off, and Roy gallops away.

The rest proceed cautiously through the trees, and are soon being followed at a distance by the twelve braves. Kemp orders calm. Leena is beginning to respect him now. The camera pans aside to show us an anxious Roy, hiding behind a log as the Indians pass him by. Finally Kemp decides to turn and parley with the Indians. He raises a slow hand in greeting. The feathered leader of the hunting party responds. Then there’s a shot and the feathered man falls. Roy has chosen this moment to ambush.

A battle ensues. Eventually all the Indians are lying dead, strewn around the clearing. Kemp has been shot in the thigh. He’s furious with Roy for putting them all at risk (not, apparently, for causing the death of twelve innocent men). Kemp tries to ride on with the others, but he’s too badly hurt, and soon topples from his horse. Jesse squats over him and roughly wipes his face, causing Leena to intervene. She’s the natural nurse. The others make camp.

Cut to the night. Kemp is delirious with pain, moaning and revealing details of his past as a soldier, and the ranch he bought for his Mary, the ranch she sold up while he was away in the civil war. In his delirium he mistakes Leena for Mary and starts to embrace her. Reluctantly she listens to what the others tell her to do, and she makes soothing replies, speaking as if she was indeed his lost Mary.

Ben maliciously fills in details of Kemp’s sorry history. What Kemp wants to do now is buy a new ranch and start over. Jesse uprightly says that they shouldn’t be discussing this, it’s Kemp’s private business. But Ben points out: a split of the reward won’t be enough for Kemp to buy his ranch. And that is your business.

The party move on through the wilderness.

Kemp, slowly regaining strength, talks to Leena about his plans. He rhapsodizes about settling down. Leena says she couldn’t stand to think that his ranch was financed by Ben’s corpse. Kemp asks her what’s she doing tagging along with Ben. Leena denies being Ben’s mistress. Leena says that her dream was for Ben to buy a ranch when they made it to California. Kemp’s response is dismissive. Ben hasn’t got what it takes to be a rancher. The only thing Ben can do is make trouble.

Bad weather breaks –- thunder and heavy rain. They take refuge in a cave. Ben is complaining; he wants his back rubbed again. He must get away soon. “Time’s running out,” he tells Leena. She moves forward to the cave mouth where Kemp is on his own, begins a conversation and, a bit awkwardly, manages to sit down beside him. Kemp’s suspicions are gradually lulled. They talk about the music that the pattering rain is making on the tin mugs. Kemp begins to speak fervently about his ranch again. He says to her: when I’ve got it, I’d like you to come and see it. Do you realize what that means? He’s looking at her. He grabs her and they kiss passionately.

In that moment Ben makes his break for freedom, trying to clamber and wriggle through a passage in the back of the cave. After a clumsy struggle Kemp manages to haul him back. They’re in the main part of the cave again. Tempers flare, and Kemp unties Ben’s hands and invites him to draw (someone must have lent him a gun). Ben refuses; it’s three against one and he plainly hasn’t got a chance. Kemp, full of pent-up fury at his unwanted colleagues, and Ben, and Leena’s Judas kiss, looks like a killer himself now, with his hat pushed low over his head. Eventually everyone calms down, but only temporarily.

The rain stops and they move on, but they come to a swollen river that they can’t cross. They’ll have to make a long detour, delaying them for maybe nine days. But perhaps there might be a chance of getting across if they don’t have to watch out for Ben. Roy suggests they kill him –- after all, the reward would still be valid. Dead or Alive, it said. Leena pleads desperately and Kemp –- finally stilling the ghost of that shot horse –- backs her up. A brutal fist-fight breaks out between Roy and Kemp at the river’s edge; Kemp’s dislike for Roy has been simmering for ages. Kemp just about wins, but both of them are hammered. They can’t go on and the party are forced to make camp. Ben starts pleading for his back to be massaged again, but Jesse sends Leena off on other business. He humiliates Ben by giving him a vicious back-rub with the point of his rifle. It’s untypically mean behaviour by Jesse and it probably seals his fate.

Roy and Kemp are exhausted and out of action. Ben is talking to Jesse about his friend’s goldmine again. Jesse says -– You mean, your mine. You wanted me to figure it out and you were trying to hook me. Yes, Ben admits, if you’d only help me to get away, then maybe we could work the mine together. Jesse thinks he’s got the upper hand and can drive a hard bargain. He insists on sole ownership of the mine if he helps Ben escape. Ben objects violently at first, but in the end he gives in. “I’m in no position to argue”. As Jesse moves away, we see Ben’s suppressed whoop. He’s finally located the weak link.

That night, Jesse wakes Ben and unties him. Ben insists on taking Leena along with them, and Jesse has to give way. Ben wakes Leena with a hand over her mouth. The party finally breaks up.

Cut to Jesse, Ben and Leena –- it’s daylight now. Their path has kept them by the turbulent river. They stop to discuss the route. Ben’s words harden suddenly. Almost without warning, he pulls his gun. Jesse begins to think about making a different arrangement, conscious of the suddenly altered circumstances. Ben says to him: “Thinking was always your problem, Jesse.” And he shoots him in the heart. It’s a palpable shock. These had been five human beings. And now Leena knows for sure what kind of man Ben is.

He forces her up to a cliff-top, and starts firing more bullets in order to attract the laggardly pursuers, Kemp and Roy. I think Ben hits her at one point. As at the start of the movie, the pursuers have the problem of trying to get to him when he’s holed up in a superior vantage-point. This time Kemp does manage to  climb up the sheer face, snatching off one of his spurs and using it as a hook to gain purchase in small crannies. Ben, surprised by this frontal assault, stands up on the skyline and Roy shoots him in the back. His body tumbles into the rushing water and is washed downstream before snagging on a tree root on the far bank.

They have to retrieve Ben’s corpse if they want to claim the reward. Roy hurries down to the river,  lassoes the tree root on the other bank, ties it taut on his own side, and, with great daring, his legs in their trooper hose swinging around wildly and flailing the water, manages to get across and lashes Ben’s body to the rope. But then a huge tree-trunk comes whirling down the river and smashes him unconscious. Leena screams from the shore. His body is swept away and that’s the end of Roy.

Kemp reels in Ben’s corpse and jack-knifes it over his mount, dripping wet. As he does so, he delivers an angry, self-disgusted monologue. Leena doesn’t care about him. All he wants, all he’s ever wanted, is to collect on the killer’s corpse. The money, that’s all.

But Leena does care for him. She does care for him, but he has to give Ben a burial. So Kemp sacrifices his $5,000. Instead, they’ll turn around and travel back in the other direction, making for California. Kemp is already digging the grave. But  the film has spent so little time idealizing Kemp (perhaps it relies on the conventions of westerns –- there has to be a good man, a moral authority) that this ending fails to convince. In fact, it seems ridiculous to give up the money. No matter; the audience are already making a rush for the exits. An unbelievable ending (such a common feature of movies) is actually a way of beginning to free the audience from its absorption in compelling narrative.

[Record of watching a movie on TV one morning in 2004. I reckon I must have been off sick. All the details came from watching the film; hence the misspelling "Leena"...]


Ben (Robert Ryan)

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Jesse (Millard Mitchell) and Kemp (James Stewart)

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Ben (Robert Ryan) and Lina (Janet Leigh)

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Howard Kemp (James Stewart)

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Roy (Ralph Meeker)

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Lina (Janet Leigh)

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