Winchester ’73 – 1953 – dir. Anthony Mann
It has been said that this film has every western cliché in the repertoire: dance hall floozy who’s a good girl at heart, trusty sidekick, shooting contest with incredible demonstrations of marksmanship, heroic stand by the Calvary, noble but inevitably defeated Indians, climactic shootout for two… even Wyatt Earp. Yet, Casablanca-like, the film gets away with a bevy of stock situations and even stock characters because every performance is so strong. The subtleties of the most subsidiary characters come across in a believable and refreshing way.
The actors were helped by a crackling screenplay, completely rewritten by Borden Chase using some older drafts by Robert L. Richards, and Chase would go on to work with James Stewart and director Anthony Mann two more times. Another partner in the Stewart-Mann successes was producer Aaron Rosenberg, and it was he who suggested Stewart for the lead and Mann as the director of Winchester ’73 in the first place. The latter had just directed Devil’s Doorway, a western film that portrayed American Indians in a sympathetic light even more skillfully than Broken Arrow, and Stewart, impressed by that, was all for his taking the helm.
The rifle of the title is the proudest possession of a series of men throughout the movie, neatly intertwining the characters’ stories and representing not only virility, but for Stewart’s Lin McAdams, vindication in his drive for revenge.
The relationship between McAdams and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) is clarified at the end, but fascinating from its first moment, when the characters grab for absent guns at the sight of each other. Into their tense attempt to draw, they insert a flash of gladness to see each other—one of those tiny details that make this film stand out. Did the actors come up with that on their own? Did Chase write that in? Or did Mann direct them to add that touch?
Mann’s direction of Stewart brought the star a whole new image. After numerous roles as a gangling and clean-cut young man in comedies and light dramas, he had played a somewhat darker character in It’s a Wonderful Life, and more mature, disillusioned ones in Call Northside 777 and Rope, but this role revealed in addition more physicality and toughness than audiences were used to seeing in him. Mann’s genius was in interweaving this seamlessly with Stewart’s vulnerable side; still, Lin McAdams’ near-psychotic rage toward Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) brought gasps from the movie’s original audiences. This was only the second western role the public had seen Stewart play (Broken Arrow was made earlier, but released after this film), and as the first was the mostly comedic Destry Rides Again, this was a departure.
Stewart worked hard for believability in the character, practicing shooting for hours with a technical advisor from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and carefully considering his choice of clothing and hat. He relied upon his stunt doubles Ted Mapes and Ron Meyers for advice about sartorial and behavioral authenticity, and sought their assistance in honing his already considerable horsemanship. (Stewart was to use Meyers’ daughter’s horse, Pie, in Winchester ’73 and all his ensuing western roles for another 20 years.)
In an interview made to accompany a laser disc release of Winchester ’73, Stewart stated that he was conscious of a need to change the impression he gave the audience—he couldn’t deliver his lines in the old Stewart drawl, as he put it—but emphasized that he was helped immensely by Chase’s story and Mann’s direction.
But along with the contributions of producer, writer, director and star, the strength of Winchester ’73 lies in the plausibility and resonance of every small part, and in its details: Stewart’s dirty, sweat-stained hat; the way he combs his fingers through his horse’s forelock as he rides; Millard Mitchell’s tongue-twisted recollections of what Earp had told them previously (Lin’s reaction: “I think you better spit”); the increasingly edgy menace of the mysterious Dutch Henry Brown (McNally) in contrast with his good-natured henchmen (Steve Brodie and James Millican); the hospitable but tough and no-nonsense owner of the roadside hotel and bar (John Alexander); all the sly humor about life-or-death situations (“Whaddya guess for our chances?” “What chances?”); the suggestive, yet domestically promising, exchange between Lola (Shelley Winters) and Lin (Stewart) about the bullet she wants as a keepsake; the way Dan Duryea plays an absolutely despicable character and still comes off as likable; the breathtakingly painterly image of an Indian on horseback against a sunset behind two foreground characters (cinematography by William H. Daniels); Shelley Winters’ affectionate kisses and compliments for grizzled Jay C. Flippen.
These raise the movie above convention and make it one of the classics of western cinema. Borden Chase was already famous for his scripting of Red River (directed by Howard Hawks and Arthur Rosson, starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift). Chase subsequently wrote two additional Stewart westerns directed by Anthony Mann (Bend of the River and The Far Country), as well as other western stories and screenplays. (Yet another Stewart vehicle, Night Passage, had a Borden Chase script and originally was to be directed by Mann, but the director was not enamored of that screenplay. When he pulled out of the project, Mann and Stewart went their separate ways for good.)
Note: If you find it fun to spot early appearances of then little-known actors destined to achieve movie fame, stop reading here and come back later! However, if you want to be sure not to miss them, read on and do not overlook early roles here for two 1950s stars: “Anthony Curtis” plays a young Calvary soldier (didn’t capture his name in the credits, so, from the VHS era on, viewers have had one of those “Wow, is that…?” moments), and a nearly unrecognizable Rock Hudson does a good job as the Apache chief Young Bull.