The eponymous spiked wheel's trajectory from the cowboy’s boot to the scoundrel’s throat, such is the "plain arithmetic" of Anthony Mann. The betrayed bounty hunter (James Stewart) sets his sights on the fugitive outlaw (Robert Ryan) perched on a craggy hilltop, a sudden rock slide has a boulder bouncing down about an inch away from his ear and barely missing the camera itself. The bandit’s companion (Janet Leigh) comes along with his capture, the ride back to Abilene also includes the luckless prospector (Millard Mitchell) and the "morally unstable" Cavalry lieutenant (Ralph Meeker), a mighty twisty trail. "Ain’t that the way? A man gets set for trouble head-on, and it sneaks up behind him every time." Five characters in the Rocky Mountains, a plein air chamber piece and a masterwork of location shooting. The derivations from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are embraced by Stewart in a magnificently neurotic turn, a man knotted with bitterness undergoing an anguished alfresco exorcism—the abyss is never far in this expedition, an unbuckled saddle strap is enough to send the hero off the edge of the cliff and the edge of the mind. "Come on, you buzzard bait, move!" Around him, Mann composes a wondrous procession of cogent vistas, cooling the brightness of Metrocolor with the stark lushness of Colorado in spring. Dappled natural light in the woods prepares a skirmish with Blackfoot natives, with swift camerawork (a close-up of Stewart shot in the thigh turns 45° to frame a dead warrior dragged by his horse) giving way to a still wide angle of the carnage. Brief and compact movements are prevalent, the tighter the image the better: When the characters take refuge inside a cave, the camera pans from the grinning prisoner to a rock formation before tilting up to reveal a jagged ceiling precariously held in place. (Ryan connives like Iago, yet there he is with the moral position: "Choosin' a way to die, what’s the difference? Choosin' a way to live, that’s the hard part.") Peckinpah all but remakes it in The Deadly Companions, the astonishing river climax is a virtual instruction manual for Boorman’s Deliverance. Cinematography by William C. Mellor.
--- Fernando F. Croce