Winchester '73 (1950)

Director: Anthony Mann - Cast: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Stephen McNally, Dan Durya, John McIntire, Charles Drake, Millard Mitchell, Will Greer, Jay C. Flippen, Rock Hudson (1)

The first of five westerns directed by Anthony Mann starring James Stewart. The original director was Fritz Lang, but he was replaced by Mann after a series of conflicts. Mann was Stewart's choice and he changed the entire idea of the movie by shifting the rifle to the centre of the plot, turning it into a 'character': while passing from hand to hand, it leads us through a series of interrelated episodes, culminating in a protracted shootout set between the rocks. Winchester '73 was an unexpected success and largely responsible for renewed popularity of the western genre in the fifties (2). It established one of the most remarkable collaborations between a western director and actor in the history of film making, equaling the Ford-Wayne, Leone-Eastwood and Boetticher-Scott collaborations. 

Stewart is a young cowboy called Lin McAdam who arrives in the town of Dodge City, on the 4th or July, to compete in a shooting contest. The prize is a Winchester rifle, referred to as 'one-of-a-thousand', a firearm so perfect Winchester won't sell it. Lin is told by the sheriff, Wyatt Earp, that his major rival will be a man who has inscribed under the name of Dutch Henry Brown. In reality, Brown is Lin's brother Matthew, who might have killed their father. Lin wins the rifle but it's stolen from him by Matthew, who flees the town before Wyatt Earp can do something. And this is only the beginning of the journey, both for the brothers and the rifle ...

The film did at least two things for the genre: it created a new image for Jimmy Stewart and it introduced filmgoers to Freudian family drama's and revenge plots. The Mann westerns featured a new type of western hero, the obsessed, almost neurotic drifter, and Stewart's name will forever be identified with this type of character. There's one iconic scene, late into the movie, in which Stewart twists Dan Durya's arm, the camera revealing all the suppressed anger that has been waiting to explode one day. The script of Winchester '73 respects the triangular aspect of most Freudian westerns, with two rivaling sons and a troubled father, but in this particular case the father is an absent father. The rifle his sons are vying for, is a symbol of the man who has taught them everything: the holes they shoot in the target are in the same pattern, they have become their father's very picture, but each others' counterparts.
Mann, is this man angry
Mann had a background in noir, a genre that also featured neurotic heroes, but noir is an urban genre, offering a limited room for manoeuvre, and he needed the open space of the western genre to fully develop his poignant, energetic directional style. The idea of the trapped noir hero is still present in Winchester '73, notably in this protracted shootout between the rocks, with the ricocheting bullets threatening to close Stewart in like a fly in a spider's web. Shelley Winters' Lola, at the same time a femme fatale and a tart with the heart, is noirish too, she could have been a character in a Raymond Chandler novel.

The movie may feel a little over-symbolic in some places: apart from the rifle symbolizing the absent father and he marksmanship he stood for, the story of the lost father is also paralleled with Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn - this all becomes a bit too obvious after a while, but otherwise it's first-rate in virtually every aspect. The episodic structure works remarkably well and the film is over before you know it, but in this particular case, this could be interpreted as a shortcoming: some supporting actors (McIntire, Flippen, Durya) are so strong that we get the idea their characters are carried off too soon. If only this movie could've been a little longer ...


* (1) I had watched Winchester '73 several times before, but never realized Rock Hudson was in it. He plays the India Chief Young Bull, who steal the rifle from gun runner John McIntire.

* (2)  Leonard Maltin, Movie Guide - Another very successful western from the same year, 1950, was Broken Arrow, also starring Jimmy Stewart. If Winchester '73 was of importance for the development of the psychological, Freudian western, Broken Arrow was the most influential of the pro-Indian westerns. Anthony Mann also made a - relatively unknown - pro Indian western himself, still released in the pivotal year 1950: Devil's Doorway.


  1. Don't forget Tony Curtis in a small speaking role.


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