Winchester 73

Down through the years there have been a number of significant collaborations between directors and actors, such as Ford and Fonda, Ford and Wayne, and Huston and Bogart. In 1950 another such partnership was born, that of Anthony Mann and James Stewart. Their work together was to change the direction of both their careers, and produce some of the best cinema of the decade. Anthony Mann had made his reputation with a series of fine noirs in the last half of the 40s, but he had never done a western. James Stewart’s name had been built on the light leading man roles he excelled in before the war; with the exception of the comedic Destry Rides Again he was another relative stranger to the Old West. However, as a result of the success of Winchester 73 the names of both men would be forever linked to the oldest genre of them all. They went on to make eight films together, five of them westerns.

The story concerns Lin McAdam (Stewart) who arrives in Dodge City on July 4th 1876 and enters a sharpshooting contest presided over by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), Virgil Earp and Bat Masterson. The contest’s first prize is the famous rifle of the title, and it soon comes down to a run-off between McAdam and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). There’s clearly a history of bad blood between the two men, and when McAdam wins it’s not long before Dutch Henry robs him and makes off with the gun. The film then chronicles McAdam’s search for his stolen rifle, and his pursuit of the man who took it. But that’s really only a plot device, a kind of Hitchcockian McGuffin – something of greater significance to the characters than it is to the audience. While the gun is admired, valued and coveted by everyone who comes across it, it is not the sole, nor even the most important reason for McAdam’s dogged quest. This is a dark tale of revenge and the settling of old scores and, despite the dropping of a number of hints, the cause is not stated explicitly until the end.

James Stewart’s pre-war career consisted mainly of Mr Nice Guy roles, while the years following his return found him floundering around in search of a niche. Although It’s a Wonderful Life and Rope offered him roles with a greater complexity, Lin McAdam was a complete departure for him. This part, and subsequent ones with Mann, allowed him to display a cold ruthlessness that the public hadn’t seen before. In addition, he seems so completely at home in the saddle that it’s hard to believe this was his first serious western character. The film boasts a marvellous cast of character actors and up and coming talent: Stephen McNally and Dan Duryea (playing Waco Johnny Dean – lots of exotic character names in this movie) as villains, Shelley Winters as a luckless saloon girl, Millard Mitchell, John McIntire, Jay C. Flippen, and early parts for Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson.

The character of Wyatt Earp is really only incidental to the story here. His appearance is limited to the first twenty minutes or so and doesn’t add much to the narrative. Earp was an assistant marshal in Dodge at around the time the story takes place but the film suggests he was the principal lawman in the city. Will Geer portrays him as a folksy, down home type which seems at odds with the popular conception of the man. When McAdam challenges his authority early on, he fumbles around in his vest pocket for his tin star before almost sheepishly revealing his identity. One would have expected the real Earp to have kicked the upstart’s butt up and down the street.

Winchester 73 is a Universal release on DVD in R1 and R2, and it’s a fine looking disc. Not only is the transfer clean and tight, but there’s one fantastic extra. The film comes with a feature length scene specific commentary by James Stewart. I’m not usually one who gets too excited by extras in general, especially commentaries – but this kind of stuff is cinematic gold dust. Most of the stars of this period were long gone by the time the idea of recording commentaries occurred to anyone, so this is one to be treasured.


39 thoughts on “Winchester 73

  1. That’s a great screen capture of Stewart. It probably goes without saying, but I do hold this film as on the same level with The Searchers and Red River, even if I’m in the minority. Not to be disagreeable, but I sort of see Ford as creating the western as we know it and Mann revolutionizing it. He’s the speed bump between Ford and Peckinpah, in my mind. The Stewart collaborations are just incredibly underappreciated and absolutely vital works.


  2. I think it goes without saying (but I’m gonna say it anyhoo) that the war was the watershed for the western; it changed the people who watched movies and the people that made them.

    There’s a steel and an anguish to the post-war Jimmy Stewart that suggests that he’d gone through a life-changing experience (which he rarely talked about) and I think his Anthony Mann westerns, in particular reflect that.

    There are plenty of ‘speed bumps’ to be found in the genre, and while Leone and Peckinpah are often talked about in this respect, there’s no doubt Mann is particularly significant.

    Stewart’s commentary is more of an extended interview wouldn’t you agree Colin? Fascinating stuff.


