In the 1950s James Stewart appeared in a series of films directed by Anthony Mann and five of them were westerns. This is part 2 of a look at this collaboration. You can find Part 1 here.
The Naked Spur (1953)
When you hear the theme music to films such as Shane, The Big Country and The Magnificent 7, even if you weren’t familiar with the notion that these are Westerns you know the moment you hear the music that it couldn’t be anything but the soundtrack for a cowboy film.
Bronislau Kaper’s theme to The Naked Spur is definitely not in that tradition.
In fact, if anything, it conjures up the suggestion that you’re about to watch a gangster movie instead. This is a very dark film, even though most of the action takes place in broad daylight.
The credit sequence suggests we’re going to be in the same kind of territory and landscape as Bend in the River, with high snow-capped mountains in the background and stark wilderness to the fore.
Stewart plays Howard Kemp, who appears at the beginning of the film to be on the trail of a killer who is doing his best to evade him.
By the time we get to the third of the Stewart / Mann Western collaborations it’s obvious Mann has adopted John Ford’s stock company approach to filmmaking. Millard Mitchell, Stewart’s sidekick in Winchester ‘73 here plays a grizzled old-timer called Jesse Tate.
Other actors who appear across the run of Stewart / Mann Westerns include Royal Dano, Harry Morgan, Rock Hudson, Jay C. Flippen, Arthur Kennedy, John McIntire, Jack Elam, Steve Brodie and Chubby Johnson.
Watching the same character actors appearing more than once in a series of films engenders a feeling of familiarity which means the audience find their way into the story almost from the beginning.
It’s almost as if there’s a sense of continuity running through all of the films in question, in this case also exacerbated by Stewart wearing the same hat and riding the same horse, Pie, in all five of the Westerns he did with Mann.
In quick succession, Kemp is joined in his pursuit by Tate and a dishonourably discharged cavalry soldier, Roy Anderson, played by Ralph Meeker. Working as a team the three of them apprehend the outlaw Ben Vandergroat, here played by Robert Ryan in laughing psycho-killer mode.
Out of the undergrowth bursts a young Janet Leigh, seven years before Norman carved her up in the shower, playing a character by the name of Lina Patch, whose father has been shot in a failed bank robbery with Ben.
It soon becomes apparent that Kemp isn’t a lawman, as he has led Tate and Anderson to think at the beginning. He is in fact a bounty hunter, out to capture Ben dead or alive for a reward of $5000.
Ben has shot a marshal in the back and Kemp intends taking him back to be hanged and use the reward money to buy back his ranch.
As the film progresses we see Stewart ratchet up the hysteria level to 11, the actor playing the closest he ever got in a major starring role as a villain – he lies about the reward for Ben, he’s a bounty hunter and, to top it all, he tells the outlaw, it’s ‘a bullet here on the trail or a rope in Abilene’.
Mr. Stewart is just not a very nice man in this one. Even old-timer Tate tells him he thinks he’s crazy, and at times Kemp gives him no reason to think otherwise.
As with Bend in the River, not everyone appears to be who you might think they are. Apart from Kemp, Anderson is also lying about his past. He is being hunted down by a band of Blackfoot warriors who are looking to send him off with a one-way ticket to the happy hunting grounds for sexually abusing one of their women.
The upshot is that the group ends up having to literally massacre the Blackfeet, Kemp taking a bullet in the leg during the skirmish. A feverish Kemp wakes screaming from a nightmare, hallucinating that Lina is his wife.
Apparently, he had signed over the deeds to his ranch before going off to war and his wife sold it before running away with another man, and the reward money for capturing Ben is to be used to repurchase it.
Ben starts to drive a wedge between whatever tenuous loyalty there is between Kemp, Tate and Anderson, pointing out to the latter two that that Kemp won’t be able to buy back his ranch if he has to split the reward three ways.
The scene is now set for a showdown between all of the participants, which takes place next to a raging river. Anderson forces Kemp to realise that he sees Ben as just a sack of money rather than a man.
Stewart / Kemploses the plot – again – and goes for Meeker / Anderson, Ryan / Ben looking on in amusement as the two men fight each other.
Ben then lures Tate away from the fold with tales of buried gold which he’ll give to Tate if he helps him. The old man buys it and pays for his stupidity when Ben shoots him in cold blood.
The naked spur of the title comes into it’s own when Kemp uses it to cut handholds in a rock to try and climb and creep up on Ben from behind.
He throws the spur into Ben’s neck, giving Anderson the opportunity to shoot him. Ben’s body ends up trapped under a ledge in the river. Anderson gets a rope around the body but is then himself killed by a large tree caught in the current.
A by now even more hysterical Kemp retrieves Ben’s body from the river and throws it over his saddle to take back for the reward. It’s the love of a good woman that finally defeats Kemp’s mental instability, Lina promising she’ll marry him but only if he stops dealing in dead bodies.
Kemp breaks down in tears, then gives Ben a decent burial instead of selling the body for money before he and Lina ride off to California.
