not for sale: winchester ’73 (1950)

This is the first of five Westerns (eight films overall) that star Jimmy Stewart made with director Anthony Mann, inaugurating one of the most fascinating actor/director combos of the classic Hollywood era.  Mann, along with Alfred Hitchcock, realized that there was a wellspring of angst and turmoil underneath Stewart’s likable, American “everyman” persona, and that if guided in the right way Stewart would not alienate audiences but keep them transfixed despite the harder-edged tone of the film and character.  We would still be able to sympathize with Stewart’s character even when he tipped over into madness (however brief), because Jimmy Stewart would never exact vengeance for the pleasure of it.  He had to have a good reason to commit bloodshed, right?

Winchester ’73 originated at Universal Pictures with producer Aaron Rosenberg and Stewart attached but with no real script or director yet involved.  Screenwriter Borden Chase, a specialist in hard-hitting manly actioneers like The Fighting Seabees (1944) and Red River (1948), was brought aboard when the first screenwriter involved Robert Richards couldn’t get things cookin’, and it was Chase who was the one to see in Stewart the need for a new post-WWII toughness.  Stewart was desperate for a career resurrection after his last three films failed to connect with the box office.  He was more than a little game to forge into this new cinematic territory.  Only problem was, would audiences be ready for a tougher, more violent Jimmy Stewart?  John Wayne made gritty Westerns, not the guy more well-known for his easy going comedic and dramatic skills.  But Chase, who had grown up on the mean streets of New York City and in the 1920s served as gangster Frankie Yale’s chauffeur for a short time before Yale ended up a corpse, knew a killer when he saw one.  “[Jimmy Stewart] was in the Air Force, he knows how to kill,” Chase said in an interview with writer/film critic/professor of cinema studies Jim Kitses in 1970.  “You know, when you command a wing of fighters in a war, you’re not exactly soft.”

Anthony Mann, a journeyman director of considerable talent best known at that time for a series of hard-boiled pictures like T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949), was eventually hired to helm the picture on Stewart’s recommendation (they’d known each other years before) after Fritz Lang declined the job.  The resulting film became a huge success for the studio and specifically for Stewart who had taken a 50% share on the film’s profits instead of an upfront salary.  But the more important upswing surrounding Winchester ’73‘s success was that a new artistic partnership had been forged.  Over the next decade, Stewart and Mann would team up for seven other films–Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), Thunder Bay (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), The Far Country (1955), Strategic Air Command (1955), and The Man from Laramie (1955)–most of them Westerns that are comparable in many ways to the finest of John Ford’s shoot ’em ups with John Wayne, though with far more Oedipal melodrama and intense psychological complexity bordering on the noirish than anything Ford and Duke would ever sully themselves with.   This was a new kind of Western in which conflict generated from within the main protagonist as much as it came from exterior dramatic circumstances.  The Mann/Stewart Westerns (three of them written with Chase) would betray the cracks deepening within the American postwar psyche, giving us doubt, turmoil, and showing a frightening, blinding rage hiding beneath the veneer of the good guy’s quest for redemption and honor.

In Winchester ’73, Stewart is no cowboy anti-hero, although he foreshadows how such a character would be shaped into misshapen idolization under the direction of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah more than a decade later.  The significant nudge into more mature territory that Winchester ’73 was attempting, moving away from the oaters of the past where divisions between good and evil were clearly recognized and into more complex psychological terrain,  was the inevitable evolutionary step for a genre that had already changed drastically since the Edison company tried to capture the American West on film with the short Cripple Creek Baroom in 1898 and Edwin S. Porter made cinema history with the more narrative-driven one-reeler, The Great Train Robbery (1903).

Winchester ’73 centers on the fabled “Gun that Won the West” and the strange attraction it held for those who coveted such a tool to tame the land.

The 1873 model was a limited edition.  Highly prized for its accuracy, durability, and efficiency.

It was a rare and beautiful machine.

Lin McAdam (Stewart) and his sidekick “High-Spade” (Millard Mitchell) ride into Dodge City on the hunt for the man who killed McAdam’s father.

Vengeance is good and all, but not in Dodge City.

In town, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) is the law and guns have no place there except when he wields one.

Or when you can shoot for fun.

A July 4th shooting contest to be exact.

Winner wins a Winchester ’73 rifle.

McAdam is a good shot.  He beats everyone but one fella…

Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally)…

The cagey bastard he’s been hunting…

Who also happens to be talented with the ways of the gun.

After a few rounds, the stalemate holds tough.

So it comes down to McAdam…

If he can shoot through the postage stamp fixed to a coin as it flies through the air…

He wins.

McAdam wins the rifle and is given the option to have his very own name engraved on the metal plate affixed to the weapon.

Being that McAdam is a no-nonsense kind of guy, he declines.

He’s got more important things to deal with…

Like chase down loser Dutch Henry who has just split town with his gang…

Or so we thought.

Seems ol’ Dutch doesn’t like to lose.

And he doesn’t like to be hunted, either.

Dutch wants the Winchester, too.

And he figures he’s mean enough to take it.

But this rage inside of McAdam is something fierce.

He’s been living with it so long.

It’s rooted deep within him…

This lonely wilderness of pain within.

He’s been living with it so long.

It’s so easy to get lost within it…

Forget why you’re on this path in the first place…

That’s why it’s important to remain clear…

Keep focused on the task at hand…

That’s what Pa always said, right?

If you don’t keep it together and work hard…

You’re liable to lose control of the situation…

You’re liable to get yourself hurt…

Or wind up something worse.

There are always tougher hombres out there.

Sometimes it’s best just to let them win the battle.

It’s not about the gun anyway.

It’s about the long-haul.

It’s about biding one’s time.

Remembering why you’re at this moment in the first place.

What it took to get there…

And all the suffering that came along with it.

The “winning of the West” wasn’t just about brute force.

For some men, like McAdam, it was about weighing your options…

Knowing when to lie down on the floorboards and take a beating…

Remaining cool… in the moment…

Because the cool guy is the one who gets the job done.

It’s all about balance.

Never letting the rage within consume you…

It’s the guy who eases back on the trigger who stays alive.

Because it’s the angry ones who get themselves killed…

And wind up the subject matter for another person’s idiosyncratic blog.

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2 comments on “not for sale: winchester ’73 (1950)

  1. Awwwww… And we thought you didn’t lurve us anymore!

  2. derek says:

    I have nothing but lurve for the mighty Destructible Man.

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