Starring: James Stewart, Robert Ryan, Millard Mitchell, Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker

Director: Anthony Mann
Released: 1953

Mood: If you’re super overwhelmed and don’t want to watch a great movie because you don’t have the mental capacity to appreciate it so you’d rather watch a Western that’s merely okay and only has five characters to keep track of.


It pains me to say this, but I must: The Naked Spur is my least favourite James Stewart Western.


I had EXTREMELY high hopes for this movie, which is why I decided to buy it instead of renting it on Amazon. I was so sure that it would be a hit! It’s got a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was also nominated for a ‘Best Writing (Story and Screenplay)’ Academy Award.


Director Anthony Mann made Winchester ‘73 three years prior, also with Stewart and Millard Mitchell, and that’s one of my favourite Westerns of all time. He also made Bend of the River with Stewart, just the year before this one. And then you have the legendary Janet Leigh in the cast. I seriously couldn’t wait to see what they created together.


But I don’t get what all the praise is about. The Naked Spur isn’t terrible, and it has some really fantastic cinematography. I just found it to be on the lower end of average overall. Read on to find out why.


photo of the Naked Spur dvd


The Naked Spur brings together five people with questionable backgrounds and even more questionable motives. In fact, they are the only speaking characters in the entire movie:


  • Howard Kemp (James Stewart) is a dour man, obsessed with bringing in a murderer who he’s been hunting from Kansas to Colorado
  • Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) is that man – and he’s got this sinister vibe under his jovial laugh
  • Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) is a down-on-his-luck prospector who gets drawn into the manhunt with the promise of finally getting a payout
  • Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) is a dishonourably discharged cavalryman who decides to help out and they can’t get rid of him
  • Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) is a wide-eyed orphan who knows Vandergroat from Abilene, and believes in his innocence with an implausible naivety given how overtly creepy the guy is

Tate helps Kemp locate Vandergroat, and then Anderson helps them capture him. But once they find out about the $5,000 bounty on Vandergroat’s head, they want their cut. Kemp is outnumbered, so he has no choice to agree. Patch comes along because she has nothing else to do with her life but follow an older man accused of murder, and give him neck rubs.


The rest of the movie is a march through the mountains, multiple fist fights, and Vandergroat pushing everyone’s buttons to turn them against one another. It sounds exciting, but somehow it was was only so-so.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


I like the premise of The Naked Spur. The idea of exploring five characters’ motivations while they’re trapped in each other’s presence and pushed to their mental and physical limits has massive potential. We’ve seen it done in plenty of TV shows and movies (hello, Hateful Eight!).


Anthony Mann also wanted to make a Western that showed the rest of the Old West, not just the desert like every other ’50s Western, and he did that. The scenery is shot beautifully, and that part feels really authentic. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles you expect, or even any interior scenes. The minimalist quality is unique, and allows you to focus entirely on the people.


But that’s a problem, because the script doesn’t quite work. The dialogue feels kind of fake, and the ‘romance’ is forced. There are weird little inconsistencies, too, like Patch saying she’s following Vandergroat because he promised her a ranch in California, then later saying to Kemp that she’s never thought about what she wants in life, and mentioning California like it’s a new idea.


And then, some of the acting is so far over the top that it’s distracting. My husband said it felt like it was meant to be a stage production rather than a movie, and I agree.


Janet Leigh delivers WAY too much emotion for almost all of her scenes. Robert Ryan’s performance is one note, and that note is so heavily smarmy at all times that you never doubt for a moment that his character is guilty. If he had played it subtler, we could have wondered if he was actually innocent. It would have cast doubt on Kemp’s motives, and Patch wouldn’t have seemed so irritatingly naive for trusting him and doing everything he asks.


Tate is the best character of the bunch – and Mitchell’s is the best, most layered performance. He’s the only one worth rooting for, and Mitchell does a great job of showing Tate’s conflicted motivations beyond the dialogue.  


Stewart gives his role a lot of physicality, and it’s a fun change to see him play a character who’s more threatening and violent. The downside is that Kemp isn’t likeable, even after you get his backstory, and Stewart has no chemistry with Janet Leigh.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


The back of the DVD claims that The Naked Spur shows humankind’s worst traits like greed and vanity, but I disagree. 


If we’re supposed to think that Tate turned greedy, and that Kemp’s pursuit of a bounty is also somehow greedy and a mission he should give up to prove he’s a good man, that’s a hard fail. These are guys who have been screwed over by life, and there’s nothing wrong with bounty hunting a legit murderer… or with setting a stranger free from another stranger because the first stranger says he’ll show you a gold mine.


Neither of them did anything I wouldn’t do. Well, except at the end when Patch tells Kemp to abandon his hard-won bounty and go with her and he does. That’s stupid. He could have her AND the bounty, or better yet, have the bounty and find a woman who’s actually a good match for him. 


Not my favourite Western, but not one that I hated either. The Naked Spur just hovers disappointingly below average.