Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Winchester ’73.

A one-of-a-kind rifle, the Winchester ’73, passes through a diverse group of desperate characters, summarizing the Western genre while also revitalizing it. In his first of eight indelible collaborations with director Anthony Mann, James Stewart is cast against type as Lin McAdam, an upright frontiersman obsessed with tracking down murderer Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) and always finding himself a step behind the iconic rifle wrongfully stolen from him. Featuring Shelley Winters as a saloon girl looking to settle down, Dan Duryea as a crazed outlaw, John McIntire as a sly gun trader, Rock Hudson as an aggrieved Indian chief, and a young Tony Curtis in an early screen role, Winchester ’73 ushered in a new era for the Western that replaced squeaky clean heroes with flawed, complex protagonists and re-made James Stewart into a mature, complicated screen presence.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • New 4K digital restoration, undertaken by Universal Pictures in partnership with The Film Foundation and in consultation with filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New introduction by Scorsese
  • Audio commentary with actor James Stewart and film historian Paul Lindenschmidt
  • Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1951, featuring actors James Stewart and Stephen McNally
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Poster Gallery
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Sarah Hagelin and an except from firearm historian R.L. Wilson’s Winchester: An American Legend

As observed by Edward Buscombe, Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) “is not about the gun, which is a mere connecting device to hold the story together. The film, like all films, is about people.” In truth, the legendary one-in-one-thousand Winchester 1873 rifle (only 133 ever made) makes for a clever curiosity of the film’s plot and a pithy title, however descriptions of the film as being about Stewart’s hunt to reclaim the firearm is simply mistaken. James Stewart plays Lin McAdam, a cowboy traveling with his friend High Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) on the trail of outlaw and murderer Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). They arrive in Dodge City on July 4th, 1876, rightly expecting that Brown will compete in a shooting competition for a legendary one-in-one-thousand Winchester 1873 rifle. McAdam and Brown compete and McAdam wins but he’s later ambushed in his room by Brown and his compatriots. Brown steals the firearm and literally gets outta Dodge, leading to a prolonged, episodic tour by Brown and McAdam through the Old West. The film’s opening text anticipates its plot as McAdam crosses paths with various cowmen, outlaws, peace officers, soldiers, and Indians, chasing down McNally while inadvertently following the circuitous path of the firearm.

McAdam’s grudge against Brown is eventually revealed to be personal and his design pure revenge. The rifle externalizes Lin and Henry’s conflict, recalling paternal lessons from long ago and deep betrayals acted out with firing irons. McAdam’s vengeance ultimately contains revenge’s ironic edge, having Lin preserve the idea of family by finally destroying it. Those Western binaries – between lawlessness and civilization, between frontier and homestead, bridged by some sanctioned violence stamping out evil – are loaded into the Winchester and paralleled by Shelley Winters’ Lola Manners, a saloon girl looking to settle down and in need of a man to do so. Winters famously complained, “Here you’ve got all these men … running around to get their hands on this goddamn 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 anybody of noticed?” Certainly Anthony Mann would have noticed. Mann once declared, “Without a woman, the Western wouldn’t work,” and he likely noted that Lola changes hands nearly as often as the rifle (even if most Western scholars fail to make this observation). Manners is sent out of Dodge City by Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), is united with/abandoned by/reclaimed by her beau Steve Miller (Charles Drake), and is intimidated into the company of homicidal outlaw Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea) before eventually landing in the arms of Lin. Still, Lola is no figure of passivity. She handles Lin’s pistol during an Indian raid and stands up to Waco. Mann even loads up the erotic charge of the Western shoot-out by having Lola ask Lin for her “last bullet,” taking from him a symbol of his protection and of her self-determination.  “If you want it,” Lin says. “I want it,” Lola responds. Yeah, she does.

Mann called Winchester ’73 his “favorite Western,” observing that the rifle’s changing ownership allowed him “to embrace a whole epoch, a whole atmosphere” and that the movie “contains all the ingredients of the Western, and that it summarizes them.” The film features a variety of Western clichés, including a shooting contest, a poker game, an Indian attack, a posse, a siege at a homestead, an armed robbery, and a climactic shoot-out on rocky terrain. It is loaded with history as well, from Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson to Custer’s Last Stand and the First Battle of Bull Run. The movie does lack the agrarian sentimentality of John Ford and Mann’s landscapes, depicted in largely static shots, is scrubby and decidedly unmonumental. Presumably there is some ranch or farm to which McAdam can return but when asked by High Spade about what he will do after he has his revenge, settling down is an awkward notion. Lee Clark Mitchell once described the Western as “a set of problems recurring in endless combination,” all of which are subsumed by “the problem of what it means to be a man.” Lin is a prototypical Western hero of Anthony Mann – a charismatic man motivated by chivalry and an excessive moral sense but irrationally compelled by a need for revenge. Mann’s heroes are a paradox of control and duty on the one hand and explosive violence and self-punishment on the other. In this way, Winchester ’73 revitalized the Western genre, trading starched white heroes for conflicted protagonists and incorporating ideas from the popular psychology and sociology of the 1940s and ’50s. For Stewart, his Westerns with Mann revived the genre not by making its heroes more violent, but by making them more vulnerable.

