The Naked Spur: Noir in the Wild West

Casablanca has crime, black and white cinematography, what could be called a tragic plot, and a cast that includes Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, three actors that worked together on The Maltese Falcon the year before, yet one film is called film noir and one isn’t. What makes a film “film noir” in the first place? The black and white look is not a necessity, even though it is the norm, and there have been a number of great noirs shot in color, titles like Leave Her to Heaven, Vertigo, Niagara...Noir is above all a feeling. Film noir has often been described as the cinema of paranoia and through my experience venturing through the genre, I have found that description to be the most accurate; while most of its stories are set in the city and feature some form of crime or detective work, noir seeped into so many genres and its influences gave birth to new alterations: from horror to westerns, film noir is almost borderless.

The Naked Spur is a prime example of the infusion of the western genre with noir. Made by Anthony Mann, a director with incredible talent and wide range, a man who made just about any sort of picture, most notably noir (Raw Deal, T-Men, Strangers in the Night), epics (The Fall of the Roman Empire, Quo Vadis, El Cid) and of course, westerns (Winchester ’73, Man of the West, Bend of the River), and this film might just be his opus. The film stars James Stewart, a frequent collaborator with Mann, Janet Leigh and Robert Ryan. Shot on location, The Naked Spur’s cinematography is some of the best of any western, outdoor shots highlight the beautiful scenery of the south, coupled with incredible stunt work, every frame of the film is as gorgeous as it is intense. Bronislaw Kaper’s score is gripping and exciting in the most grandiose way imaginable. The Naked Spur has been described as a “masterpiece that’s too easy to take for granted”; it executes every element of the genre perfectly: gorgeous setting, captivating plot, intriguing characters, epic score...the result is one of the best westerns ever made.

Its plot revolves around Howard Kemp, played by Jimmy Stewart, a fake law officer hunting down a criminal for a bounty, but after unintentionally teaming up with two other people, an old gold miner and a discharged officer, catching the criminal proves more complicated than just collecting a reward. The outlaw, with the aid of his girlfriend, starts an attempt to turn his three captivators against each other so he can escape a sure death. The Naked Spur is famous for having only five characters with any dialogue in the film; this narrow set of people allows the film’s plot to take a whole new psychological dimension, helmed by the film’s outlaw, Ben Bandergroat, a mastermind that manipulates all around him with such eerie ease. The story is rather gloomy when summarized: a man is condemned to hang for a bounty unless he can somehow turn three people against each other. Him or them.

Through their journey towards their prey’s demise, the three hunters’ characters and backstories are unraveled by Ben’s seemingly aloof mannerisms, with Howard’s being the main focus. Played by James Stewart, an actor who became synonymous with the all-American man representing the values of the US, always cheerful, always hopeful, his character in The Naked Spur is the complete opposite of anything he played before, Howard Kemp is unexpectedly vicious. Determined to buy back the ranch stolen from him, he becomes a bounty hunter who “doesn’t see a man, but rather a bag of money.” By the end of the film, he transforms so completely into a villain that even the film’s seemingly happy ending can’t restore his image. Gone are the old values of hero beats heavy, stronger themes have found their way into the western, it has evolved into something stronger and more mature, perhaps even more dark. Jimmy Stewart's character is not fueled by any noble pursuits, his is a simple case of relentless vengeance, even if it takes down victims who are innocent. 

Sure, The Naked Spur is a western all the way through, it has all the adventure and excitement of the genre, but it also has greed, psychological warfare, murder, and a penetrating sense of doom; and what’s more noir than that? 


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