The Naked Spur

Anthony Mann (1906–1967) directed films in a wide variety of genres, from film noir to musical to biopic to historical epic, but today he is most often acclaimed for the “psychological” westerns he made with star James Stewart, including Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Far Country (1954) and The Man From Laramie (1955). The best of these may be 1953’s The Naked Spur, which works clever variations on an essentially simple storyline.

In 1868, Howard Kemp (Stewart) is making his way alone through the Rocky Mountains on the trail of bank robber and murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). Determined to bring the killer to justice, Howard unwillingly receives help from two strangers: unlucky prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and Army vet Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), who was discharged for raping an Indian girl. These men are surprised to learn from the captured Ben that Howard is not an officer of the law but a civilian determined to earn the $5,000 bounty on Ben’s head in order to buy back his ranch, sold out from under him by his unfaithful fiancée when he was off fighting the Civil War.

Accompanying the men as they make their way across the mountainous landscape is Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), Ben’s traveling companion and the daughter of a now-dead partner in crime. Ben uses methods both physical (causing a cave-in, loosening Howard’s saddle on a narrow trail) and psychological (playing on Jesse’s lust for gold and Roy’s lust for Lina) to turn his captors against each other. In the end, Howard and Lina are the only survivors—they decide to make a new life together in California rather than attempt to recreate Howard’s old life with Ben’s bounty.

The Naked Spur was the first screenplay written by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, and it earned the pair an Oscar nomination for Best Story and Screenplay. Both writers enjoyed separate and lengthy careers, largely in television: Rolfe went on to create Have Gun—Will Travel and develop The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and was still writing at the end of his life, penning episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; Bloom balanced TV work with a feature career that included a shared credit on Land of the Pharaohs and an “additional story material” credit for You Only Live Twice.

Much of The Naked Spur was shot on location in the mountains near Durango, Colorado, in altitudes ranging from 9,000 to 14,000 feet, although a cave sequence and a campfire scene (in which Jesse helps Ben and Lina escape) were clearly filmed on soundstages.

The film received generally strong reviews upon its release, with Cue citing its “brilliantly written screenplay” and The Hollywood Reporter calling it “finely acted,” although Variety felt that it was “probably too raw and brutal for some theatergoers.” William Mellor’s Technicolor cinematography of the scenic Colorado locations received particular praise, although several critics commented on the anachronistic appearance of Leigh’s “poodle-cut” hairdo. Allan Ullman penned a novelization of The Naked Spur that was published the same year; in his research he discovered that the film’s bounty for Ben was unrealistically high—a top bounty in 1868 Kansas would have been about $800—so he lowered it from $5,000 to $1,500 for his book. Oddly, the film’s press notes list Ben’s reward as $15,000, an astronomical figure for the period.

Bronislau Kaper’s score for The Naked Spur also received favorable reviews, with Variety calling it “top notch” and The Hollywood Reporter citing it as “unobtrusively an asset to the mood.” The Naked Spur was one of dozens of films Kaper scored during his decades under contract to M-G-M, and his output for 1953 also included another western, Ride, Vaquero! (FSMCD Vol. 10, No. 9), and his Oscar-winning score for Lili (FSMCD Vol. 8, No. 15). Although Mann directed several films for M-G-M, The Naked Spur was his only collaboration with Kaper; he never seemed to favor any particular composer, and his other westerns featured scores from the likes of Hans J. Salter, George Duning, Elmer Bernstein and Franz Waxman. (This was, to be fair, the era where the studios and producers largely determined personnel such as composers.)

Kaper’s main theme, which comes to represent the overall situation rather than Stewart’s character specifically, is a versatile ten-note motive, useful for scenic traveling music as well as for tense action cues. The composer also creates a secondary melody out of his agitated main theme, a contrastingly smooth, hopeful line that undergoes its own series of developments. Throughout the score, Kaper alternates gentle and energetic cues while leaving two major action set pieces—a shootout with Blackfeet Indians who seek revenge against Roy, and a riverside finale—unscored. Kaper’s sensitive music goes a long way toward humanizing Stewart’s protagonist: the “hero” is an unfriendly, tormented figure who brusquely insists on searching each newcomer at gunpoint, and is reluctant to share Ben’s bounty with the men who help him. Stewart’s brooding performance makes a striking contrast with Robert Ryan (Richard Widmark was originally sought for the role, and Robert Horton was briefly announced), who was directed by Mann to smile in nearly every scene, even when brawling with Meeker’s (similarly smiling) psychopath Roy. Ben is given a pair of sinister motives that slowly overwhelm the primary material as the outlaw works to turn his captors against one another.

