Friday, September 9, 2011

#399. Winchester '73 (1950)

Directed By: Anthony Mann

Starring: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea

Trivia:  James Stewart has credited Winchester '73 for helping to save and redefine his career

Of the five westerns that James Stewart made with director Anthony Mann, 1950’s Winchester ’73 is the best. Moreover, I rank it as one of the finest westerns ever made…period. Relying on a narrative that is entirely free-flowing, Winchester '73 never once gets mired in the stale confines of Hollywood formula.

Lin McAdams (Stewart) has just won a sharpshooting contest, the grand prize being an 1873 model Winchester rifle, considered by many the finest ever built. When Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) - a wanted man that McAdams has been tracking for years - knocks him unconscious and steals the rifle, McAdams and his sidekick, High Spade (Millard Mitchell), set out to recover it.

Will McAdams catch up with Dutch Henry Brown in time to retrieve his '73 Winchester, or will the elusive outlaw once again give him the slip?

That's the basic premise, but before the end credits roll, Winchester ’73 will have branched off in many different directions. The moment Brown steals the rifle from McAdams, he and his men ride off into the desert, skipping town so quickly that they were forced to leave their sidearms behind. Along the way, they meet a trader (John McIntire), who offers to buy the Winchester from Brown for $300. In need of new guns for his men, Brown has little choice but to sell his ill-gotten prize.

The trader, in turn, sells the rifle to Chief Young Bull (Rock Hudson), who uses it during an attack on a Pennsylvania Cavalry Unit. Following the battle, the Winchester is retrieved by a soldier named Doan (a very young Tony Curtis), and immediately turned over to Steve Miller (Charles Drake), who helped the Cavalry unit fight off the attack.

You would be correct in assuming that Miller won't be the last to own this fine rifle. Under Anthony Mann's watchful eye, Winchester '73 constantly moves forward, from one situation to the next, in a perfectly organic manner. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Mann realized the stories of the American West, at least the ones he was interested in exploring, were never told in three acts.

Winchester ’73 is undoubtedly a classic of the genre, but I would also recommend checking out the other Stewart/Mann western collaborations (Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie), all wonderful films in their own right. Each features a structural arc more or less like the one in Winchester ’73, where the only predictable element is unpredictability. Working within a genre that boasted a rich and vibrant history, Anthony Mann managed to stand apart from the rest, and Winchester ’73 is the pinnacle of his individuality.

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