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Winchester '73

cast: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, and Will Geer

director: Anthony Mann

90 minutes (U) 1950 widescreen ratio 16:9
Universal DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
One of the great westerns, Winchester '73 is noteworthy film in many respects, not least because it marked the start of one of the great creative partnerships in the genre, that between director Anthony Mann and James Stewart. Mann had until this time been working successful in low budget films, crafting a series of B-noirs, which have a following on their own account today, titles such as T-Men (1947), Border Incident (1949) and Raw Deal (1948). Nineteen-fifty brought his first big assignment with the current production, a film which many critics point to as marking the western's emergence into maturity during the decade.

It was also something of a career change for Stewart, whose many roles during his early career had been based around a friendly and frequently homespun persona. Only such films as the documentary noir Call Northside 777, of two years earlier, or odd moments during It's A Wonderful Life hinted at something darker, almost pathological, lurking beneath the amiable exterior. The series of westerns made with Mann brought this something else to the surface; suddenly this was a dogged, vengeful Stewart, still playing honest men, but men who had often suffered a great wrong and were driven to put things right. (Hitchcock recognised this neurotic dimension to the actor as, during the same period, he also used him to great effect). Thus in The Man From Laramie (1955) the hero would have his livelihood burnt and be dragged behind a horse by a psychotic, while in Bend Of The River (1952) he is cast out to survive on his own from a wagon train.

As Lin McAdam in Winchester '73 he is already hunting someone who has wronged him: "...chasing him since I can't remember" and then, to add to it all, has a prize rifle stolen from him by his prey after an intense competition. The film focuses on the eponymous weapon as it passes through various hands and Stewart's parallel tracking of his human prey. In some ways his dogged perseverance reminds one of Ethan Edwards' in The Searchers (1956), where similarly obsessive behaviour drives the plot.

McAdam's single-mindedness is a characteristic of many of Mann's western heroes, a state of mind that approaches the unbalanced in The Naked Spur (1953). Of course McAdam is after getting back his rifle almost as much as he is after vengeance. Later films also feature the 'travelling armament' storyline - such as American Gun, or The Gun (1974) - the tale of a weapon passing through various hands provides a morality tale hedged around the prevalence of firearms. Winchester '73's central narrative thread has an entirely different purpose, one not generally concerned with social comment. When McAdam's gun is stolen the loss is seen in far more private, almost psychological terms, as if a piece of his personal honour is taken along with the rifle. In fact honour plays a large part in this film: it is either symbolically removed, as in the case of Dutch Henry Brown's early theft; much reduced as shown in the cowardice and subsequent humiliation of Charles Drake; or largely absent, as with the trader selling arms of questionable worth to the warring Indians. And of course besides McAdam's fury at the opening theft, what also drives him on is the dishonourable (because he's shot in the back by someone he trusted) loss of his father.

As critics such as Phil Hardy have noted, during the film McAdam encounters a series of father figures, such as Wyatt Earp, Sergeant Wilkes, and Lamont - the presence of who serves to echo and reinforce his own loss. To prove himself worthy of his late father in his own eyes, McAdams has to do is secure the something special he has lost and exact suitable vengeance. The look of the exhausted McAdam's face at the close of the film as he rejoins Lola (Shelley Winters) and his sidekick High Spade (Millard Mitchell) says it all.

In making Winchester '73, Mann was at last given the chance and the budget to make the most of his talents. His previous films had mostly been set amongst cramped and dangerous urban environments. Settling into a new genre he at once showed great response to landscape, and not just in the epic moments like the Indians' attack on Sergeant Wilkes' party. In many of his westerns it is noticeable that the territory through which characters move is not just the geography of the west but also often a physical echo of the ongoing human drama, as exteriors reflect the emotional state of his characters. Thus at the start of the film we see McAdam moving through open vistas before his first encounter is set amidst the excited human clutter of Dodge. As events proceed, the landscape becomes more and more inhospitable until the film's climax fought out around and amidst bare rocks - a claustrophobic and harsh environment, aptly trapping the two adversaries in their uncompromising duel. Many traditional westerns tended to save the psychological drama for interiors and the action, taken plain and simple, for outside. Mann's achievement was to resolve this pattern into something more subtle and expressive and open the way for the deeper resonances in the genre which were to follow.

Winchester '73's plot, which involves several locations and a range of characters and events, could easily have proved episodic. Mann manages to draw all these elements together into a satisfying unity while still allowing the supporting actors to shine and do their thing. One standout is Dan Duryea, in an entirely characteristic performance as Waco Johnny Dean. Dean and Dutch Henry Brown (excellently done by the underrated Stephen McNally, who also turns up in another film reviewed this month, Siegel's Duel At Silver Creek - a far more sympathetic role) provide excellent turns in villainy. There's a nice touch of symmetry too as the end draws near: McAdam, who had earlier been humiliated by Brown over a drink of milk back in Dodge, faces down Dean over another drink in the cantina.

The excellent DVD transfer shows the film in its best light, not least the splendid black and white photography. Mann rarely moves his camera, but instead shows mastery of composition within the frame and his direction of actors. The deep focus benefits from the clear digital image, reproduced in the correct academy ratio. If this isn't enough to wet the appetite of any western fan, then there is an unmissable bonus. James Stewart recorded an interview commentary for the title when it appeared on laserdisc years back, and this is included - perhaps one of the very rare occasions that a representative of Hollywood's golden age appears in this way on a western DVD. (I can only otherwise think of Maureen O'Hara's commentary to the Region 1 special edition of Rio Grande.) Then 45 years on, Stewart understandably has few detailed memories of the film, but his comments on working with Mann and also Hitchcock are unmissable and the familiar charm is still very entertaining. He takes delight in pointing out the early appearances of Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis in the film, and is generous in praise for all the actors. There are other nuggets too, such as Stewart describing how he perfected his draw - by spending half an hour each evening pulling a gun from his holster, kneeling on his bed to avoid dropping and damaging the prop - or the trouble he had in staining the hat he wears in the film, which John Ford later loathed. Hat or no, the whole package is highly recommended.
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