Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Day after tomorrow, it'll be just like a story you once heard."

Jimmy Stewart returned from World War II highly decorated, with a sealed record and nightmares that would continue for years. His subsequent roles were immediately marked by darker tones; in Stewart’s first postwar performance, as George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, he snapped at his children, raged at townspeople, and contemplated suicide. But it was a few years later, in a series of westerns directed by Anthony Mann, that Stewart’s knack for muddying his nice-guy screen persona started to flourish.

The Naked Spur was the third of Mann and Stewart’s five westerns together (following Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River), and it’s inarguably the bleakest. Mann had perfected his craft with a series of tough noirs; now, working in Technicolor, he compensates for the addition of lush scenery by stripping away such frivolous trivialities as romance, families, and friendships. With only five speaking roles, the claustrophobia of Mann’s chamber drama overpowers the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains—the open blue skies of southern Colorado just begin to feel like a taunt.

“Don’t move” are the first words uttered by Stewart’s Howard Kemp, as he holds prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) by gunpoint. (We’ve seen Stewart lurking, from behind, but not his face, and it briefly seems as though he might perform the entire film with his back to the camera.) Explaining that he’s pursuing a man wanted for murder, Kemp offers Jesse twenty dollars for his help in picking up the murderer’s trail. From here, the screenplay unfolds like a math equation, as potential conflicts attach themselves to the traveling party: in eight minutes they come across Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), a dishonorably discharged Calvary officer who decides to join the hunt. In another eight minutes we’re introduced to the fugitive, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) and his female companion Lina Patch (Janet Leight), and then the infighting really begins. In the first twenty-five minutes, each character has gained and lost our sympathies at least once, and we’re too far from civilization to pick up any more potential protagonists. This is what we’re stuck with.

As with the two earlier films, Stewart has a secret in his past that binds him to the villain. Or, more precisely, Stewart’s character shares a connection with someone who we suspect could be the villain. Why is Stewart's Kemp so shifty, so angry? To enlist Jesse’s help, he shakes the coins under his nose, as though he were entreating an animal; he’s caught lying to his fellow travelers; a fit of compassion with Lina ends with Kemp hardening further into cynicism. And why is Vandergroat so outrageously affable—and has he actually done anything wrong? (As the rifle-wielding Jesse says, “It’s getting’ so I don’t know which way to point this no more!”) As our allegiances shift, the characters’ paranoia is our own: It’s Murder on the Orient Express, if only the Orient Express broke down in the middle of nowhere. For the last half hour, Mann strips things down even further. The characters are disposed of, violently, as suddenly as they were introduced. By the final ten minutes, even the musical score has packed up and gone home, leaving only the sounds of a rushing river, rifle bullets, and the screams of men.

Excepting a few broad deliveries, the cast is perfect (it’s tempting to imagine Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Peckinpah taking in a screening, then divvying up the actors for their own masterpieces. Stewart and Leigh to inhabit Hitchcock’s doomiest protagonists; Ryan and Meeker to enrich the lineage of The Wild Bunch’s violent West.) But it’s the astonishing physicality of Stewart’s performance that haunts: his elongated limbs akimbo; his fingers clawing into the faces of mountains and the faces of foes; his visage ranging from sour grimace to psychotic fury; his slate blue eyes always registering years of sorrow and rage. By the time he chokes on the word “money,” his unhinged obsession nearly forces you to recoil from the screen.