#433) Winchester ’73 (1950)

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#433) Winchester ’73 (1950)

OR “The Maltese Rifle”

Directed by Anthony Mann

Written by Robert L. Richards & Borden Chase. Story by Stuart N. Lake.

Class of 2015

The Plot: On America’s centennial, Dodge City holds a shooting contest, and the grand prize is a “One of One Thousand” grade 1873 model Winchester rifle, the gun that won the West. The two finalists are Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), who have some unspoken bad blood between them. After Lin wins the contest, Dutch has his men attack Lin and steal the rifle. Lin and his partner High-Spade Frankie (Millard Mitchell) travel across the plains to redeem their prize. Unbeknownst to them, the rifle ends up exchanging hands a few times, both from those who know its value and those who don’t. Co-starring Shelley Winters as a saloon girl, and a young unknown Rock Hudson as…a Native American? Ho boy.

Why It Matters: The NFR singles out the Stewart-Mann collaborations of the ‘50s, and acknowledges the “current debates about gun-carry rights”. The climactic and “justly-famous shootout amidst steep, rocky terrain” is also highlighted.

But Does It Really?: Every so often, an NFR entry is similar enough to another entry that I have to refrain from passing judgment until I’ve seen both. Such is the case with “Winchester ‘73”: the second James Stewart-Anthony Mann trope-subverting western in the NFR. The first one – 1953’s “The Naked Spur” – made the list 18 years before “Winchester”, and with that big a time gap just how important a film is “Winchester ‘73”? On its own, I enjoyed “Winchester” for its brisk, efficient storytelling and its well-cast ensemble, but I hardly consider it a classic. Whether or not it deserves its NFR placement I don’t know. Only a “Naked Spur” viewing will solidify my opinion.

Wow, That’s Dated: “Winchester ’73” is tops on the problematic Native Americans list. Not only is the native tribe in the movie depicted as antagonists, they don’t even name which tribe it is! And thanks to aforementioned casting of Rock Hudson as their leader, REDFACE WARNING everyone!

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar nominations for “Winchester ‘73”, but the film did receive a WGA nomination in the now defunct category “Best Written American Western”, losing to another Jimmy Stewart western: “Broken Arrow”.

Other notes

  • Jimmy Stewart got involved with “Winchester” thanks to his desire to make another Universal picture. Stewart wanted the lead in the film version of “Harvey”, but Universal wouldn’t pay his star salary. As a compromise, Stewart was offered “Harvey” if he took “Winchester” and received a percentage of the film’s profits in lieu of being paid upfront. Stewart accepted and, when “Winchester” became a surprise hit, he allegedly received three times his original request.
  • After Fritz Lang stepped down from directing “Winchester” (Universal didn’t want him producing the film with his own company), Stewart got to choose his own director. He picked Anthony Mann after seeing some rushes of his work for Universal’s upcoming “The Devil’s Doorway”.
  • I was curious if the Winchester of firearms fame is any relation to the Winchester of Winchester house fame. Turns out, yes by marriage! Sarah Lockwood Winchester was married to Oliver Winchester’s son William, and started building the mansion after William’s death.
  • Will Geer (aka Grandpa Walton) is legendary Marshall Wyatt Earp, who was actually 20 years younger than Geer’s depiction here.
  • Kudos to Jimmy Stewart and Stephen McNally. I don’t know exactly what their beef with each other is, but I’m invested in this shooting competition. Fun Fact: Stewart became quite the skilled marksman during preparation for this film, but the more expert trick shots were still done by a professional.
  • I love Shelley Winters, but her character/limited screentime doesn’t earn her an above the title credit here. As Winters once said about her work in the film; “If I hadn’t been in it, would anybody have noticed?”
  • Ooh, cool chase scene between the wagon and the Native Americans. Also, interesting choice to have one of the characters (Steve Miller) be a through-and-through coward with few redeeming qualities.
  • Also dated: All of this movie’s night shots are clearly day-for-night. I’m pretty sure I can see the sun in one shot!
  • Rock Hudson isn’t the only young up-and-comer in the cast. One of the cavalrymen at the base is Tony Curtis, credited here as Anthony Curtis. Even back then he was too pretty for the wild west.
  • Like “Rear Window”, I’m pretty sure Jimmy Stewart’s character is supposed to be younger. There’s something a little off about hearing his dialogue coming from a 42 year old man.
  • One of the children at the Jameson house is named Gary, which is a helpful reminder that every person in world named Gary was once a child. Hard to wrap my mind around that.
  • I’m enjoying Dan Duryea’s performance as Waco Johnny. He’s your typical western “black hat”, but a tad more unhinged. His New York Times obit correctly called Duryea “the heel with sex appeal”.
  • Holy crap, Jimmy Stewart just went nuts on that guy in the bar! This is the scene that made America take note never to piss off George Bailey.
  • [Spoilers] I should have seen that twist coming, but I didn’t. At first I thought there was a major age gap between Jimmy Stewart and Stephen McNally; turns out it’s only three years. Both characters do that thing I love where they are subtle about their relation throughout the movie, and then are more overt about it after the reveal, even though they weren’t there for it. The brothers’ final shootout is the western movie equivalent of “Mom always liked you best!”
  • My main takeaway from this movie is to always put your name on things.

Legacy

  • “Winchester ‘73” was a hit, and helped Jimmy Stewart break out of the “aw-shucks” persona he had been pigeonholed in. His gross-percentage deal with Universal would also become an industry standard.
  • Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann would go on to make eight films together, six of which were westerns. The two outliers were the contemporary drama “Strategic Air Command”, and the biopic “The Glen Miller Story”. Does this film hold up next to their third movie, “The Naked Spur”? Stay tuned…
  • “Winchester ‘73” got the unnecessary remake treatment in a 1967 TV movie, with Tom Tryon and John Saxon filling in the lead roles. Dan Duryea returned, only this time as Lin’s uncle.
  • Oh, and I guess Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis did alright after this film too.

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