Bounty hunter Howard Kemp captures outlaw Ben Vandergroat. A small posse have to take Vandergroat through wild country and the captive tries to turn the other travellers against Kemp.
The best of an outstanding run of Westerns (Winchester 73, The Man From Laramie, Bend of the River, etc) starring a middle-aged, interestingly neurotic James Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann before he became an epic specialist with El Cid.
It’s a tight, driven story about seriously-wounded characters, with heroes and villains whose psychological troubles are writ large on the rugged, dangerous, cinegenic landscape through which they take a difficult journey.
The backstory is that Stewart’s character signed his ranch over to a feckless fiancée when he set off for the Civil War and came back to find she’d sold the spread and lit out. This dispossession drives him into the profession of bounty hunter – in the decade before Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone, just about the lowest acceptable pursuit for a Western hero. The ‘dead or alive’ price on Robert Ryan will be enough to buy back the family property, but the outlaw’s allies – including wild child Janet Leigh in the tightest jeans ever seen in a Western – and the mountains ensure Stewart doesn’t have an easy time of collecting the reward on in the talkative, charming, dangerous villain (‘Choosin' a way to die? What's the difference? Choosin' a way to live. That's the hard part’).
A masterpiece that’s too easy to take for granted (it’s a perfectly-told small story), The Naked Spur is an exciting action picture that packs a powerful emotional punch, climaxing in a classic fight in a rushing mountain river that resolves the plot and prompts one of Stewart’s great neurotic breakdown-catharsis scenes as he hauls the valuable corpse out of the water but acts as if he’s killed himself.
Serious contender for best Jimmy Stewart Western.