Winchester '73 is what film critics call a key western, for it represents a major turn in the genre's development. High Noon got all the credit for initiating the 'adult psychological Western' of the 1950s, but this ambitious Universal film is the real trend-setter, for several reasons.
James Stewart re-wrote Hollywood law when he signed up as a major profit participant for this show, starting a trend that broke studio autonomy in favor of top talent agents. Produced as an afterthought to Harvey, '73 was a much bigger boxoffice smash, cementing Stewart's post-war star recovery, and making a hot property out of director Anthony Mann.
Film historian Jim Kitses came from the UK in 1973 to teach the single most valuable class I took at UCLA. He concentrated on three underappreciated 'Western' directors, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah, and Anthony Mann, adjusting the then-current auteurist critical model into a genre study. Whereas Peckinpah capped the three with his summing-up of the entire Western genre, the other two, especially Mann, took the mostly unformed ideas in the Western and made them into something worthy of critical study. He's the most interesting director of Western films this side of John Ford and Howard Hawks.
Mann made five Westerns in five years with James Stewart. They share similar casts and Mann's very distinctive directorial style - the director was already a hot ticket based on his lowbudget Noir thrillers for Eagle Lion and MGM. A demanding director with ambitions to greatness, Mann eventually graduated to epic films in the early 60s, but for his Stewart films, he molded somewhat generic scripts (most notably by Borden Chase) into films with a very strong thematic coherence.
Winchester '73 is a multiple revenge tale with a circular La Ronde structure. We follow the exploits of a prize rifle as it precipitates violence in a cross-section of frontier characters. The story has a prime example of the 'binary' genre character. (slight spoiler) James Stewart and Stephen McNally are brothers and moral opposites, one bad, one good. It's a Cain and Abel opposition, because McNally killed their father. As this is played out in Western terms, dad's only contribution was to teach them to shoot, which is why they score identically on a rifle range. It's an NRA dream family. This binary character idea worked well in the Western genre, better than it had in gangster stories, where one brother would be a crook and another a priest or a cop, etc. In one form or another it's at the center of all of Peckinpah's Western heroes: Steve Judd/Gil Westrum, Amos Charles Dundee/Benjamin Tyreen, Pike Bishop/Deke Thornton, William Bonney/Pat Garrett.
The subsidiary characters are spin-offs who compliment or comment on the conflict between the binary heroes. Dan Duryea is smarter than McNally, but wisely knows he's not as tough; Charles Drake is a pantywaist suitable only for humiliation (made to wear a woman's apron, of course). Will Geer, Millard Mitchell and even J.C. Flippen are various kinds of father figures (thank you, Phil Hardy). Out on the plains there's the Army, well-intentioned but inexperienced Easterners who need guidance from a frontiersman like Stewart, and the completely savage Indians, like Rock Hudson's idealized brave who only knows White men thorugh the perfidy of the weasely John McIntire.
Stewart's character claims to only be out for revenge, to kill his brother, but he ends up being All Things to the 'good' characters in the story. He's a buddy to Millard Mitchell, and tougher than Waco Johnnie Dean -the scene where he smashes Duryea's head on the bar shows Stewart to be an equal when it comes to sadism. 1 Stewart lends his knowledge of the Indians to grizzled Army sergeant Flippen. The saloon girl who wants children but is disgusted by her cowardly husband is of course immediately attracted to Stewart. And his moral superiority to his murderous brother is what turns the end confrontation in his favor.
Winchester '73 outraged the feminists at UCLA, who bridled at its wholesale championing of conservative values. They were right of course, but it's important to point out that the wishy-washy liberalism of High Noon was a drop in the bucket compared to the overwhelming preponderance of pictures exalting the status quo. Winchester '73 is indeed a wrapup of conservative conventions, right from the first scene where bad girl Shelley Winters is being run out of town, Stagecoach-style. The Indians don't come any more stupid or savage than here. We see one cigar-store clown in town, and Rock Hudson's braves wait to attack at dawn (a pervasive falsehood) and then ride in suicidal charges to be shot down as in a penny arcade.
Unlike some of his successive scripts, in this film Borden Chase keeps the Aesops Fables moralizing to a minimum. But the sense of absolute righteousness was disturbing to European critics looking to use Westerns to distill the American character. Stewart is a relentless searcher with a grudge, but he prevails over his brother mainly because he's convinced he has an unequivocal moral right to kill him. This is what Westerns are all about - a cultural myth that many Americans take as a kind of substitute religion.
