Monday, April 14, 2014

James Stewart and Anthony Mann Team Up for Winchester '73

I think it's fair to say that Winchester '73 ushered in the "adult Western" of the 1950s. Although there were earlier Westerns with flawed heroes, hard-edged films like Winchester '73 reinvented the genre. Their protagonists were rugged men--often with a dark past--focused on revenge (Rancho Notorious), redemption (Bend of the River), or complex "family" relationships (Man of the West). Visually, these films often surrounded their characters with sweeping vistas that seemed to overwhelm the human element. Yet, for all the scenic splendor, this was a grittier West with cowboy hats stained with sweat and rundown desert bars populated by opportunists. One could almost say that these "adult Westerns" reflect the influence of film noir on the traditional oater.

Plotwise, Winchester '73 is a revenge tale about Lin McAdam (James Stewart), a sharpshooter obsessed with tracking down and killing a man that calls himself Dutch Henry Brown. Although it quickly becomes apparent that Dutch Henry is a bad man, Lin's reason for revenge isn't revealed until near the film's conclusion (a plot device used later in Once Upon a Time in the West). It's important to note that Lin is not a lawman and he doesn't want to capture Dutch Henry for a reward. He wants to kill the man.

Stewart at his most intense.
This premise could have backfired if not for the casting of the always likable James Stewart as Lin. It was a decision that benefited both the film and the actor. For Stewart, his intense performance was a stark contrast to most of his pre-World War II roles (though it was a natural extension of his performances in films like Rope and even the darker parts of It's a Wonderful Life). It opened a whole new career arc for the actor, who starred in a number of successful Westerns throughout the 1950s and 1960s--including four more helmed by Winchester '73 director Anthony Mann.

A touch of noir from director Mann.
Prior to 1950, Mann had carved out a career making what are now regarded as classic "B" film noirs (e.g., Raw Deal and T-Men). His first Western, Devil's Doorway starring Robert Taylor, was made prior to Winchester '73. However, it was temporarily shelved after a poor press screening and released--with little fanfare--later in 1950. Still, Universal and Stewart had seen a print of Devil's Doorway and decided that Mann was...their man. Stewart once said that Mann, like John Ford, knew that "a Western has to be a visual thing."

Stewart and Mann regular Jay C. Flippen.
Ironically, James Stewart initially agreed to a two-picture deal at Universal only so that he could star in Harvey. Stewart was keen to play the role of Elwood P. Dowd after substituting briefly for Frank Fay in the original Broadway stage production. In the DVD commentary for Winchester '73, Stewart credits his agent Lew Wasserman for suggesting the Western, noting that the script had been rejected by other studios. To keep the budget down, Stewart accept a percentage of the film's profit--a wise financial move that quickly became the standard for big stars.

Shelley Winters as Lola.
While Mann's directorial flourishes (e.g., the mountain shoot-out) dominate much of Winchester '73, the film's narrative style has always fascinated me. The script, penned by Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase, weaves three interconnecting storylines: Lin's pursuit of Dutch Henry; the former dance hall girl Lola (Shelley Winters) who plans to marry a rancher (Charles Drake); and Dutch Henry teaming up with the gleefully bad Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) for a robbery. In the film's opening scenes, Lin meets Lola briefly and has a confrontation with Dutch Henry. Then, we follow separate subplots until Lin and Lola reunite during an Indian attack. They separate again, with Lin still looking for Dutch Henry and Lola eventually meeting Waco Johnny Dean, whose gang includes her fiance Steve. As the film ramps up to its conclusion, Lin's search leads him to the same town where Dutch Henry and Waco plan to rob the bank.

In addition to Rock Hudson, Anthony
(Tony) Curtis has a small role.
To add to this rich narrative structure, Lin's Winchester rifle--which he wins during a centennial celebration--changes hands seven times: from Lin to Dutch Henry to an Indian trader (John McIntire) to an Indian leader (Rock Hudson) to Steve to Waco to Dutch Henry to Lin. Whew!

Although it's an exceptional, highly influential film, Winchester '73 is not my favorite James Stewart-Anthony Mann Western. That would be The Far Country or Bend of the River. Those films offer more thematic depth, exploring the importance of family and the power of redemption. They are also in color, which provides Mann with another tool for visual expression. But the fact remains that those Westerns might never have been made if not for the success of Winchester '73.

The same could be said of a lot of other Westerns that followed in its wake.

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This post is part of The James Stewart Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. We strongly encourage you to check out all the great posts in this blogathon by clicking here for the complete schedule.

11 comments:

  1. I don't believe the influence of "Winchester '73" can be over-rated. Along with the story and fine acting ensemble, William Daniels' cinematography is a thing of beauty.

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  2. I rewatched "Winchester 73" this weekend and truly enjoyed it. I love the plot device of following something, here the revered rifle, as it moves from person to person, oft times just missing Lin, its rightful owner, by a very short distance.

    I really enjoyed watching the supporting cast, including Shelley Winters, who once again chose the wrong person for her fiancé. She stands up for what is right, however.

    This is an insightful and really well written review, Rick. Anthony Mann and James Stewart made an excellent team.

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  3. I agree, very thoughtful and interesting take on a great film I can never view too many times.

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  4. 1950 may go down as one of the greatest years ever for the western, and was a preview for what was to come in the remainder of the decade.

    I mean if you were a fan of westerns here's a few titles you saw in 1950. In addition to the two Anthony Mann westerns you already listed there was THE GUNFIGHTER, THE STARS IN MY CROWN, AMBUSH and DALLAS (both traditional but I like them both), and two John Ford masterpieces WAGONMASTER and RIO GRANDE.

    Most of these are among the finest films ever made, not just westerns. WINCHESTER '73 holds up very well and is one of the best westerns ever made. I agree with you about the noir influence on it. It's not overt, but it's there. Great post, Rick.

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  5. I haven't seen this, which is not surprising since I have only recently begun to appreciate Westerns. I did DVR this when TCM aired it awhile back, so I'll be getting to it one of these days.

    Rock Hudson as an Indian leader? Obviously, the usual Hollywood case of using decidedly Caucasian stars to portray other ethnicities.

    I love Dan Duryea. His presence in any film brings it up a notch for me.

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  6. Rick, an insightful review. The Anthony Mann/James Stewart westerns are all excellent! Not a bad on in the bunch. If I had to pick a favorite it would probably be THE NAKED SPUR or THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. That said, all of the films are visually stunning whether in color or in black and white.

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    1. That should read " Not a bad one in the bunch."

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  7. A great review of a much-forgotten ( for me ) film, Rick. "Sweeping vistas that seem to overwhelm the human element"....now that makes me want to watch it this week! I would have thought that westerns would have been James Stewart's most favorite genre to work in, considering he fit so well in that setting.

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  8. Rick - first - thanks for hosting this awesome blogathon. I am compiling a list of "must see" Stewart films and the list just keeps getting longer. This might be a "must see again" film. I keep saying I don't really care for westerns, but I seem to like the ones with Jimmy. I think it is always the humanity that he brings to his part. No matter the era, he is always a compelling personality.

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  9. Yes Rick, thank you for hosting this great blogathon honoring my favorite actor of all time! As much as I love him though, I had a bit of a hard time getting through Winchester '73 mostly due to my acute sensitivity to violence. But I respect it for the influence it had on later films, and I'd love to give more of his westerns a try.

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  10. I agree that Mann gave a noir touch to his westerns, which made them become masterpieces. I love Winchester '73, but my favorite thing is the supporting cast. Rock Hudson as an Indian is something really cool!
    Thanks for hosting this amazing blogathon!

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