Midway through the film, Kaper introduces a third main theme, to represent the relationship between Howard and Lina, who feel a growing attraction and a shared tendency toward romantic delusion—Howard foolishly signed his ranch over to his fiancée, while Lina persists in believing in the innocence of the sociopath Ben. This new theme is not an original Kaper composition, but rather Stephen Foster’s classic “Beautiful Dreamer,” published posthumously in 1864, the year of Foster’s death (and four years before the events of The Naked Spur unfold). “Beautiful Dreamer” is first heard in a scene in which Howard begins to warm up to Lina after recovering from a gunshot wound, but as the friendly scene turns into an argument over Howard’s determination to buy back his ranch with $5,000 earned at the cost of Ben’s life, Kaper creates tense variations on the Foster tune to reflect the conflict. Throughout the rest of the score, Kaper reprises “Beautiful Dreamer” whenever the romance between Howard and Lina takes center stage. At the finale it accompanies their final reconciliation, as Howard (in the most moving scene of Stewart’s performance) forsakes the bounty for the chance at a new life with Lina. — 

The Naked Spur was composed during a brief period (1952–1953) when M-G-M scores were recorded in stereo on 35mm three-track magnetic film, but then dubbed to monaural ¼″ tape for archiving. FSM presents the complete score from this monaural source, adding a subtle stereo reverb to enhance the ambiance.

