Winchester '73 (1950) – Directed by Anthony Mann; Starring James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, Millard Mitchell, Will Geer, and Charles Drake
I'd been meaning to see Winchester '73 since it was reviewed way back in the Cinecast #50 podcast in their Westerns Marathon. It's well-regarded by film experts but doesn't have the same prestige of monsters like The Searchers or Rio Bravo. While this film doesn't have the grand scope of those pictures, it does tell a great story of revenge and a cursed rifle.
The main plot involves Lin McAdam (Stewart) relentlessly tracking down Dutch Henry Brown (McNally), the man who ruthlessly shot down his father. This pursuit brings him to Dodge City for a shooting contest versus the villain himself. He also has a strange meeting with a pudgy Sheriff Wyatt Earp (Geer) who's nothing like other versions of that character. After a skirmish in Dodge City, Brown gets away, which leads to another vigilant pursuit.
Another intriguing facet is Stewart's disappearance for lengthy parts of the story. His pursuit appears to drive the story, but Mann and the screenwriters don't seem that interested. Stewart does a great job in the western setting, and this was a surprise to audiences of the period. This was their first exposure to the actor in a more grizzled role. In a classic scene depicted in the photo above, McAdam slams Dan Duryea's crazy gunfighter onto a bar. This is not the stoic heroism we expect from our Western leads. But it makes Stewart a more interesting actor and brings a much-needed edge to a possibly one-note character.
There's also the romantic interest Lola Manners played by Shelley Winters, but she can barely compete with McAdam/Brown feud. Winters gives it her best shot and dominates the cowardly guy who makes McAdam appear to be a much better choice. The problem is that he's more interested in revenge that settling down with her. His quest ends in a classic shootout among the rocky hills, which is an intense sequence. Mann gives the climactic showdown time, which only heightens the intensity.
Winchester '73 is a strong personal film that incorporates genre elements but spins them into a unique direction. I'm intrigued by what Mann and Stewart will do together in this marathon's upcoming pictures. This isn't a perfect film and has a few missteps, but the strong acting and intense atmosphere make a must-see for fans of the genre. I'm curious to hear what you think of this film. Bend of the River is up next!
Check out these posts on the other Mann/Stewart Westerns:
Bend of the River
The Naked Spur
The Far Country
The Man From Laramie