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Warner Home Video presents
"It's your choice, Ben: a bullet right here on the trail, or a rope in Abilene."
DVD ReviewSaddle up, partner, and take a ride on the range with a couple of dangerous fellas, courtesy of Anthony Mann, who's a master at this sort of thing. The Naked Spur is a sordid little Western, with greed and lust and revenge on its mind; there's not much honor out here in God's country, and if you've got a problem with that, it might be time for you to take the next stage back East.
James Stewart stars as Howard Kemp, marauding through the Montana wilderness in 1868, and when folks take him for a lawman, he doesn't dissuade them of the notion. He's on the tail of a bad boy called Ben, a scoundrel who killed a man in Abilene. Howard soon takes on a makeshift deputy—Millard Mitchell plays Jesse, an old timer tempted by Howard's offer of $20 to help him find his man. Joining the posse shortly thereafter, and with his own aims, is Roy (Ralph Meeker), who brandishes his dishonorable discharge from the Union Army as a badge of honor.
The trio soon find their fellow—Robert Ryan plays Ben, looking scraggly and forever defiant; he's got a sidekick, too, a pretty little thing called Lena (Janet Leigh), the daughter of his dear departed best friend, but Ben's interest in her seems to be a whole lot more than fatherly. Turns out he's got a history with Howard, who's no lawman—he's just in it for the $5,000 bounty on Ben, who's wanted, as they say, dead or alive.
Most of the picture, then, is about the interplay between the various members of this quintet—Howard turns Jesse and Roy into de facto bounty hunters, all of whom figure that their portion of the reward money will be that much bigger if they can chisel out one or more of their partners; Ben is just looking for a way to escape the long arm of the law, and so much of the dramatic tension comes from the men's efforts to sway Lena's loyalties. Ben has a history with her and her family; Roy fancies himself a ladies' man and smells another conquest; Jesse figures that she should be doing woman's work like washing their dishes; Howard has a hole in his heart from a woman who done him wrong, and finds himself falling for Lena's pretty face.
Mann's opinion of human nature, no matter the genre he's working in, is pretty base; an Anthony Mann Western is sure to give us a Hobbesian view of the frontier, one in which life is nasty, brutish and short, and this movie is unsparing in that respect. Stewart is the linchpin of the piece, and he shoulders the load spiritedly; he's certainly not having as much fun as Ryan, though, who seems to love cutting up, especially at other people's expense. The narrative sometimes feels a bit too weighed down with backstory, as we get elaborations on the dirt done to each of the five in the past; a dollop of this would have sufficed, for we know that we're with a desperate bunch in a dire situation, and, as in most Westerns, there's very little mutuality of interest.
Howard's epiphanies at the very end seem a bit unearned, but the necessary climactic shootout is fraught with energy and tension—it's why you want to watch movies like this. It's a smart if somewhat minor effort, but its flintiness and unsparing energy make it worth a look.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The colors are rich, but there are many imperfections evident on the print—you'll see frequent smudges and discolorations, especially in the second half of the film. Also, the matte shots look awfully primitive, and it's jarring to see the juxtaposition of location and studio footage, which may throw you out of the story for a moment.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: A fair amount of hiss mars the mono track, though you'll have plenty of opportunity to hear passages from Beautiful Dreamer on the soundtrack.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Extras Review: Along with an original trailer, the disc sports two shorts. Things We Can Do Without (08m:48s) is full of jokey domestic observations about newfangled objects that are supposed to help out around the house, but don't, like modern furniture and kitchen appliances—it's the stuff now of third-rate sitcoms. And Little Johnny Jet (07m:05s) is a cartoon directed by Tex Avery, about a mom and pop airplane and their spawn, who wants to enlist in the Air Force. Off we go into the wild blue yonder.
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsA dark and sturdy Western, the sort we've come to expect from the pairing of the director and leading man.
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