The Anthony Mann - Borden Chase style is unmistakable. Complacency and white hats are out, there's no time to relax, and the character with the neurotic jitter is likely to be the hero. Stewart and and McNally slap empty leather at first sight (a great moment), which points up the fact that although Good and Evil are absolutes in Mann's world, violence is a universal given. This also being the most moralistic of genres, Mann also judges his characters strictly by their actions. All the males have different positions on the masculine superiority scale - Earp over McAdam, Dutch Henry over Waco, Waco over Steve. There's a pecking order to everything. By the time we get down to the third-string baddies, they're fools who will rush out into a hail of posse bullets, just on Waco's snide say-so.
Finally, there's Mann's use of violent landscapes. The fighters go out of their way to conclude their rifle duel in the craggy rocks, a favorite Mann location exploited most strongly in The Naked Spur. The outcroppings are treacherous and unforgiving, and vertical - as opposed to the horizontal of the desert and plains. Mann goes in for sadistic detail, such as Dutch Henry's use of ricochet-ing bullets to trap McAdam between two rocks, like a victim in a torture device. 3
The feminists also nailed the Shelley Winters character for encapsuling every frontier woman cliché, from her instant attraction to kids, to the 'saving the last bullet for yourself' bit. But they didn't pick up on the best dirty joke in a 1950 film, when Dan Duryea finds himself trapped in a farmhouse. He's praising his two underlings' sick sense of humor when he says, 'What a pair!', but Mann then has him turn around and cast his eyes on Shelley for the first time, and give a big doubletake-leer in reaction to seeing her figure. The framing is perfect, and I can't believe that most males in the audience didn't get the joke. All that's lacking is an acknowledging return look from Winters.
Winchester '73 is great for star watching. Besides the rather embarassing screen opportunity for Rock Hudson, paying his dues in feathers and body paint, there's pretty boy Tony Curtis saying his first couple of lines of screen dialogue. This film and A Double Life were also the breakthrough roles for Shelley Winters. Soon-to-be-blacklisted Will Geer is a great Wyatt Earp, and later Mann regulars Steve Brodie, John McIntire, Chuck Roberson and Jay C. Flippen contribute excellent turns. I always smile at the pairing of Abner Biberman's Mexican outlaw, with the inimitable John Doucette - always an unsung Western baddie with that scowl and deep voice, like an irate woodchuck. 2
Universal's DVD of Winchester '73 is an adequate encoding of an okay source. The film doesn't look as though it's been remastered since the good laserdisc version from 14 years ago, and the bit rate is sometimes on the light side, adding grain and not helping with the overall sharpness. This only becomes apparent on a large monitor, but what are these high-resolution discs supposed to be for, anyway?
James Stewart's 1989 commentary is a free-form discussion that is good, but without much detail. Stewart starts on topic but is soon off on tangents about Alfred Hitchcock and just about anything else he can think of. The commentary form allows us to hear what he's like beyond his usual short & prepared speeches, and he comes off as a pleasant fellow. Winchester '73 started him off as a significant shareholder of MCA, and he does a good job of disguising the fact that his acting career from here on was mostly a set of savvy business decisions, with infrequent departures for Art with Hitchcock, etc.
There's also a trailer, and English, French and Spanish subs. Savant will be reviewing Destry Rides Again, Bend of the River, and The Far Country in (hopefully) quick succession. The menus for all the current batch of Universal Westerns are accompanied by generic canned music cues.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Winchester '73, rates:
1. Mann's rough violence
earned him charges of sadism in his earlier noirs. In the excellent Raw Deal, for instance,
a fight between two men has a similiar moment where one is going to force the other's face into the
antler points of a stuffed deer head, eyes first.
2. My favorite Doucette moment is when he's cast totally against type
(on purpose) as a Phillistine architect brought on to dumb-down Gary Cooper's designs in
The Fountainhead. When Cooper explains that his artistic vision shouldn't be subjected to
the second-guessing of lesser talents, Doucette objects in his best frontier-moron voice: "Why not?
We wanna express our creativity too!" Cast in almost 150 movies, Doucette is easily remembered as the
General that George C. Scott bullies on Sicily in
3. Critics make a big deal of the open flatland vs. craggy rocks in John
Ford's The Searchers. The clear sightlines of the flatland make for fair contests and simple
moral decision-making. Up in the rocks is where the troubled & wounded hide, and where the atrocities take
place, such as the rape-murder of Lucy. When Ethan Edwards rides down his niece Debbie, the flat plains
suddenly transform into a steep hill, and Ethan decides to spare Debbie right in front of a deep cave,
representing the ultimate in psychotic 'scenery', or perhaps his secret desire to ravage Debbie himself.
Are these empty critics' games, or literary analysis?