High in the Colorado Rockies, bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart) pursues killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), enlisting the help of craggy prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and Roy Anderson* (Ralph Meeker), a cavalryman dishonourably discharged, whom he encounters along the trail. The trio succeed in capturing Ben and his ward Lina (Janet Leigh) and set off home to Abilene, Kansas, intending to collect their reward and see him hanged. Ben, however, delights in sowing the seeds of discontent among his captors, exploiting the tensions within the group to play the men off against one another as they cross perilous Blackfeet Indian country.
Showing at the BFI Southbank as part of the venue's psychological Western season, Ride Lonesome, The Naked Spur was the third of Stewart's Oater collaborations with director Anthony Mann and stands as one of the darkest in its genre. Clearly an ancestor of Scottie Ferguson, Kemp suffers delirious night terrors over the memory of a woman who once betrayed him, selling his land out from under him while he was away at war. Scarred and embittered, Kemp hopes to use the bounty on Ben to buy back what was once his, kicking over the ashes of his path, ideally with Lina as his new ranch wife. A tormented and not especially likeable hero, Kemp proves to be the lesser of two evils when the chatty and jovial Ben finally reveals himself to be every bit the vicious, nihilistic murderer we'd been expecting. Ryan is magnificent as Vandergroat, relishing the mind-games with his would-be jailers - cheering on Anderson's lechery towards Lina and preying on Tate's greed to lure him to his death.
The interplay between the five actors is magnificently handled by Mann, whose deft hand teases out the subtleties in Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom's Oscar-nominated screenplay. Leigh suggested that the naturally conflicting personality types among the cast, stranded in the wilderness together on a tough location shoot, did much to boost the film's intensity. William C. Mellor's bright Technicolor cinematography likewise accentuates the sublime scenery, its majesty in contrast to the hardscrabble lives of Mann's flawed and desperate characters. A riverside shoot-out at the finale makes the most evocative use of violent gushing rapids this side of Deliverance (1972) or The Revenant (2015).
*Not to be confused with the deliciously deadpan Swedish director of A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (2015), a delightful if, admittedly, irrelevant coincidence.