Winchester 73 (1950): James Stewart The Western Antihero

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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.

4.5/5 Stars

Two Rode Together (1961): The Community of a John Ford Western

With such a robust body of work, it’s no surprise John Ford often gravitated toward certain images to represent the West and Two Rode Together it little different with the director returning to familiar iconography. This time it’s Jimmy Stewart, not Henry Fonda, propped up against a railing with his feet kicked up casual-like.

As an aside, my mind wonders if it was Ford who made actors reputable because of his pictures, or were his pictures made better by the memorable actors — the John Waynes, Henry Fondas, and Jimmy Stewarts? Because it’s true they left an indelible mark on his filmography as he did on their movie careers. It’s not altogether surprising that the greats would get together — with their talents coalescing — since they were made greater through collaboration.

In this picture, Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) is the town’s Marshall. He has a fairly cushy life to lead and his reputation does all the talking. Thus, he can live in relative peace. He has his drinks brought out to him on the veranda and the only grief he gets is from Belle (Annelle Hayes). The tough-talking, deeply perceptive proprietor runs the local saloon, which remains all but empty during its off-hours.

A group of Cavalrymen rolls into town done and dusted. McCabe welcomes them in and reconnects with one of his pals: Lt. Jim Garry (Richard Widmark). What becomes evident is how friendships exist outside the confines of the movie. This in itself is powerful. The reason they came to town was actually for McCabe. They have orders to take him on the 40-mile jaunt back to their outpost.

We still don’t have a point or a reason — an inciting incident for the movie — but by this point in this career, maybe Ford doesn’t have to explain himself. The secret to his success is making us revel in the experience, and I’m not just saying that.

There’s a camaraderie, a good humor, and a beauty in being thrust into his world. He obviously takes great care in photographing it, but he also cares deeply about his players. Hence the reason he always held onto his tight-knit stock company.

One of the defining moments plays out in an extended take with Widmark and Stewart sitting at the water’s edge. It’s the essence of the movie in a nutshell as they smoke cigars, chewing the fat, and enjoying one another’s company. The moment gained some notoriety as Ford, in his typically tyrannical manner, made his cast and crew work in the icy water all day rather than have a simpler set-up. However, the extended nature of the sequence adds to the relaxed atmosphere. Time slows down for even a few minutes.

The story arc itself isn’t much good or at least it pales in comparison to something as incisive as The Searchers that culls the depths of revenge and human vindictiveness. None of this is surprising. Stewart finds himself dealing with folks holding out that their loved ones, abducted years ago by the Comanche, are still alive and capable of being rescued.

In what feels like a holdover from his pictures with Mann, Stewart is individualistic and more cynical than some might initially recall. His explanation of what Comanche do to white men — a young woman’s little brother — is enough to make the girl squirm with grief, and there’s no tempered dose of sympathy in any of his words. He’s not aiming to assuage fears and play savior to a bunch of people.

Against this, you have the typical broad comedy. In this case, Ken Curtis and Harry Carey Jr. vie for the affections of Shirley Jones only for her to dump a liberal amount of flour in their faces. Widmark sets up an equally comical duel for the hand of his girl only to have Andy Devine come to his rescue, essentially bodyslamming the rivals into the drink with his substantial girth.

Still, it does revert back toward its dark and bitter inclinations. Stewart and Widmark make contact with the Native Americans, but completing their mission supplies only small comfort. They bring back one feral youth raised by Comanche and a timorous senorita (Linda Cristal) who was the wife of one of the buffalo warriors (Woody Strode).

Both become social pariahs to be gawked at for different reasons. For the woman, though her life was harsher, she was treated with more respect, and with more dignity, by the Comanche.

The showcase for all of this to play out is the typical affair cropping up in all Ford’s Cavalry pictures with a dance put on by the military at the outpost for all the soldiers and their wives. It’s a sumptuous event. However, Ford effectively subverts the usually sensible, civilized space creating the most traumatic of moods. Here even this kind of life-giving community has been sullied and soured by human bigotry.

There are few places to hide as prejudice is expressed so perniciously out in the open, between whispered gossip and disparaging looks. Meek Elena (Cristal) stews in it all under the weight of all their sidelong glances, cringing out of her skin. She knows she is unwanted, that she doesn’t fit in, and frankly, it becomes the most heartbreaking scene in the picture.

Oddly enough, the bookends of the story are probably for the best, consisting of the vistas and the world they help to accentuate — the journey and how we got there, opposed to the actual particulars. You wouldn’t be wrong in observing Stewart and Widmark are too old for their parts, but it’s easy enough to stop caring and drop it altogether. What they provide to the movie is something else.

