Saturday 16 October 2021

Movie Review: Winchester '73 (1950)

A revenge western adventure, Winchester '73 enjoys a rich set of characters and multiple story lines connected by a prized rifle.

Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and his friend High-Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) track down Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) in Dodge City. Lin has a personal revenge motive and wants Dutch dead, but marshal Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) seizes all weapons in the name of law and order. Instead, Lin and Dutch compete in a target shooting competition, with a coveted Winchester '73 rifle as the prize.

Lin: Awful lot of law for a little cowtown.
Wyatt: This is the kind of cowtown that needs a lot of law.

Lin wins the competition but Dutch seizes the rifle and scampers out of town. Dutch is headed to Tascosa, but along the way he loses the rifle in a poker game to weapons trader Joe Lamont (John McIntire). Lin persists in hunting down Dutch, and still ahead are encounters with Indian leader Young Bull (Rock Hudson), saloon girl Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) and her fiance Steve (Charles Drake), an inexperienced cavalry squad led by Sergeant Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen), and reckless criminal Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea), the fastest gun in Texas.

The first collaboration between star James Stewart and director Anthony Mann, Winchester '73 provides Stewart an opportunity to harden his image. Intent on revenge, capable of violence, and undeterred by any obstacle, Lin McAdam is a template for a redefined, morally more vague and much more interesting western protagonist. He has purposefully entered a moral grey zone by seeking vengeance the old fashioned way, but he comes from an honourable background and may still find a pathway to future domesticity.

The eloquent and witty script by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards provides rich surroundings for a complex adventure. The rifle, marketed as "The Gun That Won The West", is a clever plot device, regularly changing hands and at some point owned by all the character types associated with the frontier: lawmen, criminals, Indians, cowards, traveling salesmen and soldiers. 

Dutch: Haven't I seen you somewhere?
Lola: I've been somewhere.

The episodic structure works in the movie's favour. The revenge story provides an arc, but otherwise Fleischer never reveals where the action will move to next, and even Lin's quest contains twisty revelations. Notable characters are introduced late, act unpredictably, and some meet an abrupt demise. Other than the drawn-out target shooting competition, the pacing is brisk, and the drama alternates between showdowns, edgy dialogue interactions, and soulful reflections. William H. Daniels contributes crisp black and white cinematography, while editor Edward Curtiss strives for coherence during the many action scenes.

And as much as Lin is a memorable protagonist and Dutch a worthy villain, Winchester '73 is stocked full of other colourful characters brought to life by a stellar cast making the most of limited screen time. Millard Mitchell as High-Spade is not only a loyal friend but also a sage conscience, keeping an eye on Lin's pursuit of vengeance and always reminding him of his essence. 

High-Spade, referring to Lin's father: Did you ever wonder what he'd think about you hunting down Dutch Henry?
Lin: He'd understand. He taught me to hunt.
High-Spade: Not men. Hunting for food, that's alright. Hunting a man to kill him? You're beginning to like it.
Lin: That's where you're wrong. I don't like it. Some things a man has to do, so he does 'em.

Will Geer offers a unique and impressively laid-back take on Wyatt Earp, while John McIntire as weapons trader Joe Lamont exerts dominant authority even when outnumbered by Dutch and his ragtag men. Sergeant Wilkes is new to the west, and Jay C. Flippen affords him the curiosity to learn from Lin and High-Spade, even as the trio discover they met before on a different battlefield. And then Dan Duryea arrives to steal the back-end of the movie as the over-energized Waco Johnnie Dean.

Waco: What was I saying?
Lola: You were talking about yourself.
Waco: Where did I stop?
Lola: You didn't. But you can now. I already know all about Waco Johnny Dean, the fastest gun in Texas.
Waco: Texas? Lady, why limit me?

Shelley Winters enjoys some good lines but otherwise suffers as the only woman in world defined by men. Rock Hudson is an unconvincing Indian leader and Tony Curtis has a small role as a member of the cavalry who briefly gets to hold the rifle.

A formidable weapon, Winchester '73 is owned by many, but only rests in rightful hands.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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