Winchester ’73 marked a decided turn for Stewart from the light-comedic roles that typified his movie career prior to him enlisting for duty in World War II, the first major Hollywood celebrity to do so. After his distinguished service flying dangerous bombing missions into Germany, Stewart’s iconic collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann cemented his status as a leading man and dispelled any ambivalence he felt toward acting. Winchester ’73 contrasts starkly with his gun-abhorring, smooth-talking, parasol and birdcage-carrying deputy sheriff in George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again (1939), although audiences in 1950 still viewed Stewart as that affable, aw-shucks everyman. As the film’s screenwriter Borden Chase recalls, Mann’s film permanently recast public perception of Stewart – “When the picture was given a sneak preview, there had even been some titters in the audience at seeing Stewart’s name in the opening titles of a western. … But once he smashed Duryea in that bar, there would be no more snickering.” Jeanine Basinger rightly identifies the sea-change in Stewart and the Western hero at the very early moment when McAdam and Brown first see each other in Dodge City. Basinger observes:

When Stewart enters a saloon and spots the man he wants to kill, …. both men jump, crouch, and draw with a demonical frenzy, only to realize that their shaking hands are empty. This scene has a shocking effect. For the first time, the devoted viewer of the western is forced to confront a subversive fact; that his noble hero of the west, that man who rides tall in the saddle off into the sunset, may be a flipping maniac …. From Winchester ’73 onward, the idea of the western hero as a man besieged by personal problems – violent and even psychotic – becomes increasingly prevalent in American films.

Stewart made eight films with Mann including five Westerns, frequently playing disillusioned men prone to disciplined callousness and moments of wild, single-minded violence. Seeing Stewart’s crazed eyes in Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953), one can’t help but recognize Vertigo’s Scottie lying in wait and appreciate how Mann’s reworking of Stewart’s star persona in Winchester ’73 and subsequent pictures carried into the work of other filmmakers.

Three curious facts arise out of Winchester ’73. First, the film was originally intended for Fritz Lang. Working with writer Robert L. Richards, Lang conceived of the titular rifle as being McAdam’s sole source of strength and his only excuse for living. Universal balked at Lang’s intention to produce the film with how own production company Diana Productions and so the project became available for Mann and Chase. Second, the film marked Stewart’s first collaboration with Pie, a chestnut gelding that the actor frequently rode in many of his films. Stewart offered small fortunes to purchase Pie from his owner but was always refused. Still, the horse was consistently made available to Stewart and their partnership continued for 22 years. Henry Fonda even painted a watercolour of Pie for Stewart during their filming of The Cheyenne Social Club (Gene Kelly, 1970). Finally, Stewart and his agent Lew Wasserman negotiated a profit-sharing deal for the making of both Winchester ’73 and Harvey (Henry Koster, 1950) to get around the perceived excessiveness of Stewart’s $200,000 asking price. Stewart wanted to play the lead in Harvey and had been performing the role on Broadway. He got his wish by agreeing to the two film package and it was Stewart who selected Mann to direct Winchester ’73 after being impressed with his work on Devil’s Doorway (1950). By negotiating a deal for 50% of the profits, Stewart made $200,000 on Harvey (considered something of a box office disappointment) and a whopping $500,000-$600,000 from the smash success of Winchester ’73. Percentage deals were not unheard of at the time – both Gregory Peck and Abbott and Costello had made such an arrangements – but Stewart’s deal particularly raised the ire of Louis B. Mayer at MGM, claiming that Universal chief and son-in-law William Goetz had let “the lunatics to take over the asylum.” Aside from the payday won by Stewart from the studio, Mayer had concerns that such arrangements would expose the studio’s accounting to their own employees. Interestingly, Stewart had actually shot Delmer Daves Broken Lance (1950) ahead of Winchester ’73 but that film was held back to see how the public reacted to Stewart in Mann’s film. Broken Lance out-paced Winchester ’73 and landed at 1950’s seventh highest grossing film, proving that this new, more mature, more complicated James Stewart was a solid Hollywood investment.

It’s surprising that Winchester ’73 has never had a North American Blu-ray but a future release by the Criterion Collection of this seminal film does seem possible. It was the subject of a restoration by The Film Foundation led by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, part of the same 2018 cohort of films that included another recent Criterion release, Destry Rides Again. MMC! would love to see the design for such a release get undertaken by French BD artist Christophe Blain. Blain’s series Gus, about a trio of outlaws in the Old West, features an eye for Western tropes and rough and exaggerated style that superbly supports its quirky comedy, however a deeper dive into the artist’s portfolio reveals his capacity for impressive landscapes and more sombre atmospheres, making Blain an ideal artist for this imagined edition.

Credits: The back cover summary is adapted from a few different sources including the current Region 1 DVD’s synopsis. Martin Scorsese was chosen to provide an introduction given his involvement in the film’s restoration and the already solid discussions of Stewart that appear on Criterion’s release of Destry Rides Again. The commentary is ported over from the current DVD and we’ve included the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation notwithstanding Stewart’s assertion on the commentary that no such adaptation was ever recorded. We could have gone the easy route with a booklet essay and tapped someone obviously Criterion or Film Foundation-adjacent (like Kent Jones) but we instead picked scholar Sarah Hagelin given her discussion of the film in her book Reel Vulnerability: Power, Pain, and Gender in Contemporary American Film and Television.

This post was greatly informed by Jim Kitses’ stellar book Horizons West: The Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood, John Miller’s numerous articles on Winchester ’73 for TCM, David Baker and Danielle Zuvela’s excellent essay “Mann and Woman: the Function of the Feminine in the ‘Noir Westerns’ of Anthony Mann,” Edward Buscombe’s “The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema,” Jonathan Dawson’s essay for Senses of Cinema, and references to Jeanine Basinger’s Anthony Mann and Donald Dewey’s James Stewart: A Biography.

One thought on “Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950)

  1. moviefanman May 13, 2020 / 2:38 pm

    That would be a fantastic release for either the Criterion Collection, Arrow Academy, or Eureka! Masters of Cinema.

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