Because even as Ford literally called the script “crap,” and it’s true the tale’s not exactly the most cohesive, taut foray in storytelling, between the actors and director, there is so much bounty to be appreciated. There are also some lingering questions. What will happen to Shirley Jones and Widmark? We hardly know if the Comanches have been satiated. Then, Belle Aragorn is back, and it feels like a whole different movie was going on with her and the deputy while we were away.

Still, we end up with Stewart propped up against that railing once again and my mind couldn’t help but drift back to my opening thought. Ford and his actors collectively made stories richer and more vibrant so they could add up to something more than fragments of narrative strung together. They operate on different levels, bringing together all these bits and pieces of pulchritude, relevance, and meaning.

Two Rode Together is downright venomous at times, but it never loses sight of its prevailing good-humor. With the likes of Andy Devine and Jimmy Stewart holding down the fort, how could you not? And all of this is very much in keeping with John Ford.

Ford was a paradox — the inexplicable cipher to the end — who played both the taskmaster and also deeply loyal friend to kith and kin. It’s that tension that holds this picture together. For all the hell he put his stock company through, he’s also the very same man who shut down production for a week so he could set up funeral arrangements for one of his dear friends: Ward Bond.

It’s quite simple, but really all you need to know about this picture and John Ford is in the title. It’s not about the individual so much as the collective unit. Only then do we get humor and progress and friendship. As much as he might have masked it, he desperately needed other people, and his films reinforce this.

3.5/5 Stars

Stranger on Horseback (1955) with Judge Joel McCrea

Stranger_on_Horseback_film_poster.jpgI didn’t know my Grandpa too well because he passed away when I was fairly young but I always remembered hearing that he really enjoyed reading Louis L’Amour. It’s not much but a telling statement nonetheless. I’ve read and seen Hondo (1953), which stars John Wayne and Geraldine Fitzgerald, and yet I’d readily proclaim Stranger on Horseback the finest movie adaptation of an L’Amour novel.

Exhibit A is Joel McCrea as a circuit judge, highly principled but firm in his dealings. He’s not simply an idealist either also having the guts to back up his philosophy, packing a gun and walloping thugs when it’s called for. He comes off as an irreproachable, unstoppable enactor of justice — a truly fascinating hero to stand front and center in a western.

Exhibit B has to be one of the most underrated directors of this period in Jacques Tourneur who not only showed an early penchant for low budget black and white horror but in a handful of color westerns, he showcased an equal affinity for visual filmmaking. Shot in Anscolor, Stranger on Horseback is quite the looker, encapsulating the 1950s western landscapes of old. No budget is too minuscule and no runtime too short for Tourneur to make an interesting picture.

The man rides past the unmistakable images of a pine box and a makeshift funeral. The dead man and the reasons for his death are still to be told. However, it becomes apparent very quickly that he was gunned down.

John Carradine leads the welcoming committee as the local attorney and stooge who is very conveniently on the Bannerman payroll and therefore in the family’s pocket. Because in a small place like this hidden away from the long arm of the national government, the Bannerman family and their associates remain king and they have their hand in everything.

The crotchety Josiah Bannerman (John McIntire) is looking to buy out the judge and invite him over to dinner to straighten him out about the killing that took place. He actually meets Judge Thorne and realizes full-well that’s not going to happen with such a principled man. For once there’s someone who isn’t afraid of him, even if he should be.

There’s his niece Amy Lee (Miroslava) who’s handy with a pistol and though she’s on the verge of marrying a feckless local boy, there’s a sense that he cannot give her anything. She is too strong like Bannerman. She needs a man who can match her self-assured toughness.

But it is Tom (Kevin McCarthy) the cocky, smart-aleck son who the judge forcibly takes to the local jailhouse to hold him for the murder of another man. Thorn’s put a target on his back and he knows that the retribution of Bannerman will come swiftly if he cannot be bought out.

He gets the support of the local sheriff (Emile Meyer) who’s eager to shed the apathy that the town breeds and back a man with real guts who will stand by his gun. That’s attractive to him and so if no one else stands up, the Judge has one friend. Meanwhile, he rustles up a few clandestine witnesses to testify against the Bannerman boy because they saw what happened and though initially reluctant they agree to testify since it is the right thing.

With the nearest speck of civilization and with it the nearest courtroom being in the town of Cottonwood 47 miles away, it’s inevitable that Bannerman will send his cronies after the small caravan to stop them in their tracks. It looks to be a daunting proposition at best but again, the Judge never balks.

The finale is all but cut short on an abrupt even awkward note much as we suspected. Our hero has been met and his bluff has been called. But we soon realize since he has been a brazen and thoroughly scrupulous man thus far, he’s not about to change anytime soon. So the final outcomes might surprise just as much as they captivate in a mere matter of minutes.

