“The Naked Spur” (1953)
Forget the unlikely-friends-on-a-mission western of the original Henry Hathaway “True Grit” (boring, the Coen Brothers’ version is significantly more awesome), Anthony Mann's “The Naked Spur” is where it’s at for this niche-brand of cowboy film. In fact, it’s not a drastically different story and centers on a bounty hunter (Jimmy Stewart) trying to bring a murderer to justice (an awesomely slimey Robert Ryan) who is forced to accept the help of two less-than-trustworthy strangers -- a grizzled old prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a handsome and younger, but disgraced Union lieutenant (Ralph Meeker). All three men capture the criminal only to find him with a young wayward woman (Janet Leigh). The trio then attempt to bring the cutthroat in, but the oily man tries to turn the unlikely crew against each other with greed-led psychological games. The drama intensifies along the way, building to a savage climax that is worthy of the Coens' violent conclusion to their Charles Portis re-do. Gripping and absorbing, a box-office hit -- screenwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom were nominated for an Academy Award -- “The Naked Spur” didn’t receive its due as one of the best westerns ever made until recent years. [A]

“The Searchers” (1956)
Dubbed the “Greatest Western of All Time” in 2008 by the AFI, it remains easy to see why fans of this film can make such a definitive claim. Thematically complex, morally ambiguous, set against sprawling widescreen vistas, spanning years and subplots with epic grace, directed by acknowledged western guru John Ford, and starring the genre’s most iconic actor, John Wayne, frankly “The Searchers” just fucking rules. A relatively late entry into his western canon, much of the fascination comes from watching Ford, who is more than anyone responsible for the mythology of the movie western as we understand it, delicately unpick the fabric he had so carefully woven up to that time: “The Searchers,” with its (albeit tentative) exploration of racism and the genocide of the Native American population, is a revisionist western before revisionism happened. And Ford coaxes out what is perhaps John Wayne’s finest performance, where he too subverts the man’s-man hero he had played a million times and embodies Ethan Edwards as a character tortured by his own bigotry and constantly at war with his better nature. This broken and wrongheaded man’s final arrival at a sort of wisdom and, perhaps fleeting, redemption holds more dramatic power than the bloodiest gunfight. Though there are plenty of those too. [A+]

“The Furies” (1950)
The great Anthony Mann (“El Cid”) made a lot of westerns in his day, and next to John Ford and Sergio Leone, he is arguably one of the titans of the genre -- albeit lesser-known than those two. Of his acknowledged classics (starring his go-to cowboy James Stewart) “Winchester '73” “Bend of the River,” “The Far Country,” “The Man from Laramie,” and the aforementioned “The Naked Spur,” none are as acidic and replete with pitch-black-from-the-soul contempt and bitterness as 1950’s aptly titled, “The Furies.” The film starred the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck as a strong-willed firebrand of a woman (when isn’t she?) scorned by her controlling father (Walter Huston in his final role). She disapproves of his empty-headed socialite bride-to-be. He hates her gambling lover. And while the searing domestic melodrama scalds our emotional senses, the two also dispute over land. Their turbulent relationship spirals out of control and out of spite, the father has her lover hanged. The film-noir-charged ugliness curdles into rage and vengeance comes raining down from Stanwyck with a wrath that chills the bones. Martin Scorsese compared it to the dark works of Dostoevsky, and it’s the only Mann-helmed western that Criterion has put out. They should have called this one “Unforgiven.” [A+]

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962)
You may have heard of a man named John Ford. He won four Oscars for Best Director in his day and made a lot of westerns. This film is one of his best, and therefore one of the best westerns ever made, period. Told in flashback, ‘Valance’ centers on a state senator (Jimmy Stewart) who is famous for killing a notorious outlaw and returns to a small town for a funeral of an old friend (John Wayne). A journalist starts quizzing him which launches a long recollection of his youth, and out comes the real truth of the deed that reveals the titular outlaw Valance’s death and all of the senator’s subsequent fame and success, to be based on a lie. The film is a gut-punchingly bitter pill in the end, full of regret and loss and unrequited love, so heaven knows how Ford manages to make it so compellingly watchable too. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Stewart playing brilliantly off Wayne and a hard-as-nails Lee Marvin as Valance. Certainly one of the crowning achievement of Ford’s illustrious career, this film along with Ford’s other acknowledged masterpiece “The Searchers” could easily form the backbone of any primer on the dizzying possibilities of the film western. [A+]