Monday, July 12, 2010


“He said if a man had one friend, he was rich…I'm rich…”

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I love classic movies, and though it may not seem fair to the ones I’ve not yet seen I have favorites that I return to again and again and again. There’s also a small handful of these films that, if I happen to run across one while channel-surfing, I have to stay and watch to the very end. A good example of one of these timeless classics is the 1942 version of The Glass Key — a film that I’ve lost count how many times I’ve sat through. It’s a classic tale of politics, murder and corruption…one of the earliest examples of the film style that would eventually become known as “film noir.”

But the granddaddy of all the “I’m-not-budging-until-the-end-credits-roll” films I’m fond of is Winchester ’73 (1950) — a Western fave that established so many milestones it would be difficult to list them all. It was one of the first Westerns made by motion picture star James Stewart (1950’s Broken Arrow would be the very first filmed, but released after Winchester), an actor not generally known for sagebrush sagas…and in fact, Stewart got some static in the press for this new direction in his career because the noble reporters of the fourth estate didn’t think he could pull off such a role. It also would be Stewart’s first film in which he collaborated with director Anthony Mann — the two men would go on to make a total of eight features together, including the classics Bend of the River (1952) and The Naked Spur (1953) — an individual who’d also never previously helmed an oater and was recommended to the film after the original director, Fritz Lang, took a pass (Stewart had worked with Mann previously in stage productions).

Sixty years ago on this date, Winchester ’73 was released to theaters. Its surprising success breathed new life into what many thought was a tired genre (beaten to death by singing cowboys and B-picture oaters) and ensured a slew of successful Western movies to come throughout the 1950s.

Lin McAdam (Stewart) and High-Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell — “with a hyphen…that’s what I sit on when I get tired”) ride into Dodge City one Fourth of July in 1876 — just in time to enter a marksmanship contest in which the coveted prize is a genuine, “one-in-a-thousand” Winchester ’73 rifle—“the gun that won the West.” One of the contestants, a man named Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), exhibits a bit of animosity towards Lin — something that does not escape the attention of man who’s in charge of keeping the peace, Marshal Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). As the contest gets underway, it soon comes down to a showdown between Lin and Dutch Henry…with Lin ultimately emerging as the victor. When Dutch Henry offers to buy the rifle from McAdam (“That's too much gun for a man to have just for...shootin' rabbits,” Brown observes nastily) Lin tells him it’s not for sale. So Dutch Henry lies in wait for Lin in his hotel room, dry-gulches him and steals the rifle…hauling ass and elbows out of town in the process.

Dutch Henry and his pals (Steve Brodie, James Millican) arrive at a trading post where, even though Brown has the prized Winchester, they’re “naked” without guns and ammunition, which they left behind in Dodge. In an attempt to earn money to purchase some, Dutch Henry gets into a poker game with a crooked gambler/Indian trader named Joe Lamont (John McIntire), who ultimately ends up in control of the firearm. The weapon will continue to exchange multiple owners throughout the film; it passes through the hands of an Indian chief (Rock Hudson), a yellow coward (Charles Drake) who deserts his wife (Shelley Winters) while being ambushed by Apaches and notorious gunslinger “Waco” Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea)…before winding up in the possession of Dutch Henry again. By that time, Lin and High-Spade have caught up to the thief — who is revealed during the course of events in the film to be Lin’s brother — and Brown and McAdam are forced to shoot it out in a tense climax set among a rocky cliff.

Before World War II, Jimmy Stewart had a reputation in films as the quintessential American boy-next-door, whose “aw, shucks” demeanor endeared him to a large audience of moviegoers (though he showed flashes of a darker nature on rare occasions before, notably in 1936’s After the Thin Man). Stewart enlisted in the service at the outbreak of the war and eventually worked his way up through the U.S. Air Force ranks to become a brigadier general…but after his hitch overseas concluded; he returned to his former profession and was anxious to start tackling roles that didn’t typecast him as Mr. Nice Guy. Audiences got a further look at Stewart’s slightly blemished psyche in the underappreciated (at the time) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) — but it was Winchester that really let Jim talk a walk on the dark side. Granted, though he still plays the hero it was a bit uncomfortable to see Stewart exhibit uncharacteristic traits like disillusionment and obsession — throughout the film’s running time, he doggedly pursues McNally’s Brown with a ruthless determination that certainly made those individuals unfamiliar with this darker side of his screen persona a tad uneasy. The obsessive hero not above random acts of violence would become a hallmark in the subsequent Westerns Stewart made with director Mann — a man whose fixation on achieving certain ends often justified the questionable means needed to get there.

