Winchester 73 has the initially dubious reputation of being a portmanteau western. Whether or not this is a one-of-a-kind distinction, any number of popular culture vehicles have employed the device in often gimmicky fashion. It makes for a La Ronde-esque sitcom episode in a pinch.
However, this James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaboration succumbs to no such fate. It’s positively stuffed with quality talent and vignettes woven quite closely together. There is a compounding weight to them even as characters both minor and substantial all but stand on their own two feet.
Equally compelling is Anthony Mann’s usual dynamism — continued from his film noir days — and also the very specific mise-en-scene he develops. The opening shot behind the credit is an exquisite first impression with a pair of silhouettes trodding along the ridge in a perfect arc off into the distance. It’s a type of instant exposition in the most primal sense: two men riding toward their unseen destination.
The two strangers sidle into town, the hard-bitten gentleman Linn McAdams (Stewart) and his trusty sidekick (Millard Mitchell), who takes a calculated stance on just about everything. We know they’ve seen a lot of the world together and all sorts of people…
One of them just happens to be Dutch Henry Brown (Stephan McNally, who they happen on in the local watering hole. In another western, guns at the ready, they would have obliterated each other on the spot. However, in this picture, where a fairly obstinate rein of law and order rules, they are forced to bide their time outside the watchful eye of the city limits.
Will Geer does surprisingly well as a wry and affable Wyatt Earp. His characterization is just personal enough to take some of the mystique out of the legend and make him into a real human being we can appreciate in relatable terms.
But these scenes are a mere setup for a whole slew of encounters. It’s as if we lose our characters for a time as McAdams and High-Spade ride along the trail. However, Mann has a lot of fertile material to work with.
It transcends the simple conceit and builds into a genuine story rife with conflict, both personal and circumstantial. The story obliges by rolling over on itself as it continues to introduce new players at its own leisure.
In one roadside establishment, an insouciant horse trader (John McIntire) sits at the table playing solitaire. He sits by ready to play middle man to the Indians emboldened by Crazy Horse’s victory at the Little Bighorn, while gladly supplying Dutch Henry and his cronies desperately-needed weapons of their own.
It just so happens a Winchester becomes a fine bargaining piece. And yet even a secondary character like him is provided subtext. A man like him — a purported half breed — is deemed as an outsider by two nations.
Certainly, the Indians always carry the subjugated and degraded station in the western. Winchester 73 has its own issues assuredly, starting with Rock Hudson playing a Native American. However, the one equalizer is the universal avarice for the Winchester Rifle. Everyone wants it; some even to the point of death.
Other involved parties are a couple fleeing for their lives — a forthright woman with a gleam in her eye (Shelley Winters) and her craven man (Charles Drake). Alongside our heroes, they find some shelter in the company of a cavalry unit pinned down by the same Indians (a youthful Tony Curtis among them). Their leader, a crusty old vet (Jay C. Flippen), is astute enough to take advice from the men around him, and they make a valiant defense of their position to live another day.
It’s about this point in time where a viewer might realize we still have yet to see that perennial sleazy scene-stealer Dan Duryea and he makes his auspicious entrance as his usually snide gunman, the left-handed Waco Johnnie Dean pinned down in a farmhouse with his gang. There’s more hell to pay.
The glorious fact is how the film peaks at so many points. We have the battle over the rifle’s rightful owner in town, first, through competition then treachery. What follows is a Custer-like resistance with far better results, a homestead hostage standoff against authorities, the makings of a bank robbery, and, of course, the ultimate showdown on a craggy rock face.
These moments are easy to acknowledge because they are so prolific but what makes these exclamation points are the very fact the script knocked out by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards and as executed by the actors and its director, finds the time for conversation, lulls, and lit cigarettes.
By no means does it search out the utterly stylized extremes of Sergio Leone, but it understands the same dramatic gradient. Action means so much more if we have time and space to truly appreciate its impact.
What also matters are the stakes at play. Thankfully, Winchester ’73 makes itself about more than just a gun. A gun is a stand-in and indication of any number of grievances and human vices. It brings out all the issues already in play.
James Stewart was still fairly fresh off WWII. He was a different man from the gee-shucks everyman — more complicated and torn than he had ever been before. The films he made upon his return had yet to truly catch fire until Winchester ’73. It was a portent and signaled a true resurgence for the actor. Joining with the likes of Mann and Hitchcock, he very effectively redefined his image in a fundamentally intriguing way.
He became a man of vengeance with goodness soured by hate and desires tainted by darkness. When you look into his eyes in any of the number of pictures he made with Mann and Hitch, you begin to recognize something else. It’s not unadulterated innocence or even indignance. His eyes now burn with fury and genuine malice. His hands are calloused, comfortable cramming bullets into the stock of his gun. Because he’s not afraid of using it.
Reconsidering the mise-en-scene, it’s a joy to watch how Mann handles shots in such a blistering manner. But there is also a closeness and with it a violent intimacy to his direction. One scene might have a sleepy-eyed cowboy all but stretched out in the foreground as the camera peers over him into a cabin as two men converse.
Then, we have a bar room mauling in the most claustrophobic manner. Foreheads sweating, bodies writhing in palpable pain, and blood-vessels bulging with rage. It’s astounding how the man’s films almost inevitably feature such images and yet, despite their prevalence, I never grow tired of them.
They put many more technical or cashed-out sequences to shame because what is not scrimped on is the very transparent humanity in its most righteous and ugly iterations. Mann understands that there is not only primacy in the images of the West — we often think rolling plains and panoramas — but the western would mean nothing without morality. Hard unyielding codes, or a lack thereof, warring against each other. Where do these originate from if not the hearts and souls of men?
What Winchester ’73 hints at is how even a man like James Stewart can be consumed by demons. Over the course of a film, a story of a mere rifle, repeatedly develops character until it settles on something splitting right to his core identity. The beauty is in how swatches of dialogue, interweaving character arcs, and splashes of light and dark help in illustrating his singular journey.
This was the first in a thoroughly distinguished partnership between the western’s newfound antihero, Stewart, and one of the genres unsung mavericks in Mann. It just might be the best of the batch, which is saying something.