The question remains, why does the judge go through all this trouble? Is it some vendetta that has him out for vengeance? Is he doing it to prove his stature or receive the admiration of a woman? Is he simply a fellow who’s a stickler for rules and regulations? We never know for sure. Of course, there are obvious markers.

Our best hint comes out of another man’s mouth as he reminds his daughter, “There’s right and there’s wrong and when you see the difference you’ve just got to speak up.” In Judge Thorn, McCrea has brought to life a man who holds to precisely those moral tenets.

He puts his safety in jeopardy, he makes himself unpopular and foregoes major payoffs that could help him live comfortably. All because his view of justice and of right and wrong are so lucid he sees no other way of going about his duties. Let there be more men in our world like the Judge. Not sticklers but men of immense integrity.

Stranger on Horseback is a testament to small-scale westerns that have the guts and the certain level of ingenuity to stand out and weather the ultimate test of time.  Dig it out of obscurity, dust off the mothballs, and you might just find yourself in for a pleasant outing.

3.5/5 Stars

The Far Country (1954)

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“I don’t need help. I don’t need people. I can take care of me.” ~ James Stewart as Jeff Webster

This Alaskan Northwestern opens and it’s almost like we’ve missed something. Jeff Webster (James Stewart) rides into a town with two men and promptly gives them back their guns and dares them to draw on him. They relent and say they’ll be back for him. To my recollection, we never see them again or if we do it doesn’t matter because for all intent and purposes this little tiff sets up all we need to know about our main character.

James Stewart continues carving out a diverging path for his screen persona thanks in part to the work of Anthony Mann and screenwriter Borden Chase. We are also treated to late period Walter Brennan playing up his future Real McCoys persona constantly yammering away idly about everything. But he’s loyal and if Webster has anything close to a friend in the whole entire world it would be Ben. He’s a good buddy.

Soon the two cattlemen are Skagway bound but this is no Hope & Crosby Road Picture as they look to make bank on their choice beef. Already Webster is a wanted man and he conveniently is given berth to hide from his pursuers. It yields a rather risque character introduction as Jimmy Stewart gets some assistance from a lovely lady (Ruth Roman) who covers for him — hiding under her sheets — spurs and all.

His next biggest faux pas is breaking up a local hanging with his herd of cattle barreling through town past the flimsy scaffolding. As he has unwittingly made a mockery of justice, Webster soon finds himself brought to court. It just so happens that the local purveyor of law and order holds court with his gavel in the local saloon. Devious and rugged-faced Judge Gannon (John McIntyre) is both chief judge and executioner. He has the clout to snatch the stock away from the perpetrator for his minor offense which he proceeds to do right quick.

As an alternative Webster is hired on to ride point for the proprietress of the Skagway Castle. They’ve already been acquainted and Rhonda’s quite the businesswoman as it turns out. She leverages her allegiance with Gannon to set up outposts in the two largest outposts in the territory. Though Webster is no less opportunistic, using this chance to round up his cattle to drive them to Dawson City for a pretty penny.

More than anyone, the plucky and pouting young red-capped Renee gives Stewart a chance to be a tease with his iconic jocularity but he’s always more condescending toward her. He makes it painfully obvious that he’s not going to fall for her nor does he feel the need for any friends.

He’s the epitome of a Lone Wolf character. The stark majesty of the icy backdrop behind him is an impeccable extension of who he is and he seems very much in his element. He’s willing to traverse roads others will not and predicts an avalanche before it hits. All with calculated detachment. He doesn’t make a habit of worrying about others.

But Gannon will not let up and he looks to muscle his way into Dawson as well seeing as he already has a major stake in Skagway. The formerly tame territory gets wilder by the hour. This sanctioned hike in lawlessness calls for a response from the peacekeepers but any of the men subsequently sworn in as Marshall have little leverage against the Judge’s guns. Their best bet is to wait until real law and order comes. Until then Gannon keeps on confiscating their stakes.

The only man who can do anything to stop them isn’t about to make the town’s problems his own. He’s made a habit of not getting involved. But there comes a point where his hand is forced and there’s no way to separate the town’s affairs and his own agenda. He must act.

Jeff rides his steed down the main street for the final showdown which looks more like an ambush. They underestimate him. To his credit, Mann strips away any final notion of the heroic mythos of the frontier with a gunfight that finds itself in the muck and the mire under a porch. True, Dawson City gets their happy ending and a renewed reputation but the film resonates far more for its besmirched brand of tenacity than for any amount of heroism. James Stewart gave up being a stereotypical protagonist years before and it pays heavy dividends once again.

4/5 Stars