The screenplay, by Sam Rolfe and Harold Bloom, was deemed to be so good that it was nominated for an Academy Award, a very rare honour for a Western.
One troubling thing at the end, though. I hope Kemp and Lina checked on old-timer Tate before they set off into the sunset. He was definitely still breathing the last time I saw him.
The Far Country (1954)
Probably the cheeriest of the Stewart / Mann Westerns and certainly the most spectacular in terms of location, shot in the mountain regions of Alberta, Canada.
The screenplay is by Borden Chase, making his third contribution in this series of cowboy films. Stewart plays Jeff Dexter who, along with his faithful side-kick, Ben Tatum, played by everyone’s favourite go-to old-timer, Walter Brennan, plans on selling a herd of cattle across the Canadian border.
There’s a standoff between Dexter and the men who helped him get his herd to the steamboat as it becomes apparent he shot two of their friends when they tried to relieve him of his cattle.
So, almost from the start, Stewart appears to still be in Naked Spur mode, pushing the two remaining cattle drivers to go for their guns, which they wisely decide is not such a good idea.
There’s an interesting challenge to the Hayes Code edict that one or other of a male/female couple should have at least one foot on the floor if they’re seen sharing a bed.
When the steamboat operators try to arrest Dexter for murder he is invited into the boudoir of Ronda Castle, played by Ruth Roman.
Before he can say help me, Ronda, she tells him to climb into her bed then gets in herself in order to hide him from his pursuers. One wonders how this scene might have ended up if the film were made 20 years later.
Arriving in the town of Skagway, Dexter and Ben run into a corrupt judge, Gannon, played by John McIntire, who impounds their cattle for himself.
This is very similar in theme to Bend in the River, in which Stewart wanders into almost the same situation when he tries to retrieve his property from a town gone bad with corruption and gold fever.
The difference here is that Stewart’s character seems to take all of this in his stride without too much objection. It would suggest a slight dilution of the persona we’ve been used to seeing in the previous films, almost as if Stewart / Dexter expects to be cheated and double-crossed and threatened no matter where he ends up.
It soon becomes clear however that Dexter is nearly always one step ahead of the opposition, proving this by liberating his cattle at night and then taking the herd across the Canadian border where Gannon has no jurisdiction.
The female situation is somewhat complicated by the appearance of French actress Corinne Calvert as Renee Vallon, a young woman who vies with Ronda for Dexter’s attention.
I don’t know if it’s supposed to be a running gag but something always seems to happen to deny her the opportunity to sing. I think I’m right in saying that this is the only Stewart / Mann Western that features a saloon musical number, but Calvert doesn’t feature in it.
Maybe the director was trying to steer clear of a cowboy film cliché, undermining it by keeping Calvert from doing a typical Western musical number herself.
The indifference of nature to those who inhabit the wild landscape, a theme that features in all of the Stewart / Mann Westerns, is highlighted once more in the avalanche sequence that nearly wipes out Ronda and the men helping her move to a new town across the border.
Dexter has wisely decided not to follow the same trail and can only watch helplessly as the snow and rocks rain down on the people caught in the avalanche.
This scene also displays Dexter’s callous nature to his fellow man, as he initially refuses to help those who didn’t take notice of his warning regarding the instability of the landscape.
In fact the only person Dexter appears to have a liking for is Brennan’s character, which means inevitably that Ben will die before the final reel, which of course he dutifully does.
Despite declaiming that ‘I don’t need other people. I can take care of me’, Dexter eventually finds his humanity, just as Stewart’s character does at the end of The Naked Spur.
Goaded – finally – into action after the death of Ben and having been dry-gulched and plugged full of holes by a bunch of ruthless land-grabbers led by Gannon, Dexter takes out the judge in a climactic shoot-out, although not before Gannon kills Ronda.
Just as in Bend of the River, our hero finds acceptance and peace of mind by embracing community and domesticity – as well as embracing Corinne Calvert at the same time.
The Far Country is a worthy entry in this series of films but there’s definitely a bit of soft-peddling of Stewart’s onscreen persona that on occasion makes this one of the more lightweight efforts so far.
Still, onwards and upwards as they say.
The Man from Laramie (1955)
Anthony Mann definitely saved the best for last in his Western film collaborations with James Stewart.
The Man from Laramie is truly a classic cowboy movie that rubs shoulders with such great Westerns as Shane, The Searchers and The Wild Bunch.
If you’ve never seen this film but you intend to – and you should – then I envy you more than words can say because you are in for a genuine treat.
I’m not sure if it’s in the 1001 Movies You Should See Before You Die list, but if not, then shame on the authors, who should be taken to a place of execution and strung up by the neck like the varmints they surely are.
Editor’s note – The Man From Laramie isn’t in the list of 1001 films although The Naked Spur is – go figure.
Right. Gushing praise now over – for the moment. Let’s talk about the actual film itself.
