Winchester ’73 (1950) Anthony Mann

This review contains Spoilers!

Was it his personal war experiences that changed James Stewart? Did he come back a changed manl; most men do.  Many of Stewart’s post World War II roles began to take on a darker side with haunted ambiguous characters motivated by revenge or other desires. Maybe a steady diet of Frank Capra’s Capra-corn did not have enough substance anymore, after all life was not that simple (Stewart’s darker side was touched upon slightly in “It’s a Wonderful Life” but he was soon back to his sweet genteel self).  “Winchester ’73” was the first Mann/Stewart collaboration, a joint effort that would produce some of the most mature westerns ever made.

Fritz Lang was originally on board to make this film, however soon bowed out. After a screening of Devil’s Doorway Mann’s first western starring Robert Taylor, Stewart agreed to work with Mann.   The Winchester of the title was a special, “one of a thousand” type made in 1873. President Grant owned one, so did Buffalo Bill, and now Lin McAdams (Stewart), He wins one in a 4th of July celebration shoot out exhibition in Dodge City. His closest competitor is Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), his brother who shot their father in the back, though we do not find this out until toward the end of the film. For most of the story we never understand why Lin is so determined in going after Dutch.

The rifle itself gets passed around throughout the film becoming almost a character, or a link, in the film as it moves on from Lin, who won it in the shooting contest, to Dutch who steals it in a fight with Lin, to  an Indian gun runner, to an Indian Chief (Rock Hudson) to the cowardly fiancé (Charles Drake) of Lola (Shelley Winters) the only female in the cast, to gunfighter Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) then back to Dutch and finally back to Lin.

Just about every male character in the film drools over the perfect piece of equipment, an obvious symbol of virile masculinity. The men who possess it show it off, and the men who want it are envious. Guns in general are seen as phallic symbols. Later after successfully fending an attack by Indians, Lola returns to Lin a pistol he gave her to defend herself during the attack  with the understanding that the last bullet she should use on herself rather than fall into the hands of the Indians. Returning the gun and the bullet Lin suggest she may want to  keep the bullet. Without hesitation she says “I want it!” leaving no  uncertainty in her tone and look that she is talking more about sex and a life with Lin than just an old bullet.

Though the story is fiction, original screenwriter Robert L. Richards, later Mann brought in Borden Chase to do a rewrite in the first of their collaborative efforts, surrounds the story in real western mythology; Dodge City where an elderly though respected Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), Doc Holiday and company run a tight ship allowing no one to carry guns while in town. The Civil War has recently ended and General George Armstrong Custer was most recently overrun at Little Big Horn all of this invoking a strong sense of time and place in history.

This was the only western collaboration of Mann and Stewart filmed in black and white which may account for some of the noirish lighting in a few scenes, particularly in the fight between the two brothers in the hotel room where Dutch and his boys take the Winchester from Lin and beat it out of town.

As with “The Naked Spur” the theme of revenge is significant in this film as it motivates Lin in going after his brother. Family or the sense of family is also important here, the two brothers whose family was destroyed by the actions of one. Also between the prostitute Lola who is thrown out of town by Wyatt Earp, and the cowardly Steve. Both are outcasts who attempt to have a life together. Finally, and most prominently in Dodge City where an older Wyatt Earp is the friendly but strong willed patriarch (no guns allowed in town) who oversees the family friendly 4th of July celebration where the shooting contest is held with the winner getting the Winchester ’73.

This western is far from the type generally made at the time, more psychological, character driven with a conflicted dark hero. An excellent example occurs early in the film in Dodge City, after Lin surrenders his gun to Wyatt Earp, he enters a bar and finds his nemeses and brother at a card table. The reaction of both brothers to seeing each other is to crouch down and draw their guns. Thanks to Earp neither man has a weapon and a shooting is adverted but it is a disturbing scene as we watch the “hero” react in a way no better than the villain. Still, there is plenty of the standard action audiences would expect, Indian attack on the Calvary, cheating at cards, gunfights, Indian gun trader, a planned bank robbery and a woman in distress.

With this film Anthony Mann found his own John Wayne in James Stewart. Stewart collaborated with other directors (Hitchcock and Capra notably) but in Mann he found his alternate mantra that of an ambiguous hero verging on obsessed, unhinged, psychologically driven behavior.  Ford’s heroes were generally more straight forward white hat types though late in his career Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” and to a lesser extent Tom Doniphon in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” are certainly characters who struggle with life’s complexities and Edwards specifically is a man driven by traits that are both good and bad.

Stephen McNally as Lin’s evil brother is convincingly evil and just about as driven as his sibling. Noir favorite Dan Duryea also is adept at playing a malicious outlaw who hooks up with McNally for a bank robbery.   Look for newcomers Rock Hudson as the Indian chief who for a while is in possession of the Winchester and another unknown actor at the time , one Anthony “Tony” Curtis who has a small role as a Calvary solider prominently seen during the Indian raid scenes. James Best also has a small role.

