Directed by Anthony Mann
Written by Robert L. Richards & Borden Chase
Winchester ’73 brings with it quite a few firsts in this westerns marathon, and they are pretty exciting at that. First one which bears mentioning is James Stewart, who makes his first of many appearances in this westerns marathon. This one is especially delightful for me, as Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite actors of all time. He has a unique delivery and a very compassionate manner, which will be interesting to see in this new setting. The second first is Anthony Mann, the director of the film. I’ve never seen any of his movies myself, but when compiling this marathon list, his is a name I saw associated with some of the more notable titles in the genre. Winchester ’73 is his first appearance on the list as well, but I will get familiar with him quick, as he has a couple more in store in short order.
As Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and High Spade (Millard Mitchell) make their way into Dodge City to compete in a shooting competition, they’re asked to check their guns by local marshall Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). Lin soon finds he will be competing against Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), the man he is after, in the competition. After winning the prize, a brand new Winchester rifle, Lin is accosted by Brown, but McAdam and High Spade are soon hot on their trails. But the rifle seems destined to be cursed, as it passes hands from one man in the west to another, often leaving the old owner dead on the prairie. McAdam is out for revenge one way or the other, both for Brown, who has since taken up with Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duyrea) and taken captive Lola (Shelley Winters), as well as for the famed Winchester rifle.
A really cool aspect of Winchester ’73 is the fact that the rifle itself is a character in the story. We’ve not yet seen a kind of vignette style approach to the western genre, and this isn’t quite that, but the intersection of these characters is coincidental and fateful at the same time, making the one true constant though the entire story the rifle, as it passes through various hands. I’m not sure what the rifle represents, as “the gun that won the west”. As I said most of the people who end up wielding it end up dead, so perhaps there is some cosmic justice in that since it was originally stolen from its rightful owner who had won it fair and square. I think this new perspective on how you can tell a western story is one of the film’s greatest strengths though.
Another strength, unsurprisingly, is James Stewart, who is a joy to see in a cowboy hat and spurs. His performance here, and his character, toe the line of good guy in some respects, which is definitely a different angle than what I’m used to seeing from him. Lin McAdam is clearly the hero here, and an overall good guy, but to see him toting a gun, out for revenge is a change from the all-American personality of his roles in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, the types of roles I am used to seeing him in. He delivers a performance with just the right amount of edge here as McAdam, which is both endearing and a little unsettling at the same time. He toes the line beautifully and crafts something altogether different and exciting.
Stewart is also supplemented by a wonderful surrounding cast, which includes Dan Duryea, another appearance by Millard Mitchell as a trusted companion, the always wonderful Shelley Winters, and even early roles for both Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis, not that they contribute much here. As expected, the film has its share of exciting sequences where the rifle does what it’s best at. The film concludes with a well choreographed shootout, but then ends fairly abruptly, which is the most startling thing about the whole movie and threw me off. It’s a nit to pick, and there are not many others. Winchester ’73 is a pretty entertaining and unique western in its structure. If I had one major qualm, it’d be that I wanted to know more about and spend a little more time with this great ensemble cast.