Friday, March 1, 2013


"I'll play these."

To show you how good a western film WINCHESTER '73 (which I watched this afternoon) is, consider this. The historical figures Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson both appear in the film but they're not the leads, merely supporting characters. And two major Hollywood stars in the making, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis, appear in minor roles, with Hudson playing an Indian chief (!)

The brilliance of this 1950 film (beautifully photographed in glorious black and white) is the pairing of director, Anthony Mann and star, James Stewart. Mann, who made a name for himself in the 1940s as a film noir auteur with such masterpieces as RAILROADED! (1947), T-MEN (1947), RAW DEAL (1948) and BORDER INCIDENT (1949) brought some of those same dark sensibilities and thematic concerns to a series of James Stewart starring westerns Mann made for Universal-International in the 1950s. Stewart, as evidenced by his work with Alfred Hitchcock, was extremely capable of portraying psychologically complex and flawed characters. The "noir" westerns that Mann and Stewart made include BEND OF THE RIVER (1952), THE NAKED SPUR (1953), THUNDER BAY (1953), THE FAR COUNTRY (1954) and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955). WINCHESTER '73, their first collaboration is one of their best.

The film tells the story of a one-in-a-thousand "perfect" Winchester model '73 rifle (the gun that won the west). The weapon is a highly coveted prize which is rightfully won by Lin McAdam (Stewart) in a Dodge City shooting contest held on the 4th of July. His chief competitor is one Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), who later steals the rifle from McAdam and sets the plot in motion. 

The rifle falls in and out of the hands of several characters throughout the film including an Indian trader (brilliantly played by John McIntire), an Indian chief (Hudson), a coward seeking redemption (Charles Drake) and finally into the possession of the villainous Waco Johnnie Dean (superbly played with a trace of madness by Dan Duryea). McAdam and his partner, High-Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) are always one step behind the various owners of the rifle. During their quest the men encounter an Indian attack against an out manned and outgunned cavalry unit (among the men is a young Tony Curtis). Mann orchestrates the action set piece beautifully and later stages an impressive gun fight in a burning farm house and a shoot out following a bank robbery. The film reaches an impressive climax when McAdam finally confronts Dutch Henry Brown (whose real identity is revealed) in a tense rifle battle staged among the rocks, cliffs and craggy peaks of a desert mountain. 

Stewart, as always, is terrific, and he brings a shade of darkness to his portrayal of McAdam. The supporting cast is solid, the on-location cinematography by William H. Daniels is superb and Mann's direction is masterful. WINCHESTER '73 is a very, very good film. Highly recommended.

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