Winchester ’73 (Universal, 1950)
Updated: Jun 29
Jimmy Stewart gets tough
At the very end of the 1940s film director Anthony Mann made a big decision, to turn away from the gritty films noirs he had been making and embark on a different genre, the Western. Immediately, the results were gratifying. Three excellent Westerns, certainly with noir tones, were released in 1950, in the order of their making, Devil’s Doorway, The Furies and Winchester ’73.
Mann said, "As for Winchester '73, that was one of my biggest successes. And it's also my favorite Western. The gun which passes from hand to hand allowed me to embrace a whole epoch, a whole atmosphere. I really believe that it contains all the ingredients of the Western and that it summarizes them."
Perhaps as a reply to Warners’ Colt .45, the other firearm-biopic movie of 1950 (a much weaker and more juvenile affair), in Winchester ’73 the cowboy doesn’t love his horse or his gal; he loves his gun. Shelley Winters, the female lead, said: “Here you’ve got all these men – Stewart, Duryea, Hudson, McNally, Drake, the rest of them – all running around to get their hands on this goddam rifle instead of going after a beautiful blonde like me. What does that tell you about the values of that picture? If I hadn’t been in it, would anyone have noticed?” Quite, Shelley, but you have to understand, it’s a boy thing. Furthermore, it wasn’t just “a goddam rifle”; it was a Winchester ’73! There were only 133 One-of-a-Thousand Model 1873s made. Good grief, woman. Anyway, Ms Winters, you were only in eight Western movies and to be brutally frank were fairly hopeless in all of them. So there. (That's telling her).
By 1950, with My Darling Clementine, Red River and John Ford’s cavalry trilogy having established Westerns as serious, big-budget drama, audiences were ready for some hard, well-acted and thought-provoking pictures. Winchester ’73 was one of these. It was an adult movie, a Western for grown-ups, a taut tale of brotherly hate in which Abel kills Cain.
And James Stewart was ready for some tough-guy action too. He was worried that his post-war career hadn’t really taken off, except for It’s a Wonderful Life, and he had a rep for an all-American aw-shucks kind of character, Jefferson Smith in Washington, for example. Even in the only Western he had done, Destry Rides Again, in 1939, he had been the yarn-spinning no-gun marshal, whittling wood; hardly the steely hard-bitten Western hero. He wanted something with more grit. He had in fact made a Western earlier in the year, for Delmer Daves over at Fox, when he had been Tom Jeffords in Broken Arrow, but that hadn’t been released yet when Winchester ’73 came out, so it was quite a shock for the movie-going public, especially when Stewart’s character Lin McAdam beat up bad guy Dan Duryea in the saloon so brutally, banging his head down on the bar. That can’t be Jimmy Stewart! Stewart later credited Winchester ’73 with reviving his career. The New York Herald Tribune noted that he took to the genre “as if he had been doing nothing else throughout his illustrious career.”
In an interview, Mann said, "[Stewart] was magnificent walking down a street with a Winchester rifle cradled in his arm. And he was great too actually firing the gun. He studied hard at it. His knuckles were raw with practicing... It was those sorts of things that helped make the film look so authentic, gave it its sense of reality."
In fact it was Stewart who got Mann the job, or at least when Fritz Lang, who had been scheduled to helm it, dropped out, it was Stewart who suggested Mann to producer Aaron Rosenberg and Universal. Jimmy had had a pre-release screening of Devil’s Doorway and was seriously impressed. It would be the start of a beautiful friendship, and the Mann/Stewart partnership added enormously to the quality – and the coherence as a body of work – of the Westerns. The pair even made non-Westerns together as well, though those weren’t as good, obviously.
The picture was based on a Stuart Lake work. Actually, Lake, author of the hugely best-selling Frontier Marshal, the, ahem, slightly fictional biography of Wyatt Earp, sued Universal because they didn’t give him the credit for the original story which screenplay writer Borden Chase used. They settled out of court, we don’t know for how much, though Lake had demanded $400,000.
Chase, brought in by Mann, was one of the top Western writers of his day. Red River was based on his novel Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail. His ex-wife claimed that the least Chase had earned was $30,000 year from his writing and that the most he earned had been $250,000. Not bad! He also wrote or co-wrote The Man from Colorado, Vera Cruz and two other Mann/Stewart Westerns, Bend of the River and The Far Country, as well as Night Passage, which was to have been another Mann/Stewart affair but Mann dropped out. It’s an impressive CV. There was also some writing input from Robert L Richards, who the same year worked on Kansas Raiders and would later do The Indian Fighter.
In the first reel Lin wins the famed gun in a display of marksmanship in Dodge City on that signal day, July 4th, 1876. They had a real marksman, Herb Parsons of Winchester’s, off-camera amazingly actually hitting the tossed coins. No special FX in those days.
You can see the rifle, with the names of the actors engraved on the stock (“Jimmie Stewart”), at the Cody Historical Center in Wyoming (a museum that is ultra-worth a visit). I’d mortgage my grandmother's soul for that Winchester.
But in the movie it is then stolen from Lin by the evil Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) and passes, as Mann said, from hand to hand, including that of John McIntire, coolly and sinisterly excellent as gambler-gun merchant (it’s a fine performance), and Rock Hudson in one of his first parts, as earnest and beefy Indian chief.
I was never the greatest fan of McNally in Westerns, though he’s not bad. He was probably better known for dramas such as Criss Cross and No Way Out, but Universal did let him lead three Westerns, Wyoming Mail, Apache Drums and The Stand at Apache River, and he later led in another one, for Republic, Hell’s Crossroads.