Although Winchester ’73 pioneered a new “adult” western, it would be folly not to point out that the film in its entirety isn’t necessarily a downer; there are some wonderfully scripted sequences highlighting the amusing byplay between Stewart and sidekick Mitchell, and the screenplay by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards (based on Stuart N. Lake’s story) allows for a first-rate mix of lighter scenes mixed with its more somber moments. There’s endlessly quotable dialogue in Winchester, but my favorite is the observation made by High-Spade as he contemplates being attacked by Indians: “It was such pretty hair. I've had it ever since I was a kid. A little thin on top... but I sure would like to keep it.”

I don’t think there’s ever been a better-cast movie than Winchester ’73. Stewart is great, of course, and Mitchell is superb as his best saddle pal — but there also are outstanding turns from McNally, Winters, Duryea (at his narcissistic nastiest), Drake, McIntire and Jay C. Flippen as a cavalry commander who, after receiving a buss from a grateful Shelley and a “That’s for savin’ my life”, says sheepishly: “Now you disappoint me. I thought it was 'cause I'm pretty.” I’ve seen a lot of fine actors portray the legendary Wyatt Earp: Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea, Burt Lancaster, Hugh O’Brian (on TV) — but to this day, Will Geer is the man I think of when I think of Earp (and surprisingly, Geer originally thought himself miscast). Rock Hudson, in one of his early roles, makes quite an impression as the savage Young Bull…and this was also one of the early showcases for a young Tony Curtis, who plays a cavalry grunt.

This was one of three Westerns that director Mann would tackle in 1950 — the others being The Furies and Devil’s Doorway — and he brought a wonderfully dark, paranoiac sensibility to the traditional oater, directing these films in the same dark, moody style as he did his celebrated film noirs such as T-Men (1947) and Border Incident (1949). And for those who “can’t abide” black-and-white films, the cinematography of Oscar winner William H. Daniels should be enough to convince even the last monochromatic holdout — it’s every bit as beautiful as the Monument Valley scenery that accompanied many a John Ford film.

During the planning stages of Winchester ’73, Universal couldn’t afford to pony up Stewart’s asking price of $200,000 — so they cut a deal with the actor whereupon he would achieve a percentage of the profits upon making both Winchester and Harvey (1950). Both films were immensely successful at the box office, and this unusual arrangement of “profit-sharing” would eventually change the partnership between studio, actor and agent…and bring about the demise of the studio system and long-term contracts. (Stewart, it is said, netted a tidy sum of $600,000 from Winchester — which was not a bad chunk of change at the time.)

The partnership between actor Stewart and director Mann that would lead to successes such as The Man From Laramie (1955) and The Far Country (1955) was, unfortunately, not destined to last — they had a falling out during the making of Night Passage (1957) and neither man worked with one another again. Stewart’s new Western image (he practiced for hours-on-end with the Winchester rifle in an effort to look authentic, and even insisted on wearing the same sweat-stained hat and riding the same horse in every oater afterward) would stretch to other classic sagas like John Ford’s Two Rode Together (1961) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)…but for my money, he never worked for a better director on oaters than Anthony Mann. Winchester, interestingly enough, is the only film of his for which Stewart provided commentary for its initial laserdisc and subsequent DVD releases. This is a positive boon to yours truly, because ever since the decline of the once-proud American Movie Classics channel...I have to put the DVD on to once again fully enjoy this timeless film classic.


Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and hasn’t been able to see actor Charles Drake in a positive light in any subsequent film because that rat bastard left Shelley Winters behind to save his own sorry ass from an Indian massacre.

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One other post-WW2 film before Winchester where Stewart began showing a dark side that's worth mentioning is his role as the all-talk professor shocked when his former take his words literally in Hitchcock's Rope in 1948.
Nice appreciation, Ivan. New York's great art-house theater Film Forum has been running an extensive Anthony Mann retrospective in the past few weeks, and while I've sadly only been able to see a handful of them, Winchester '73 was one of the ones I was able to see, on a double bill with The Naked Spur. I recall loving the latter a bit more than the former, but Winchester '73 is still terrific. If nothing else, I like the way it's structured: each time the gun changes hands, the film shifts focus from one character to another, giving the film a free-form feel to it.
Great stuff. I'm also fond of Stewart's western radio show, The Six Shooter.
I like this one, too. Is this the one where he smashes Dan Duryea's face into the bar? Dang, that was swell.
Thanks for this. I just saw Millard Mitchell opposite Gregory Peck in "The Gunfighter." He plays a lawman. I thought he was so fine. Looking forward to seeing Winchester '73.
This was the first of the legendary Anthony Mann / James Stewart oaters that I ever saw, and I continue to have a soft spot for it. I think I recall someone saying about these pairings that it was Stewart's unhinged western period. Still, Mann and Stewart made quite the team -- I have a good admiration of his work with John Ford, though. Excellent write-up for this classic, Ivan. Thanks for this.
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