Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) has been wandering out West for some time now with only his horse and mule for company, hoping to strike gold if nothing else, but today he has a reason for surprise as he is approached by a gun-wielding bounty hunter, Howard Kemp (James Stewart). The man is highly suspicious of him and has to ensure that he is no threat before even contemplating conversation, but Tate is an amiable sort and soon Kemp is halfway convinced he is respectable enough to share his dilemma with, or part of it anyway: he is seeking an outlaw, and there is a reward...
But what Kemp doesn't tell Tate is how much that reward is, which is the first inkling that maybe nobody in this is exactly acting on noble impulses. And yet, save for one character they have their more trustworthy side too, a side which would see them look out for their fellow man, and that is what Stewart's hunter has to wrestle with if he is to win out over his near-wrecked conscience. Naturally, this was one of his Westerns directed by Anthony Mann, where such internal upheaval was par for the course, and Stewart was keen to extend his range from the nice guy he had made his name with during the thirties and forties.
Hence his far more shaded personalities in films like The Naked Spur, all of them plagued by demons, though it was Alfred Hitchcock you could argue who took this anti-hero as far as he could go in Vertigo; while his personas in the Mann films were troubled, they were not sickos like he played in that cult classic. Yet here, while some are of the opinion that it was the finest Western Stewart ever made, there were more problems with it than the ones Kemp was forced to contemplate, as for a start he wasn't the most interesting character, and this was not the best performance. That honour went to the star in the role of the villain, Robert Ryan.
Ryan took the part of Ben Vandergroat, Kemp's quarry, with aplomb, crafting one of his most charismatic readings and obviously relishing the chance to play a real nasty piece of work. At first we think that another character, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), will be the main source of antagonism and in many other films of this genre he would have been, but he is a red herring, and being a disgraced cavalry officer is merely to emphasise that there are not characters here out for anyone but themselves, it's just that some hide it better than others. Anderson and Tate assist in capturing Vandergroat, leaving them to agree an uneasy truce about splitting the reward three ways.
From then on it's up to Ben to conspire to split the agreement, and as Tate observes, to strike a bargain with him is to make a deal with the Devil, leading to the finale that contains as much action as the rest of the movie - there's always something going on here. But there's another individual to contend with, and she is Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), daughter of one of Ben's late associates who sticks by him in misplaced loyalty, though is mainly present to make Kemp wake up to the moral man he is inside. Kemp has a past where he felt he badly let the love of his life down, and this is what spurs him to make up for it by getting the bounty money, but for a Mann Western this is a little too straightforward, and Stewart fails to find much nuance. This doesn't harm the film, but it does render the finale that much less convincing as it has you believe Kemp would throw it all away for some pat concept of the decent thing. Ryan makes it worth watching. Music by Bronislau Kaper.