Release Date(s)1953 (September 21, 2021)
Studio(s)MGM (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: D+
During the course of Anthony Mann’s directing career, he explored a wide variety of genres such as film noir, musicals, biopics, war movies, and historical epics. He spent much of the Fifties making Westerns, where he put his own distinctive stamp on the genre. The Naked Spur was the third of five Westerns that he made with James Stewart during that period, and in some ways, it’s the apotheosis of their collaboration. Mann’s Westerns featured men driven by their own haunted pasts, and the rugged landscapes in which they found themselves symbolized their chaotic mental states. Unlike the simple pictorial beauty of Monument Valley in John Ford’s films, the wildernesses in Mann’s Westerns directly reflect the characters who occupy them. The Naked Spur is a perfect example of how that worked in practice.
The screenplay by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom has Howard Kemp (Stewart) in pursuit of the bounty on Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). Along the way, he’s reluctantly forced to team up with a grizzled prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a disgraced former Union officer (Ralph Meeker), and when the group finally catches up with Vandergroat and his girlfriend (Janet Leigh), the strained nature of the partnership means that no one knows who to trust. The most interesting thing about the story is that outside of a brief, dialogue-free encounter with a group of Native Americans, the entire film consists of just those five characters. Despite the epic landscapes, The Naked Spur is effectively a chamber drama—it’s similar to Lifeboat, only in a less constrained setting. All that matters is the shifting dynamics between those five individuals.
In The Naked Spur, the countryside becomes wilder and more rugged as the story progresses, which provides an appropriate externalization of Kemp’s deteriorating mindset. Even his own body betrays his internal conflict—as he becomes more dangerously obsessive, it’s reflected by his increasingly battered physical state. If there’s just one weakness to The Naked Spur, it’s that the script errs too far on the side of showing rather than telling; this is one case where the film would be improved if it clarified more about what’s really driving him. Without that, Kemp’s erratic behavior sometimes appears to be merely irrational, rather than the consequences of what has happened to him in the past.
Fortunately, Stewart is as excellent as ever in the role of Kemp, and he is well-supported by the other actors. Ryan in particular has a field day as the gleefully wicked Vandergroat—this isn’t one of his typically stoic characters, but rather someone who openly shows his joy at sowing discord wherever he goes. As for Ralph Meeker, well, he was born to play morally bankrupt characters, so he delivers the goods here. If a film is going to focus on just five actors, it can’t afford to have any weak spots, and this cast carries the film even when the script doesn’t always provide clear motivations for them. But in terms of visual storytelling, The Naked Spur is as clear as crystal, and a fine demonstration of Mann’s inherent grasp of how to use images as a mirror to reflect the unseen psychology of his heroes.
Cinematographer William Mellor shot The Naked Spur on 35 mm film in three-strip Technicolor using spherical lenses, framed at the 1.37:1 aspect ratio for its theatrical release. For this Blu-ray, the Warner Archive Collection scanned the original acetate negatives at 4K resolution before performing restoration work, and the results are simply gorgeous. Unlike the older master which was used for Kino Lorber’s release of Mann’s Bend of the River, there isn’t even a hint of any registration issues here from combining the three separate negatives, and aside from the generational loss with any optical work in the film, the image is detailed and sharp as a tack. The grass, sand, rock walls, and other fine textures are well-resolved, as are facial textures in closeups. Even the individual specks of dust on James Stewart’s red plaid jacket are clearly delineated. The grain is tight throughout the entire film, and it’s barely visible from normal viewing distances. The colors are rich and deep, but never oversaturated—unlike some Technicolor musicals or fantasies such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mellor uses the process here to create a more naturalistic look, rather than a heightened sense of reality. The contrast range is good, with solid black levels, and there aren’t any signs of damage. This is a nearly perfect rendition of the film.
Audio is available in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The track is clean, with clear dialogue, and has no noteworthy defects. Bronislau Kaper contributed a very interesting score for the film, and while the fidelity of the original audio is naturally limited, it sounds fine here.
Extras include the following:
- Things We Can Do Without (SD – 8:50)
- Little Johnny Jet (HD – 7:04)
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled HD – 2:44)
Other than the trailer, the extras have nothing to do with The Naked Spur, but they provide a package similar to what Warner Bros used to do with their A Night at the Movies releases on VHS (which also carried over to LaserDisc and DVD). The idea was to provide material which would replicate the experience of seeing a film during its original theatrical run, back in the days when cartoons, newsreels, and other shorts commonly played before the feature presentation. In this case, the short subject and the cartoon were both released in 1953, the same year as The Naked Spur. The gem of the two is Little Johnny Jet, directed by the legendary Tex Avery. (The same cartoon is also available on Warner Archive’s recent Tex Avery Screwball Classics: Volume 3.) Everything’s better with a little Tex Avery added to it.
The Naked Spur is quintessential Anthony Mann, which means that it’s also one of the most noteworthy Westerns made during the Fifties. Thanks to Warner Archive’s marvelous restoration work, this Blu-ray release belongs in every collection.
- Stephen Bjork
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