  3. Thanks. I’m not sure you are in the minority – Anthony Mann’s stock has been steadily rising over the years, especially his western work with James Stewart.
    I think he is still relatively undervalued, but I also think that most of those who appreciate the western are aware that he took the genre in a new direction – much as Ford had done with ‘Stagecoach’.


  4. Yes John, you’re right that the commentary is actually an interview with Stewart. As far as I know it was done as he watched a screening of the movie – either way, it’s one of my favorite extras on any DVD and the kind of thing I wish had been done more often while there was still a chance.

    Speaking of influential and genre defining stuff, I just wish Sony would get their finger out and release their Budd Boetticher movies – if only to expose a wider audience to what Randolph Scott was capable of on screen.


  5. This is my favourite of the Mann/Stewart westerns, even allowing for Rock Hudson as an Indian. Stephen McNally and Dan Duryea are great villains and Stewart’s performance is one of his best.

    Like John (and no doubt many others) I’d love to see more of the Boetticher/Scott westerns on DVD. I’ve only seen Seven Men from Now (and that only recently) but I was very impressed with it.


  6. Not to go too far OT, but I recorded ‘The Tall T’ off C4 recently and it was a quite frankly gob-smacking presentation; an umarked print with gorgeous colours provided by Sony themselves which stokes up the anticipation for a mouth-watering DVD release. I just wish they’d get on with it.


  7. Good news is never OT 🙂
    Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later. I have a hunch that Sony are at long last on the verge of doing something with their back catalog.

    BTW John, I was sorry to read elsewhere about your recent bad luck – something like that’s always a rotten experience.


  8. No, not an experience I would recommend; but then I think of Burma, or China and scold myself for self-pity over such a trivial matter. Mrs H has been to the gym and put that bit of extra effort into her ‘combat’ class…

    BTW, I agree that ‘Canyon Passage’ is a truly terrific hidden gem of a western, and Andrews is surprisingly wonderful in it (I smile when watch him soak anything within touching distance in that opening sequence in the store; it’s a ‘Mr Muckle’ moment…).


  9. I just bought this movie on DVD after reading your note about James Stewart’s commentary. Though an excellent film, it’s always been the least favorite of the 5 westerns Stewart and Mann made together, and the only one I didn’t own…but realizing that Stewart did a commentary made it a must-have.

    As far as I know, this is the only example of an actor of his generation doing a commentary. Cary Grant, John Wayne, Henry Ford, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, none of them did one, so this is, as you say, “cinematic gold dust.” And it doesn’t disappoint, they talk all the way through the film and refer to it often as they’re watching. Stewart has some great stories and even talks about the philosophical origins of filmmaking in general. It’s fascinating stuff.

    The movie itself is even better than I remembered it, and the visuals (as usual for an Anthony Mann film) are a knockout, rendering the scenery, in particular the wood and stone structures, so lovingly detailed that you feel you’re right there. My only real quarrel with the movie is one you noted in your review, Will Geer’s Wyatt Earp. It’s the weakest portrayal of Earp I’ve ever seen, really not up Geer’s alley at all, and he’s an actor I generally like. Everybody else, particularly Dan Duryea, is fantastic.

    One brief note, by the way, you mentioned in your review that Mann had never done a western before “Winchester 73.” He had actually done one, “The Furies,” earlier that year, and Stewart says in the commentary track that after Fritz Lang dropped out it was the movie that convinced he and Stuart Rosenberg to hire Mann as the director.


    • Glad to hear you enjoyed the commentary and the movie Bruce. The whole idea of recording the thoughts of stars for posterity just hadn’t really occured to anyone before the home video boom I guess, but it is a shame when you get to hear Stewart’s thoughts that the opportunities were missed.

      Thanks for pointing that out about The Furies too, another movie I hope to feature at some time in the future.


      • I’m glad you’re planning to do a review of “The Furies,” because it’s an expensive film (Criterion Collection, don’t you know) and frankly at this point I trust your word about westerns more than anybody out there, so if you say it’s worthwhile, I’ll probably grab it.


