Jan. 11, 2009

Winchester '73 (1950)
Grade: 82/100

Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: James Stewart, Shelly Winters, Stephen McNally

What it's about. Set in the Old West in July 1876. Determined James Stewart is on the trail of his tough guy bank-robber brother, Stephen McNally, to exact revenge on McNally's murder of his father. Millard Mitchell is Stewart's laid back sidekick.

A valuable Winchester '73 rifle is the prize of a shooting contest held by sheriff Wyatt Earp (Will Geer, shortly prior to his ten-year Hollywood blacklist) at Dodge. Stewart participates, hoping McNally will also surface. Stewart narrowly defeats McNally to win the rifle, but McNally jumps Stewart and leaves town with the precious rifle.

The rifle goes through several hands, and is a curse to each and every one of them except, presumably, its rightful owner, Stewart. McNally is forced to sell it to sly Indian trader John McIntire. It then is possessed by Indian chief Rock Hudson, an early and most unusual casting. Cowardly Charles Drake is given the rifle, but he can't defend it or girlfriend Shelley Winters against sadistic outlaw Dan Duryea. McNally obtains the troublemaking rifle again, just in time for a climactic cliff showdown with Stewart.

How others will see it. Ideal for fans of action and western films. Classic film lovers will also relish this important Universal movie.

How I felt about it. Winchester '73 was featured in The Universal Story (1995), which noted that the film changed Stewart's film personality from an awkward, earnest romantic toward a more mature and shrewd character. It was the first of eight movies Stewart and Mann collaborated on together, through 1955. Winchester '73 was also an early stepping stone in the careers of Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis, who would become stars within the next few years.

Winchester '73 is an undeniably exciting movie. It has its small faults, of course: Stewart and McNally probably wouldn't trash talk while shooting at each other, and if they did, the things they said would likely be vicious and profane. When McNally and his two henchmen assault Stewart at his hotel room, they are likely to kill him, rather than simply steal his rifle. Winters is liable to flee the bar rather than sit there and play piano. If she chooses the latter, then she is unlikely to risk her life by conversing with Stewart within sight of Duryea. She stands up to Duryea at the Drake home only because it's a movie. Mitchell's loyalty to Stewart (riding at night when the Indians are on the warpath, etc.) seems unreasonable. Indian trader McIntire is too experienced not to recognize the peril he is in with Hudson. The Indians would attack the small makeshift fort all at once, from several directions. They wouldn't come in waves. And they would attack at night, since it would make them for difficult to see. It also appears that every male west of the Mississippi can recognize the quality of a Winchester '73 from halfway across the room.

But such criticisms are nitpicking. Certainly, it is a splendid western. Credit for its success is usually given to James Stewart and director Anthony Mann, but I suspect a sizable role was also played by co-screenwriter Borden Chase. Chase was a writer on several films I enjoy: Red River, Bend of the River, and The Fighting Seabees. Those films are filled with action, testosterone, and intrigue.