The theme tune, which was a big hit in America for Al Martino, and over here in the UK for Jimmy Young, tells of a ‘man with a peaceful turn of mind, he was kind of sociable and friendly’.
Talk about disparity between character in film and the song. I certainly don’t feel the man from Laramie, as portrayed by Stewart, is anywhere near having a peaceful turn of mind, and when he’s riled – and he gets riled a lot in this one – he’s not what I would call the epitome of sociable and friendly either, not by a long shot.
The song itself is okay but not as good as the theme for either The Searchers or High Noon.
Scriptwriting honours go to Frank Burt and Philip Yordan, Anthony Mann working with another Yordan script later on for El Cid. What makes this film stand out from the other Stewart / Mann Westerns is that it was shot in Cinemascope, which really accentuates the vast wilderness in which the action takes place, this time the flat desert country of New Mexico.
It also serves to introduce an element of tension when Stewart’s character is being followed by a mystery rider.
As film scholar Sam Roggen points out in an essay on the use of Cinemascope, Mann shows the audience what Stewart sees: an unknown figure in the distance whose identity – it turns out to be town drunk Jack Elam – is only revealed once Stewart gets the drop on him.
Stewart plays Will Lockhart, who is ostensibly delivering goods and materials to the town of Coronado, but who is actually on an undercover mission to find out who has been selling weapons to the local Apache tribe.
He has a personal interest in all of this as his younger brother, a cavalry officer, has been massacred along with his troop by the self-same Apache renegades.
It all really starts to go wrong for Lockhart when he loads up a cargo of salt to take back with his wagons and encounters the resident psycho, Dave Waggoman, played with evil relish by Alex Nicol.
Dave goes all Norman Bates on Lockhart and his companions by burning the wagons and shooting all of their mules. Lockhart is roped and literally subjected to an ordeal by fire when he is dragged through the flames.
Luckily Dave’s carer, Vic, another villainous turn from Arthur Kennedy, turns up and orders Dave, the son of Vic’s boss, to lay off.
Later on, back in town, Lockhart spies Dave herding cattle into a corral. Stewart marches defiantly towards his nemesis, the camera tracking back with him as he yanks Dave from his horse and proceeds to beat the living daylights out of him.
Lockhart is so wired that when Vic pulls him away from Dave, Lockhart is still so full of anger – you really do want him to rip Dave’s guts out (I did anyway) – that he lays into Vic as well, the rage etched on his face. It’s the second-best sequence in the film.
The best sequence comes later on when Mad Dave accuses Lockhart of stealing cattle, whereas he’s only separating his own stock from some strays.
A gunfight ensues and Lockhart hits Dave in the hand with a lucky shot.
Dave exacts revenge by ordering two of his men to hold Lockhart by the arms before shooting him point-blank in the hand. It’s an act of such outrageous brutality that you’re left open-jawed for a moment.
It’s at this juncture that Mann once more utilises the scope format to particular effect, the shot in which Stewart walks away, holding his wounded hand flanked by two of Dave’s men on either side of the frame, is surely one of the loneliest scenes ever put on film.
It should be obvious by now that the brutality is more pronounced than in the other Stewart / Mann efforts. Vic goes on to kill Dave, who was responsible for helping Vic sell the guns to the Apaches and also attempts to kill the father, Alec, played by Donald Crisp, by pushing him off a mountain slope.
A number of film writers have suggested that the Alec / Dave / Vic trio has echoes of Shakespeare’s King Lear which may or may not ring true but there are definitely elements of tragedy, whether Greek or Shakespearean, underscoring the storyline.
At the end of the film, Lockhart can’t kill Vic any more than Stewart’s character could sell Robert Ryan’s body for the bounty in The Naked Spur or leave the townsfolk to fend for themselves against Judge Gannon in The Far Country.
Vic eventually gets his from the Apache’s who shoot him and then put an amen to it with an arrow in his back.
The weakest aspect of the film, to me anyway, is the nominal love interest played by Cathy O’Donnell. She is nowhere near as effective as Janet Leigh or Shelley Winters but I have to say Alex Nicol as Dave is definitely the best villain of all of the Stewart / Mann Westerns, and quite possibly one of the best cowboy psychos ever.
James Stewart and Anthony Mann worked on one more film together, Strategic Air Command, before their partnership came somewhat acrimoniously to an end.
Apparently, they were due to make another Western together, Night Passage, but it seems there was a difference of opinion – something to do with Stewart insisting his character play the accordion, which he duly did in the finished product, but this time without Mann at the helm (directing honours went to James Neilson).
Maybe Stewart wanted to call time on the psychologically complicated angst-ridden cowboy he’d played for Mann up to that point and get back to the more likeable homely sweet mannered persona Stewart had been known for before he went off to war.
It’s a shame they didn’t work with each other again but then we still have five classic Westerns that gave the Ford / Wayne and Budd Boetticher / Randolph Scott series of Western a good run for their money, so all of us cowboy film fans win in the end.