Saturday, March 2, 2013

Winchester '73 (1950)

Director: Anthony Mann                                Writer: Robert L. Richards & Borden Chase
Film Score: Walter Scharf                             Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea and Will Geer

Jimmy Stewart made a series of westerns in the fifties for Universal International, most of them with Anthony Mann directing. Winchester ’73 is the one that started it all. It’s the only one in black-and-white and, for many critics, is the best of the bunch. Ostensibly, it’s the story of a gun, a prized Winchester ’73, won by Stewart at a Fourth of July celebration in Dodge City, Kansas. The gun is stolen and leaves town with Stewart’s enemy, Stephen McNally, and changes hands several times thereafter. The subplot throughout is the unstated conflict between Stewart and McNally that has Stewart chasing him down regardless of the risk or the cost to himself.

It’s an interesting script, which begins with the usual unknown obsession to track down a man, but it has three very distinct acts. In fact, Winters and Duryea, top billed actors in the film, don’t have anything to do until the second and third acts, respectively. There are also three sub-plots, the first dealing with Stewart and McNally, the second with Shelley Winters as the whore with the heart of gold, and the third with Dan Duryea and his conflict with Charles Drake as the man who wants to marry Winters. Because Stewart met Winters briefly in Dodge City, and again later in an Indian shootout, all three of the stories intertwine and eventually coalesce into the finale. And it ends with a pretty good twist.

There are some other performances that merit attention. Millard Mitchell is solid, if forgettable, as Stewart’s sidekick. Will Geer, in his pre-Waltons days, does an unbelievable but memorable performance as Wyatt Earp. Rock Hudson, if you can believe it, has a brief role as an Indian chief. And one of the young cavalry officers in the Indian attack is Tony Curtis. Overall, it’s a good, solid Western, but really doesn’t seem to be much more. Other than the inventive plot, it has most of the stock characters we’ve all seen, and many of the same scenes. Definitely interesting, but hardly an all time classic. In terms of the Stewart-Mann collaborations, I much prefer The Naked Spur.

In his A List review of the film, Gerald Peary does what many of the critics in the book do, praises the film for its position as the first rather than its artistic merits. His emphasis is on Anthony Mann and his directorial vision, coming as he did out of the noir genre and then transferred that vision to the Western, specifically in his collaborations with Stewart. Peary even admits that, in this film, Stewart is fairly bland in comparison to the bitter and jaded character he would become in later Mann films. What Peary does praise is the sprightly character cast. While he claims Stewart’s character is “not the locus of western myth,” he really is, at least from the perspective of the twenty-first century. While this may have been a radical departure at the time from the John Ford mythos, it seems fairly tame today. Though it is a very good western, I ultimately question the inclusion of Winchester ’73 in the list of the hundred best films of all time.

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