For as much as I love James Stewart, I have not seen many westerns he starred in. Part of this is due to Stewart being in so few westerns, at least early on in his career. But after World War II, Stewart broke free of his normal film roles of playing the kind-hearted every-man and took on some roles that changed his reputation. This would include his many leading roles in Alfred Hitchcock films like “Rear Window” and “Vertigo,” as well as several westerns like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “The Naked Spur.”
But with “The Naked Spur” we get a far more haunting and vengeful performance out of Stewart than any other role I’ve seen from him, as he plays a rancher shortly after the Civil War, hunting down a wanted man from his home town for killing the sheriff. His performance here feels like a strange combination of Humphrey Bogart’s character in “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre” and John Wayne’s role in “The Searchers.” At times, he is consumed by a greed and paranoia, a need to go back to his prosperous way of living and nothing will stand in his way of getting that happiness, but then he’ll snap and believe that what he’s doing is simply out of revenge for the past yet disguise his vengeance as justice.
But as we learn throughout “The Naked Spur,” in the old west, there is no such thing as “justice.”
The normal wisdom and smile of Jimmy Stewart is missing from this role, and instead we’re given a man who feels the world has wronged him and hunting down another man is the only way to fix it. Those normally calm and peaceful eyes become a piercing stare that you could see in pitch black darkness. There’s a lost of innocence to “The Naked Spur” that makes James Stewart’s performance far more captivating.
On top of that, the film has one of the best screenplays I’ve seen out of a western. The plot is basic enough – A group of mis-matched cowboys traverse a mountain pass to bring a criminal in to be hung. But the characters interacting with each other becomes a game of cat-and-mouse, as the killer uses his wits to turn these men against one another, all without ever firing a pistol. This villain, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) takes absolute delight in causing chaos and is probably taking all of his strength not to laugh when Stewart and the old prospector butt heads.
Overall, “The Naked Spur” is a one-of-a-kind western with a different yet enchanting performance from James Stewart. While the action is minimal, the suspense is high and the charming characters never let up.
Final Grade: A-