*****

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11 comments on “Winchester ’73 (1950) Anthony Mann

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    On any list of the greatest westerns ever made, this Anthony Mann archetypal genre treasure must figure prominently. Mann himself has publicly called it his favorite western among his numerous forays into this genre, and considers it with MEN IN WAR, GOD’S LITTLE ACRE and EL CID as one of his four most beloved achievements. Fitting for such a formidable work, you have penned here a towering review, which includes the usual insights and historical tie-ins. In the Mann Festival I recented attended, I considered this as one of the five-star masterpieces, and found it as the most all-encompassing of all westerns, which contains all of the following:

    A rifle-shooting contest with hero and villain on par
    A runaway horse with hapless woman caught in carriage
    An indian attack on the cavalry
    A shoot-out in the streets
    A revenge theme
    A last stand
    A poker game
    Outlaws meeting at an isolated way station
    Outlaws holding innocent family hostage
    A bank robbery
    A saloon fight
    An Indian uprising

    It’s all there but the kitchen sink, and that tremendous unifying tehme of the rifle being passed on is a thrilling centerpiece.

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    • John Greco says:

      There is no argument there Sam, this film ranks up there with the best westerns of all time and just a great film in general. I am probably going to get around in the next week or so to THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, another great one. Thanks for a great comment.

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  2. Since Stewart made WINCHESTER ’73 and HARVEY in the same year, and even with Mann made such stuff as THE GLENN MILLER STORY, I doubt there was a decisive change in his self-image as a star. The times may simply have provided him more opportunity to show more range, starting with his Nietzschean professor in ROPE. In any event, ’73 is a top-ten western that elevates an episodic story into an epic. The other Mann westerns of 1950 are getting more and deserved recognition lately, but Winchester is still his best of that year.

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    • John Greco says:

      You may be right but either way there was a shift to an extent in the percentage of the roles he appeared in that took on a darker edge. Was it the times, the war, maybe. If you look at his pre-war films his roles mostly are that of the quintessential American (there are a couple of exceptions) guy. A larger percentage of post war films reflect a more conflicted individual. Don’t get me wrong he still did his fair share of fluff.
      Thanks Samuel!!!

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  3. R. D. Finch says:

    This was the last of the Mann-Stewart Westerns I saw, but I think it’s one of the best, just a wee bit behind “The Man from Laramie” and “The Naked Spur.” In some ways it’s the most unusual of the five. As you rightly point out, it was the only one not shot in color, so the emphasis is on lighting more than on scenery as in the other four, and it also has the most episodic story, following the rifle from one owner to the next. I like the way you note how it set the tone for the four follow-up Mann-Stewart collaborations, with its emphasis on character and motivation (especially revenge) over action, although there’s plenty of that too. As in the others, Stewart gets sterling support from his costars–especially Geer, McIntire, Duryea, and of course Shelley Winters in one of her best early roles. (She reminds me a bit of Claire Trevor in “Stagecoach.”)

    This was the first picture Stewart made under a profit-sharing deal with Universal. He received no salary but instead a percentage of the profits and received other considerations like cast and director approval, and he ended up making $600,000 from the movie. It started a new trend in the way movies are financed, one that continues to this day.

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    • John Greco says:

      $600,000 in 1950 was a heck of a lot of money (it is a heck of a lot of money now) to make on a deal like that. Surely proof of its financial success. The supporting cast is especially good here as you mention and Winters, an actress I personally would find annoying later on in her career, is restrained and quite touching. I will be posting a review of “Devil’s Doorway” in the next week or so and plan on watching and or rewatching the remaining Mann/Stewart westerns over the coming weeks.

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  4. Calum says:

    Hi John

    I just came across your web site and really love it. I’m wondering if you would care to help us. I just wrapped shooting on a documentary on old 42nd Street (more news is here:

    http://fangoria.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1671:be-part-of-new-grindhouse-docu-exclusive-picscomments&catid=1:latest-news&Itemid=167

    I’d love to use your wonderful image of the LYRIC theatre and would love to find out if you have any other shots of classic 42nd Street in all its glory.

    If you would care to get in touch I’d love to hear from you!

    All my best
    Calum

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  5. […]     At Twenty Four Frames John Greco has been doing some fabulous work as of late on Anthony Mann, and his review on Winchester 73 is as classic as the film it is considering: https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/winchester-73-1950-anthony-mann/ […]

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  6. […] Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann)***** the first western collaboration between Mann and James Stewart that arguably introduced the “adult western” to audiences. Many of the  trademarks and themes that would become evident in future collaborations between the director and actor are already there. A full review is at 24 frames.   […]

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