  10. In Bruce H.’s comment at 6:12, 8:27 pm, the producer he is referring to is Aaron Rosenberg, not Stuart Rosenberg, a director of a later time (Cool Hand Luke). Aaron Rosenberg produced all five Universal-International movies starring Stewart and directed by Mann, the three Westerns and the two non-Westerns. He was a superior producer, over a range of genres but of Westerns especially. Check out his filmography at IMDb and you’ll see what I mean. Even Budd Boetticher, who didn’t like other producers during his nine film stay at U-I liked and admired Rosenberg.

    Also, Mann had made two Westerns before WINCHESTER ’73. It’s easy to make a mistake about this because WINCHESTER ’73 was released first of the three, but DEVIL’S DOORWAY was made first, followed by THE FURIES. The relatively brief time between production and release of WINCHESTER ’73 also accounts for its being Stewart’s first postwar (and first serious) Western, as BROKEN ARROW was also made before it but released afterward. Of the two, WINCHESTER ’73 is definitely the one that far more fully marks a departure in Stewart’s screen persona, and with the famous percentage deal, it’s no wonder he took that to heart given this film’s great success.

    I just caught up with this piece and enjoyed it. Also, being reminded about that James Stewart commentary reminded me belatedly that it’s one more reason to pick up this DVD sometime. I tend to get to buying movies slower when I’ve seen them a lot, no matter how much I like them.

    Sorry, I just can’t call him “Jimmy” when I’m talking about the Mann films.


    • Thanks for helping to clear up some of that Blake. Production dates and release dates, especially over a relatively short time span can be incredibly confusing.


  11. Yes, they can be very confusing, Colin. I was motivated to spend a little time on this here earlier for exactly that reason. I also had this chronology wrong for years–I knew DEVIL’S DOORWAY was Mann’s actual first Western but only recently finally had it clarified for me that THE FURIES was actually made second. I thought it had been made after WINCHESTER ’73.

    There is some aesthetic importance in the order, and importance in terms of Mann’s career and his finding his way in the genre. The three films, all released in 1950, show vestiges of his film noir phase, if only in stylistic inflection (they are all firmly Westerns), but it’s most pronounced in the first DEVIL’S DOORWAY, with John Alton, a key collaborator of the noirs, doing the cinematography, and least pronounced in the last made of the three WINCHESTER ’73, where, with Stewart as the obsessive hero, Chase’s screenplay, and the revenge theme and how it’s treated, the main line of Mann’s Westerns–and of so many 50s Westerns to follows–is plainly marked out. While there is a trace of noir style in the historical thriller THE TALL TARGET which you just wrote about, it’s nothing like what one sees in REIGN OF TERROR/THE BLACK BOOK three years earlier and once Mann gets Technicolor with BEND OF THE RIVER, the noirish inflections are gone for good.

    The relationship of DEVIL’S DOORWAY and BROKEN ARROW is interesting too. I am a Daves fan and like BROKEN ARROW but not nearly as much as DEVIL’S DOORWAY. In this case, the Mann was held back so long that BROKEN ARROW, though it followed WINCHESTER ’73 into release among Stewart films, came out first and was very successful while DEVIL’S DOORWAY failed at the time. So for a long time, BROKEN ARROW got all the credit for initiating the pro-Indian cycle and that’s understandable as it’s somewhat more comfortable in giving the audience a strong taste of peace in white/Indian relations as well taking a sympathetic view of the American Indian. The Mann on the other hand is a bleak tragedy in which its Shoshone hero–pointedly a Union veteran and Medal of Honor winner–is destroyed by rapacious whites and unjust government policy. It’s a very powerful film–and now I’m feeling I want to take a quick look and see just which Mann films you’ve written on and which you haven’t (THE MAN FROM LARAMIE piece was especially good).

    One of my plans one of these days, now that they are all on DVD (I believe that’s right) is to watch all ten of Mann’s 50s Westerns in chronological order on successive nights. As much as I do know them all it will be a real treat for me.


    • Again, thanks for clearing up any confusion over the production chronology of Mann’s work. You can see the shift in the way the films looked once you know which came first.

      Yes, all of Mann’s westerns are now available on DVD, and it would make for an interesting series of evenings to screen the lot back to back.
      You know, it’s worth pointing out that such marathons are really only satisfying when you have a strong body of work, such as Mann’s, to go through. Having done a few series, I can say it’s a bit of a slog when you hit a run of weak efforts.