Mann plays with the reach-and-draw convention when he has Lin recognize Dutch Henry in the saloon and both go for their guns - forgetting they have checked them in
At one point, Dutch Henry lays down a hand of aces over eights, so true Western fans will have an idea of what’s going to be his fate. It was of course (I don’t need to tell you) the hand Wild Bill Hickok had when, less than a month after July 4th, ’76, he was gunned down by the creep Jack McCall. This is what we sad buffs call Western lore.
And by the way, talking of Western lore, Henry Brown was also the name of a real-life Kansas outlaw. His criminal career started in New Mexico during the Lincoln County War and he later moved to Caldwell, Kansas, becoming town marshal. For his services to the community, Brown was presented by the citizens with a Winchester rifle with his name inscribed on a plaque on the stock. Coincidence, huh. The story doesn’t end too happily – or intelligently - though because he was later caught robbing a bank in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, with the rifle bearing his name. Doh.
Dan Duryea is a bit clownish and over-the-top as Waco Johnny Dean the badman but you can’t help liking him. He took a part in the 1967 TV remake of this movie.
The excellent Millard Mitchell plays Stewart’s steady sidekick High-Spade (he says in the dialogue that there’s a hyphen in it, though there isn’t one in the cast list credits). Mitchell returned to the Mann/Stewart team three years later in The Naked Spur. He was splendid as the lawman in The Gunfighter earlier the same year.
It’s actually a big cast. Charles Drake is Shelley’s cowardly fiancé. Young Anthony Curtis has an early bit part as a soldier, and you can also spot (if you don’t blink) James Best and James Millican. Jay C Flippen is the Army sergeant.
Will Geer, though maybe miscast (he thought so anyway, and if nothing else he was twenty years older than the real Wyatt Earp was then) has fun doing a burlesque Earp (as Stewart himself was to do 15 years later for John Ford in Cheyenne Autumn). Of course, it’s typical Stuart Lake hooey: Wyatt Earp was not Marshal of Dodge in 1876 (or indeed at any other time). Never mind, it’s only a Western.
There are no love scenes between Shelley and Jimmy. She said it was because they both had good left sides… In fact, after the first two Westerns he made, Anthony Mann tended to relegate women to secondary roles. He thought the Westerns was a masculine genre. Women were often there to be helpless and rescued by the macho male. I told you it was a boy thing.
As in the great Mann Westerns to come, Stewart is a man with a secret, a man with a past, a man with a hint of bad about him. Later heroes were bounty hunters, ex-guerrillas, former outlaws. They are not so far from the villains they pursue. There is good black & white Mescal and Old Tucson, Arizona scenery (William Daniels at the camera) which gives a ‘classic’ Western feel to the movie, especially for the final shoot-out, as well as a hint, still, of Mannish noir (though considerably less so than in Devil’s Doorway or The Furies). And there’s the tight Chase screenplay which made the rifle the central character as it passed from hand to hand. “Talking is alright but in a Western the story is told visually.” Stewart said that and Mann couldn’t agree more.
That final shoot-out comes as a blazing finale. It’s the culminating clash between the man with a past, but basically the good guy, and the really bad badman. Stewart becomes the psychotic avenger (Mann ‘did’ psychotic) who is really no different than his brother. The rocky venue for the fight became a standard, much imitated in later Westerns, and the inspiration, I’d say, for those Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Westerns at the end of the decade – and come to think of it, Boetticher/Scott and Mann/Stewart do have something in common.
Devil’s Doorway and The Furies were fine films, both, but they weren’t ‘straight’ Westerns, in a way. Winchester was Mann’s first real Western and Stewart is a good part of the reason for that. It contains an attack by Indians on cavalry, a shoot-out in the street, a poker game, a stagecoach, a camp fire, a cowardly Easterner, Wyatt Earp, a bank robbery, a saloon fight - those key ingredients we know and love. And of course it's about revenge. Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review called it “a whoop-de-do cowboy picture.” The American Film Institute has elevated the picture into its list of all-time great American movies, and the United States Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". I get that.
In fact Crowther wasn’t all that impressed generally, saying, “It is far from the mature outdoor drama that might be brilliantly filmed around a gun. It's just a frisky, fast-moving, funny Western in which a rifle is the apple of a cowboy's eye.” I do often find Crowther a bit dismissive of Westerns as a genre, I must say. He often doesn’t take them seriously. Seriously enough. As seriously as they deserve. Whatever.
Variety, often politer about oaters, reckoned “Stewart brings real flavor and appeal to the role of Lin, in a lean, concentrated portrayal. McNally is hard and unbending as the runaway brother. Mitchell lends warmth as Stewart’s loyal henchman and friend. Shelley Winters is just sufficiently hard-bitten and cynical as the dancehall girl.”
Released in June 1950, it did well at the box office, grossing $4.5m. In fact it was the biggest Western of the year (if you don’t count Annie Get Your Gun – I mean proper Western). Actually, the picture was a pioneer in one way because Universal wouldn’t stump up the $200,000 Stewart demanded for the role and so they agreed to give him a share of the profits instead, which was a new idea then. Jimmy did well out of it, reportedly making $600,000 in the end. I bet the Universal accountants were sick.
As was often the case with Mann Westerns, initial lukewarm reaction has built, over the years, into ardent admiration. For example, writing for the British Daily Telegraph, Martin Chilton gave the movie 5 stars and described it as "the first in a series of Western masterpieces". In Empire, William Thomas calls the film "the marvellously-scripted story of a man and a gun." Dennis Schwartz calls it “One of the truly great Westerns, directed and acted with flawless skill in the old style.”
After these three black & white Westerns of 1950 there was a slight pause, while Mann worked on other projects but he’d soon be back in the saddle, and Jimmy too, with Bend of the River (1952). But before that, I want to review a 1951 picture of Mann’s, The Tall Target, because it’s more than half a Western, I reckon, and a good little movie to boot. That’ll be next up.