1. Main Title
Kaper’s score begins over the M-G-M logo, and as the names of the five lead actors fill the screen (the entire cast, except for a group of Indians, who are quickly dispatched) the optimistic secondary theme is introduced in a rather subdued setting; this material, the film’s only instance of tracked music, is actually the opening 0:32 of the cue “Foothill Trail” (track 7). As written (and heard here), a spasmodic arrangement of Kaper’s main theme underscores the opening titles, which play out over a contrastingly placid shot of the Colorado Rockies. Once the cast credits have appeared, the camera pans to a close-up the “naked spur” on the boot of bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart) and the title appears on screen with a blast of brass. Kaper continues with a frenzied main title as Kemp rides across the landscape (a musical passage that suggests Kaper’s score for the following year’s sci-fi hit Them!); the cue subsides as Kemp sneaks up on Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), a gold prospector.
2. Fugitive
Howard pays Jesse $20 to put him on the trail of Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), an outlaw whom Howard is tracking. The score’s main theme alternates with the secondary theme over gently oscillating accompaniment as Jesse leads Howard to the fugitive’s dead campfires; the men deduce from the tracks that Ben is traveling with a partner and resolve to take their search to a nearby cliff.
3. Avalanche
From the top of the cliff, Ben attempts to ward off Howard and Jesse by instigating a small rockslide. The score plays up the danger of the falling rocks after the fact, with trepidatious string writing followed by two ideas for Ben that undergo various transformations throughout the score: an ominous four-note motive (0:16) as well as a biting five-note figure (0:41). In response to Kemp’s rifle shots the villain sets off another, more severe avalanche of boulders, marked in the score by a brass outcry; Howard and Jesse retreat to safer ground.
4. Captured
The hunters receive unwanted help from ex-soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), who happens upon their standoff with Ben. Roy inherits the main theme throughout this cue, alternating with physical action writing as the three protagonists team up to capture the fugitive. Under the cover of Jesse’s gunfire, Howard attempts to scale the cliff with the aid of his lasso, the score ascending tentatively along with him—he loses his footing and the cue erupts into a panicked suggestion of the main theme. Roy takes a turn with the rope, and the score resumes its climbing motion with a variation of the main theme; a brief interjection of the wailing brass from “Avalanche” is heard when Ben barrages Jesse with rocks, then the cue settles on a deliberate version of the outlaw’s four-note motive as Roy finally reaches the top of the cliff. He creeps toward Ben and the Kaper creates tension with quiet dissonance until the outlaw turns to face his captor.
5. Fight
Ben’s companion, Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), ambushes Roy and grabs for his gun. Ben seizes the opportunity and wrestles Roy to the ground while Howard and Jesse continue to ascend the cliff. Ben’s material is developed into a convulsive piece of slashing strings and stabbing brass for the fight; the cue comes to a furious halt when Kemp arrives and tears Ben off of Roy.
6. Wanted for Murder
Ben sparks trouble among the hunters when he reveals a “Wanted for Murder” poster that boasts a $5,000 reward for his capture. Gloomy readings of the main theme give way to a conflicted fusion of Ben’s four-note motive and the secondary theme as Jesse and Roy argue with a resistant Howard—they naturally want their cut of the money for helping to apprehend Ben.
Horse Decision
A tragic development of the main theme (first hinted at in “Captured”) is heard as the captive couple leads the “partners” to Lina’s sick horse. The material becomes agitated when Howard inevitably decides to put the animal out of its misery. Lina protests and Ben takes her aside to shield her from the violence. More important, he informs her that he needs time—his only chance of survival is to pit his captors against one another. The final 0:08 of this cue was dialed out of the film.
7. Campfire
Ben continues his manipulations as the group rests near a stream. A murky, antagonistic setting of the main theme punctuates an uncomfortable silence among the travelers when Ben points out that “money splits better two ways, ’stead of three.” The secondary theme is given a pure reading as they set off on their journey, but its conclusion is spoiled by a dissonant stinger along with grunting strings and brass as an Indian is revealed observing the party from afar. The Indian rides off and the scene transitions to the group camping in the woods at night, the cue fading with a brief unresolved statement of the secondary theme’s first three notes.
Foothill Trail
Morning arrives and the group continues toward Kansas. An austere, mysterious passage underscores their progress with a high, shimmering string texture juxtaposed against a wandering line for cellos and basses. The main theme is hesitantly reprised when Howard and Jesse wonder if they might save time by taking a trail over a distant mountain range rather than traveling around it. The cue fades out as Jesse retrieves his binoculars and Ben tantalizes him with a story of unclaimed gold that is supposedly located nearby.
8. Indians
Howard and Jesse ride ahead to inspect the mountain range. A quietly intense rendition of the secondary theme plays as they decide to take the trail over the mountains. The threatening material from “Campfire” is reprised when Howard spots a tribe of Blackfeet Indians through Jesse’s binoculars. The two men ride back to the others, accompanied by panicked string writing and brass calls; this material is further developed in a subdued, foreboding passage as Kemp alerts the rest of the group to the Indians’ presence—Roy confesses that the Blackfeet are after him for taking advantage of the chief’s daughter and Howard orders him to ride ahead to put the rest of the party out of harm’s way. Though furious, the ex-soldier complies and takes off on his horse.
Prelude to Massacre
Kemp leads the group onward, the score sustaining tension with crunched harmony for muted brass and trilling strings. The Blackfeet reveal themselves on horseback behind Howard’s party, all of whom attempt to remain calm. Roy is subsequently shown hiding behind a fallen tree, waiting with his rifle. The cue escalates with a low-end, oscillating tritone until the group finally turns to face the Indians. Roy instigates a shootout with the Blackfeet, a sequence not scored by Kaper.
9. Aftermath
The group kills the attacking Indians, but Kemp is shot in the leg. He mounts his horse and the score stresses his pain with a development of the foreboding material from “Indians.” A low, angry setting of the main theme sounds as Kemp regretfully surveys the massacred Indians and the melody is fatefully drawn out over time-lapsing shots of the ensuing journey through the mountains. Howard becomes increasingly ill, the score addressing this with a dreary, wavering figure over the nauseous tritone from “Indians.” After he falls off of his horse, the cue responds with a jaunty trumpet cry as Jesse tends to him; the prospector announces that the group will set up camp.
10. Delirium