  12. OK, now I just read your pieces on THE NAKED SPUR, DEVIL’S DOORWAY and THE TIN STAR. Sorry I was inadvertently a little redundant in my earlier post with what you said more substantially re DEVIL’S DOORWAY (and you also made the same contrast with BROKEN ARROW).

    I know you’ll get to the other Mann Westerns at some point, and will look forward to those pieces. Meantime, I agree with you that THE NAKED SPUR gets the edge as the best one of them all, but it’s such a satisfying group of movies I’d be satisfied with anyone’s choice.


    • I will cover them all eventually, but I like to vary things a bit and write up films as the mood strikes me.
      I still reckon The Naked Spur is the strongest all-round effort but, like you say, it’s not something I’d be bothered arguing with anyone about – there are no “bad” movies here.


  13. Just to sneak back in the doorway a moment, may I add that I fully agree that “The Naked Spur” is the strongest film of the Mann westerns, although “The Man From Laramie” is such a close second that it’s hardly worth ranking them separately, and “Man of the West” is pretty flat-out incredible, too. Heck, they’re all great.

    Blake, thanks for the information on Mann’s pre-Stewart westerns. I had no idea that he’d made two, or that “Winchester” was actually released first. That’s some serious scholarly digging, dude.

    I wonder, is the traditional story about Stewart and Mann parting ways over the making of “Night Passage” more complex than it’s usually told? And does anyone have any thoughts about whether Mann could have made another masterpiece out of it if he’d tried? At the very least, I suspect he wouldn’t have let Stewart play that damn accordion.


  14. No one likes that accordion! (But I don’t mind it so much and like the movie better than most people seem to, though it certainly doesn’t have Mann’s intensity–how could it without him?).

    Regardless of what one thinks of it, it would be interesting to know what actually happened over NIGHT PASSAGE. You refer to “the traditional story” (I assume the one that Mann did not like the script) but there are several other accounts of it. Like you I can’t help feeling the truth must be more complex. It would be wonderful if that half-hour Western James Neilson directed Stewart in for TV would surface sometime–can’t help but be curious about it.

    In any event, THE MAN FROM LARAMIE goes fine for me as the end of the Mann/Stewart cycle. Like you (and I guess Colin too), it’s a close second for me as well–a consummate masterpiece of the genre. But as I said, I don’t like playing favorites too much here since I wouldn’t want to be without any of those films.


  15. Having just seen the new film HITCHCOCK, I’m still trying to get my head around the comment by Hitchcock’s agent:
    ” I made James Stewart a millionaire on WINCHESTER 73 and that was a dog.”

    Maybe he means financially it didn’t do well?


  16. I’ve just seen this and loved it – Stewart is great and I also love Dan Duryea in full villain mode, though I now really want to see him as a hero. Shelley Winters is also very good in this. The shooting contest at the start is fantastic, and I was amused by that surprise revelation that the mild-mannered lawman is actually Wyatt Earp! Enjoyed your review a lot, Colin, and I now hope to go on to see more of Mann’s Westerns.


    • Judy, it’s great that you got to see the movie and came back here to post your thoughts. There’s so much going on and I think the episodic structure is handled very well by Mann.
      It’s a good introduction to Mann’s westerns, bridging the gap effectively between his earlier noir films and his 50s focus on the western, particularly in collaboration with Stewart.


  17. Thanks, Colin. I meant to say that I also really like John McIntire as the gun trader – enjoyed his mischievous expressions when he is pretending to be rubbish at cards while winning the gun from Dutch. I will watch out for McIntire in future Westerns that I see!


    • Yes, McIntire was a very fine actor and rarely if ever gave a poor performance. Mann of course used him again in a pretty substantial role in The Far Country. There are so many good films he appeared in though – he’s very good in my opinion in John Sturges’ Backlash.


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  19. This one is hands down my fav of the Stewart/Mann films. It has that hard edge that for me, only black and white can bring. Full marks to d of p Daniels for his work here. Stewart is a revelation, who thought he could do this kind of mean, and Stephen McNally shines as the villain of the piece. Nice bit, Colin.


    • I’ve been there before with the favorites among the Mann and Stewart westerns and finally decided… that I like ’em all! I actually feel that the sheer consistency of the work these guys did together is rather amazing.


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