Jimmy the Gent
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
At one time, the term "action director" meant an entirely different thing in Hollywood. Now it means someone who is good at blowing up cars or someone who hires a kung-fu choreographer, but back in the 1950s, it meant someone who could sustain a good, exciting story.
Part of this skill set included an idea of the location in which the story takes place. If a story took place in a mountain range, the director cooked up any number of shootouts or chases that used that mountain range -- its highs and lows, and its craggy spaces.
Nowadays, if a movie takes place on a mountain range, it's more for picture postcard backdrops than anything else.
These great old "action directors" included Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and Anthony Mann. Of the latter's best and least available films, The Naked Spur, has finally been released on DVD, available by itself ($19.98) or part of Warner Home Video's new "Jimmy Stewart Signature Collection" five-disc box set ($49.98).
Mann and Stewart made a very successful series of eight films together before finally falling out; five were Westerns, and one in particular, Winchester '73 (1950), served as Stewart's comeback after a long career lag.
As a result, Winchester '73 is already fairly well known. Historians cite it as one of a new series of psychologically complex Westerns featuring characters with morally shaded motivations.
The full-color The Naked Spur (1953), however, has aged slightly better. Winchester '73 feels a bit too written and planned, with its "gimmick" of a majestic rifle that every character wants to get his or her hands on. But The Naked Spur just happens.
In The Naked Spur, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a cowboy looking to collect the bounty on a wanted outlaw, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). On his way to cornering the bandit, he enlists the aid of an old prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), and an ex-military man, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), promising them a small wage without letting them know about the bounty.
The heroes discover their quarry hiding at the top of a hill, dropping stones on them any time they attempt to climb up after him. It's a masterly use of space and a foreshadowing of the psychological advantage Ben will have on his captors.
Another psychological advantage is that he has escaped with tough, voluptuous Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), who commands the attention of all four men. She cares only for Ben, but he sees her much like a sister.
The five begin to travel several days cross-country in the hopes of collecting the bounty, but -- as Ben points out -- a lot can happen during that time.
Along with writers Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, Mann guides the five into all kinds of tense situations, most notably an Indian attack engineered by Roy. At any given moment, the psychological advantage shifts depending on who has the greatest claim to the money, and who outnumbers whom.
Mann and cinematographer William C. Mellor (Bad Day at Black Rock, Giant) use their physical locations to visually underline the emotional turmoil, for example, showing Stewart laying down when his powers are at their lowest, or using trees or other natural barriers to divide up the riders.
The climax, shot above a waterfall and using several plateaus, crevices and jutting rocks -- as well as the roar of the waterfall itself -- is a real dazzler. Mann never failed to deliver an astonishing ending to his Westerns, but this is one of his best.
The whole movie plays out almost entirely with these five souls alone, and no director could ask for a better cast. Aside from Stewart, who was at the peak of his powers, we get Meeker, just a couple years before he would play Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
Ms. Leigh appears in her first important role. She still had Touch of Evil (1958), Psycho (1960) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) ahead of her.
And no one was better than Robert Ryan at playing troubled, three-dimensional villains; his great performance in On Dangerous Ground (1952) also made its DVD debut recently.
The new DVD boasts a gorgeous, full-color transfer, bringing the film back to its full glory. Extras include a theatrical trailer, a short and a vintage Tex Avery cartoon, Little Johnny Jet (1952).
The box set, "James Stewart: The Signature Collection" ($49.98), also includes Sam Wood's The Stratton Story (1949), Billy Wilder's The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), Mervyn LeRoy's The FBI Story (1959) and a double-feature disc including two more Westerns: Vincent McEveety's Firecreek (1968) and Gene Kelly's The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), each co-starring Henry Fonda.
Tex Avery fans still waiting for Warners to pony up a complete box set of cartoons (originally produced by MGM) may be interested to know that the Stratton Story DVD comes with a classic: Batty Baseball (1944).