Friday, January 8, 2010

Winchester '73

"Winchester '73" (Anthony Mann, 1950) One in a thousand. That's how many perfect Winchester rifles were produced. One in a thousand so perfect of bore and rifling that a man using it need not compensate for anything except that thrown at him by God. Men would fight for one. Men would kill for one. And the Winchester '73 that Lin McAdam (James Stewart) wins in a marksman's contest probably ends up a little less than perfect as it goes from hand to hand, and is even used as a shield and a club in the long circuitous route of the movie. But, as the repeating rifle has become the difference between life and death in the heady days after Little Big-Horn, the Winchester is the weapon of advantage in skirmishes on the plains.

The first of five westerns Stewart made with Anthony Mann in the 1950's that deepened and darkened the Stewart persona from the "aw, shucks" townie to a complex, psychologically challenged character who could be pushed to undisciplined anarchy, "Winchester '73" has more going on in it than most of the other Stewart-Mann films, which had more straight-forward story-telling through lines. This one is practically episodic, as McAdam and fellow-traveler "High-Spade" (the terrific Millard Mitchell*) start in Dodge City with run-ins with Wyatt Earp (Will Geer, before the blacklist got him), Bat Masterson and a stranger-in-town named Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) before winning the perfect Winchester in a shooting match.

He doesn't have it for long as the stranger beats McAdam up and steals it from him. From there, it falls into the hands of an unscrupulous Indian trader (John McIntire), a Sioux warrior (Rock Hudson--you read that right), briefly in the hands of horse-soldiers Jay C. Flippen and Anthony—soon to be Tony—Curtis), then to an untrustworthy homesteader (Charles Drake) and finally, the possession of desperado Dan Duryea. Quite the cast (where's Harry Morgan?), and add in Shelley Winters as the saloon-girl trying to make good, and even if you didn't have Mann's steady hand with action, you'd have a movie full of good character parts.

Duryea is at his hipster best, playing an outlaw determined to out-laugh all of his opponents, McIntire is nicely droll as the Indian giver/trader, and Shelley Winters gives off an "I'll deal" vibe that endears you to her immediately. In one of the little authentic touches Mann inserts to show how rough the West really was, Winters nearly bounces off a buck-board dangerously careening through the desert, and when McAdam hesitates when giving her a gun to defend herself during a Native attack, she gives him a toothy grin and says, "I understand what the last one's for..."

I want that girl on my side.

It is capped with a mountain shoot-out between old-antagonists-with-a-past McAdam and Brown that is a primer for any action director to clue an audience to the strategies and complications that a fight for advantage in the mountains can entail. Add to that Mann's experiments with light in landscape far outside and past the urban noir settings he had bathed in shadow and slivers of light in the post-war 40's.

But in the same year as Stewart and Delmer Daves dared make a western that showed the First Peoples' side of things ("Broken Arrow"), Mann and Stewart** (and Stewart and other directors) began a decade-long exploration of the cracks in Western civilization's veneer that showed the fragility of the individual—how, in a so-called "decent" society, there's only an angel's breath of morality distinguishing a maverick and a psychopath. Everyone can be pushed over the edge. And the only advantage is how many rounds you can fire off before the other guy feels the first one. The repeating fire-arm was the great leveler when it came to fighting. But it was also what prevented letting cooler heads prevail. Cooler heads don't have a chance against hot lead fired by a cold heart. It's how the West was taken...and still is. The chances of surviving it to build something decent?

Probably one in a thousand.

* Mitchell has a great stoved-in character face and a likable self-deprecating manner that are also on display in his other prominent movie role-in "Singin' in the Rain." He died in 1952.

** One of the joys of the current DVD version of "Winchester '73" is a rare commentary track by the elderly Stewart who goes into detail about the filming and his working relationship with Mann and the other actors. It's done without the "Stewart persona"--he's just watching the film and answering questions--but at the end, you can't help but smile when he blurts "Ya know, I'm just really impressed with this laser-thing."

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