Naked Spur [1953]

Few Hollywood stars have the reservoir of goodwill that James Stewart enjoys; even in his so-so vehicles he's delightfully worth watching. That premise is tested by James Stewart: The Signature Collection which, with one exception, contains none of Stewart's really important pictures. The box does present a collection of movies mostly new to DVD, which gives the set whatever urgency it has from an otherwise mixed bag. The one important Stewart title is The Naked Spur, arguably the best of the superb series of Westerns the actor made in collaboration with director Anthony Mann in the 1950s (which also include Winchester 73 and The Man from Laramie). The nervous, hard character who emerged in those films is perfected in Stewart's amazingly raw performance in The Naked Spur. He plays an embittered bounty hunter attempting to bring captured outlaw Robert Ryan to the authorities while also dealing with Ryan's companion (Janet Leigh) and two associates who want in on the reward (Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell). Mann's command of locations that reflect the emotional lives of the characters is unerring, and Stewart goes all the way with a performance that suggests he is as unbalanced as his villainous quarry. Two other Westerns are included, both teaming Stewart with Henry Fonda: Firecreek, a grim 1968 High Noon imitator with Jimmy as a small-town farmer defending the place from Hank's band of desperadoes; and The Cheyenne Social Club, a comedy that has Stewart inheriting a bordello, as saddle pal Fonda tags along for the laughs. If director Gene Kelly's approach weren't so crass, the movie might be a lot funnier than it is. The Stratton Story, a big hit from 1949, casts Stewart in the true tale of pitcher Monty Stratton, who enjoyed some big-league success before a hunting accident cost him his leg. The cornball script is rife with baseball nostalgia, and audiences loved the gee-whiz chemistry of lanky Stewart and tiny, indomitably perky June Allyson. Equally square is The FBI Story, an account of the Bureau's growth from the 1920s onward, with especially lavish reverence for J. Edgar Hoover (who appears in a cameo). Stewart is the agent through whose eyes we see the decades roll by. The Spirit of St. Louis is one of the most atypical titles in Billy Wilder's career, standing as a straightforward account of Charles Lindbergh's legendary solo flight from the U.S. to Europe. Stewart may have been apt casting for the Lone Eagle in some ways, but he looked far too old to play the young aviator in this 1957 picture. The film has some nagging storytelling problems, but the aviation footage--especially Lindbergh's thrilling liftoff for his record flight--is beautifully shot. Taken together, this set does provide different angles on James Stewart's American Hero (a more complex personality than he's usually given credit for). But it's not his top-drawer work. --Robert Horton

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