John Brown loves westerns. I'll be offering occasional reviews of the westerns I watch and re-watch here at Prepare Yourselves...
This time: Winchester '73 (1950)
Lin McAdams has been chasing Dutch Henry Brown for years. When Brown hands McAdams a whipping and absconds with a "one in 1,000" prize rifle, the hunt intensifies. The gun changes hands, a showgirl changes hands and McAdams finally bags his prey--and the girl. Winchester '73 is a straight revenge fable with a few nice tricks and a nifty plot device (the movie's namesake rifle). Though I found the story itself hollow and a little uninspiring, the movie somehow rises above that seemingly damning weakness. It's not a bullseye, but it's a very good shot.
James Stewart plays Lin McAdams. He wears the white hat, but it's stained with sweat. There's significance there. It'd be an exaggeration to claim that Winchester '73 singlehandedly changed the western, but it does represent a signficant step in the development of the genre. The sweaty hat perched atop Stewart's head parallels the flaws in his character. Lin McAdams isn't the clean, heroic protaganist. He holds a grudge. He has a temper. He allows an obsession with revenge to define his entire life. McAdams is one of the first notable western leads to have visible human weaknesses. Stewart, in a departure from the "aw, shucks" roles that had defined the bulk of his career, gives McAdams a surprising depth and an added dimension of believability.
The supporting cast is strong. Stewart clearly possesses more talent than his counterparts, but no one stumbles enough to drag the movie down.
Dan Duryea's Waco Johnny Dean chews scenery as sadistic bad guy. Joe Lamont turns in a strong two-scene performance as amoral Indian trader John McIntire. Stephen McNally isn't afraid to make Dutch Henry Brown a hateable nemesis for Lin McAdams.
Shelley Winters has the only female role of consequence as Lola, the dance hall girl. She's as much a commodity as she is a character, a fact that has undoubtedly pissed off feminist film students for nearly fifty years. She does do well within her allotted space though and it's nice to see her in Winchester '73. I'm in my late thirties. When I think about Shelley Winters, I automatically conjure up images of a bloated character from cheesy 70s flicks. It wasn't always that way.
There's extra star power hiding in the film, too. Rock Hudson makes a very brief pre-fame appearance as an Indian warrior. His "me want this gun" grunts will make you wince a little bit, but it's fun to see him in body paint playing a relatively minor part. A very young Tony Curtis shows up in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role.
Director Anthony Mann didn't rely exclusively on Stewart and a strong supporting cast to carry the film, though. He brought his film noir sensibilities to the old west--along with visual communication skills so strong that you'll forget Winchester '73 is a black and white oater within minutes.
Mann may not have shared a great deal with one of my favorite directors, David Lean, but they did have one skill in common. Both seemed to great take care to make sure that every scene and every shot served to advance both the tone and the story of the film. There are very few throwaway moments in Winchester '73 and countless proofs of a director truly interesting in communicating. Blog Battery does a great job of isolating and explaining a few examples of Mann's impressive talent.
Mann resists the urge to pepper Winchester '73 with comic relief. There are a few smiles (including a surprisingly blue-for-1950 double entendre about Shelley Winters and a "nice pair"), but we aren't saddled with annoyingly goofy sidekicks or other unnecessary distraction.
Winchester '73 isn't flawless, however. It suffers the common western geography problem. It doesn't take long to get from Dodge City to the desert and Kansas doesn't look like Kansas. Everyone shoots straighter than straight and the Indians are sick caricature. These issues certainly aren't unique to Winchester '73 and flunking the movie on the basis of these frequent faux pas would be unfair.
The main problem with the film is the plot itself. As noted, it's a run-of-the-mill revenge story of an almost biblical nature, spiced up with a "dark secret" discerning viewers will quickly discover. Stewart's driven hunter can't find a route to peace that doesn't involve the final kill. Although I experienced a degree of catharsis after the last volley of the showdown, it was empty. I know others won't see it that way. I suppose my reaction to the plot is a reflection of my own attitudes toward revenge and retribution.
Stewart does get the girl in the end. Unfortunately, it's hard to tell why anyone would really want her and whether there's any basis for a romance or relationship between the two of them. Another western convention Mann couldn't break. You can put your hero in a stained hat, but you can't deny him the female lead, I guess.
I'm sure other reviewers will dwell on the prized rifle. We follow the gun through a series of owners throughout the movie. It undoubtedly has symbolic value on some level, but it's primarily a clever way to help advance the story and to give it a title. I'd stop short of categorizing the Winchester as "Macguffin", but it's close in my estimation.
Winchester '73 is worth watching. It's the first of five Mann/Stewart collaborations and it's easy to tell that the star and the director were a great fit for one another. It's an interesting piece of western movie history. It's a well-paced and easy to watch piece of expert direction.
The best reason to watch Winchester '73, though, is Jimmy Stewart. Few actors have that magical magnetism and charisma that makes them impossible not to watch. Stewart was one of them.
(4/5 Singing Cowboys)
A few other reviews of Winchester '73: Blog Battery, DVD Savant, Variety (1950), Combustible Celluloid, VideoVista
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