Winchester '73 was the first of several classic James Stewart/ Anthony Mann collaborations, and in it they point the way to the development of the modern western. Director Mann, working with writer Borden Chase, fashioned an episodic storyline which allowed him to both summarize the Western genre up to that point and to revitalize it at the same time. In the late 1940s, Mann specialized in Noir dramas, including those of the low-budget, gritty variety such as T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948), as well as glossier Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offerings like Border Incident (1949) and Side Street (1950). In Winchester '73, Mann brings his experience as a director of Noir to the story of a disparate group of characters who share a common characteristic: possession for a time of a rare Winchester repeating rifle. In his book Horizons West, Jim Kitses writes that "It was in the western that Mann was to weld together themes, structure and style to produce his most personal works. The drive towards enlarged character and heightened conflict found its natural canvas in the genre. His first efforts, the downbeat Indian picture, Devil's Doorway (1950), and The Furies (1950), a reworking of Dostoevsky's The Idiot...were dispiriting box-office failures. But Winchester '73 was a major break-through, sparking off the partnerships with Borden Chase and James Stewart, securing Mann's place within the industry, and announcing definitively his artistic arrival."
In his first released Western since Destry Rides Again (1939) a decade earlier, Stewart plays a morally ambiguous hero that is driven by revenge to the point of psychosis. Beyond Stewart, the film is sprinkled with memorable performances - Shelley Winters in an early role which points toward her later dramatic work; Stephen McNally as Dutch Henry Brown, the darker mirror image of Stewart's McAdam; Millard Mitchell in a more shaded variation of the standard western sidekick character; and especially Dan Duryea, as secondary villain Waco Johnnie Dean - a desperado with a brutal cruel streak. The film also offers up choice early roles for Rock Hudson, as a Native American warrior who comes into possession of the gun, and Tony Curtis, as a cavalry trooper.
Writer Chase and director Mann managed to incorporate into Winchester '73 many of the stock situations and characters that had become well known in westerns up to that time. In just a partial listing, the film features: a shoot-out, a runaway carriage, a rifle-shooting contest, a poker game, a bank robbery, a saloon fight, Indians attacking a cavalry, a duel to the death amongst rocky cliffs, and more. Anthony Mann would make four more important westerns with Stewart over the following five years, but perhaps none with the scope of Winchester '73; he explored nearly every Western convention, reshaping the form to his purpose. It is a credit to Mann and Chase that the story structure does not feel self-conscious - the viewer is swept up in the rapidly-changing situations. While the director is cataloging western conventions and mastering the genre, he is also reinventing the entire approach to typical cowboy conflicts and introducing a new level of inner psychology.
In her book on Mann, critic Jeanine Basinger writes "The reason why the film is pointed to as the beginning of the modern western is illustrated in the scene in which Stewart first sees his brother." In this scene, both men have arrived in Dodge City for a shooting contest, and Marshall Wyatt Earp has taken up all of the visitor's guns for safekeeping. When Stewart enters a saloon and spots the man he wants to kill,...both men jump, crouch, and draw with a demonical frenzy, only to realize that their shaking hands are empty. This scene has a shocking effect. For the first time, the devoted viewer of the western is forced to confront a subversive fact; that his noble hero of the west, that man who rides tall in the saddle off into the sunset, may be a flipping maniac....From Winchester '73 onward, the idea of the western hero as a man besieged by personal problems - violent and even psychotic - becomes increasingly prevalent in American films."
Director: Anthony Mann
Producer: Aaron Rosenberg
Screenplay: Borden Chase, Robert L. Richards
Story: Stuart N. Lake
Cinematography: William Daniels
Editing: Edward Curtiss
Musical Director: Joseph Gershenson
Original Music: Walter Scharf
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Nathan Juran
Set Decoration: A. Roland Fields, Russell A. Gausman
Costumes: Yvonne Wood
Makeup: Bud Westmore
Cast: James Stewart (Lin McAdam), Shelley Winters (Lola Manners), Dan Duryea (Waco Johnnie Dean), Stephen McNally (Dutch Henry Brown), Millard Mitchell (High-Spade), Charles Drake (Steve Miller), John McIntire (Joe Lamont), Will Geer (Wyatt Earp), Jay C. Flippen (Sgt. Wilkes), Rock Hudson (Young Bull)
BW-93m. Closed captioning.
by John Miller