Night falls and Kemp awakens, shrieking for his disloyal ex-fiancée, Mary. A soothing arrangement of “Beautiful Dreamer” for flute, accordion and strings plays while Lina pretends to be Mary and talks Howard out of his delirium.
“Beautiful Dreamer” continues on low-register flute before giving way to an existential passage for solo horn under shimmering strings as Ben callously explains Howard’s betrayal at the hands of Mary. This cue does not appear in the film.
Lina’s Loyalty
The next morning Lina tends to Howard’s wound. “Beautiful Dreamer” is reprised for woodwinds while the two connect—Kemp points out that Lina is different from Mary and that she is, at least, loyal to Ben. He questions why she is with the fugitive and tells her that Ben could never settle down and become a rancher as she has been led to believe. The song captures Howard’s nostalgia as he recalls his life as a rancher; the material becomes anguished as they argue over Ben’s character flaws, with Lina pointing out that Kemp has only pursued Ben for the reward.
11. Loose Cinch
Ben’s five-note signature is transformed into a devious motive as he secretly loosens Kemp’s saddle. Howard limps over to his horse, to a lumbering reprise of Ben’s other four-note idea, with the main theme sounding as the hero mounts his horse. The group progresses through the mountains, to a fragile but determined setting of the secondary theme for string harmonics and muted brass. Ben distracts his sickly captor by recounting the story of his own troubled youth; the villain’s motives take hold when Kemp’s cinch finally becomes loose enough and the outlaw kicks Howard off his horse and down a steep slope. A belabored version of Ben’s material underscores Kemp defiantly pulling himself back up and mounting his horse while the others watch.
“Beautiful Dreamer” struggles to remain optimistic after a transition to the group’s nighttime encampment, with Lina attempting to fall asleep. Ben’s motives trade off throughout a scene in which the villain prepares to kill Howard in his sleep—his plan is foiled when Kemp is awakened by Jesse’s snoring.
Jesse goes to check on a noise and a melancholic rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer” underscores Kemp observing Lina while she sleeps. He tucks her in and the melody fleetingly rediscovers hope as he contemplates his feelings for her. As he walks away she opens her eyes, well aware of the burgeoning relationship between them. Ben has witnessed the tender moment and he smiles to a sinister bass clarinet reading of his five-note theme before the scene transitions to a morning of rumbling thunder.
12. Cave-In
A terrible storm forces the party to take shelter in a cave. Ben manipulates Lina into helping him escape by threatening to kill Howard. Time passes and a deceptive, recoiling theme is introduced for Ben laying awake while Roy and Jesse sleep. After a trembling, ominous passage references Ben’s four-note theme for the outlaw eyeing his escape route, the dreary material from “Aftermath” is hinted at as Lina reluctantly distracts Howard near the mouth of the cave. The pitches created by the rain striking plates and bowls leads to a discussion of music and dancing—the two bond to an extended and increasingly impassioned reprise of “Beautiful Dreamer.” She confesses her dream of living in California and when he invites her to live with him once he buys back his ranch in Kansas, she responds uncertainly. The theme swells as he grabs her and kisses her, only to be interrupted by snarling action writing when Ben kicks out a supportive column of rocks and starts a cave-in.
Cave-In Continued
The fugitive’s material is developed into a desperate piece of stabbing brass and shrieking strings as Ben crawls through a tunnel with Kemp in pursuit. Howard grabs hold of Ben’s leg and the main theme calls out defiantly on strings, punctuated by aggressive brass. The secondary theme is reprised on solo trumpet as Howard escorts the murderer back to join the others.
13. Prelude to Kemp vs. Roy
Fed up with Ben’s treachery, Kemp unbinds the outlaw’s hands and demands that he draw—Ben refuses, aware that he has no chance against Kemp and that Howard will not kill him in cold blood. Kemp realizes that Lina distracted him to help Ben escape and an outburst of the main theme denotes him angrily kicking the plates that she used to spark their warm conversation. The secondary theme sounds for a transition to the group traveling under clear skies the next morning.
Ben Unshackled
After a disagreement between Howard and Roy (over whether or not the group should cross a dangerous river) boils over into a brutal wrestling match, Ben finally ensnares Jesse with the promise of gold: the prospector agrees to let Ben go free if he leads him to fortune. The recoiling motive and tremolo string writing of “Cave-In” mark a late-night scene in which they put their plan into motion—the first three notes of the secondary theme sound when Jesse secretly unshackles the outlaw. Ben insists that Lina accompany them and the scene transitions to the trio riding along the river bank the following morning. The score continues to build tension, culminating in a violent trill when Ben pretends that his horse is spooked by a snake and in order to get the drop on Jesse.
14. Lina vs. Ben
To Lina’s horror, Ben shoots Jesse dead. Gnarled string writing underscores the villain firing Jesse’s shotgun into the air to attract the attention of Ben and Roy, who are further upriver. The score launches into a propulsive setting of the B-theme, dressed with teasing statements of the main theme, as Ben and Roy respond to the gunfire and ride down the riverbank. Ben and Lina climb a cliff so that Ben can hide and pick off the remaining partners; the score builds to a cathartic statement of the secondary theme as the couple reaches the top of the rocks.
15. Here They Come
Overlapping outbursts of the secondary theme sound for Ben shooting down at Jesse’s corpse to ensure that his pursuers will show. This short cue was not used in the film.
Stand Together Boys
Roy and Howard arrive and inspect Jesse’s corpse. Ben prepares to gun them down, with the score reprising both of his motives in their original incantations from “Avalanche.” The secondary theme builds fatefully until Lina grabs Ben’s rifle, sending his shot astray and allowing Howard and Roy to dive for cover.
16. Finale
Kemp’s final confrontation with Ben is unscored. The villain is pinned down by Roy’s gunfire and Howard climbs up the rocks using the naked spur from his boot as a makeshift climbing aid—as he reaches the top of the cliff, he throws the spur at Ben, skewering the fugitive’s neck and forcing him into the open. Roy shoots Ben and the villain’s body falls into the river below. When the ex-soldier attempts to retrieve the corpse from the rushing current, he is bombarded by a huge tree hurtling downstream and is washed away.
Howard pulls Ben’s body from the river and angrily resolves to turn it in for the reward. Lina tries to convince him otherwise but he is indignant; aching, canonic strings enter when she promises to marry him and stay with him no matter what. A bittersweet rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer” unfolds as he breaks down crying, unable to convince himself to take Ben to Abilene. The theme continues while Kemp buries Ben, playing through the final shot of Howard and Lina riding off for California. The end title cards receive an elated brass resolution of the secondary theme. —