' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Winchester '73 (1950)

Friday, July 21, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: Winchester '73 (1950)

“Winchester ‘73” was the first of five westerns that famed leading man Jimmy Stewart made with director Anthony Mann. And while I can’t help but think I might have liked a couple of the later ones more, especially “The Far Country,” where Jimmy’s snarl really blew my hair back, you still get the effect of a Sinister Stewart in “Winchester ’73” at the opening carnival where his Lin McAdam enters a shooting contest with the eponymous rifle as the prize. Even without the emergent backstory, the way Stewart grits his teeth when he pulls that trigger lets you know something more is on his mind than winning the prize. The screenplay by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards even goes so far as to make Lin a Confederate, though it doesn’t quite have the courage of that narrative conviction, employing it more as a kind of kumbaya between (white) men from the north and (white) men from the south than code for a despicable anti-hero, reminding you that for as much as “Winchester ’73” would have been a kick in the pants to a stale genre in 1950, there were some contemporary rules to which it was still adhering.

Lin and Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) are on the trail of Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), whom Lin aims to kill, foiled when he finds his target in Dodge City where Marshal Wyatt Earp confiscates all their guns. As played by Will Geer, this isn’t the Earp of the legends, of “My Darling Clementine” and “Tombstone” but a quirky supporting character, Little Bill Daggett as a doddering peacekeeper, or something. That’s what causes the men to shoot it out for the Winchester, playing macho head games instead, though even when Lin wins, Dutch takes the rifle for himself and flees, leading to a chase across the prairies and eventually into the mountains as the Winchester ’73 rifle makes its way from character to character as the movie itself makes its way from trope to trope, almost like an anthology film, from a card game to an Indian attack to a saloon brawl to a final shootout. And even as the movie submits to insulting Hollywood hokum like Rock Hudson’s terse dialogue as a Native American, an impressive verisimilitude nevertheless creeps in. 

It’s not the cowboys and Indians shootout, really, it’s the lead-up, where dudes sip coffee from tin cups and wait for what’s coming, or the concluding shootout on a mountain that plays less like heroic culmination than savage desperation. Indeed, if Mann had been more knowing than stereotypical in his native American portrayals, he might have truly unmasked the hypocrisy in those portrayals given how he renders most of the white men here as bloodthirsty savages who just want to get their hands on that rifle. Savages like Lin. In “The Far Country,” Stewart and Walter Brennan’s characters riding to Alaska shared a not-so-subtle kind of something more than brotherly love. In “Winchester ’73,” on the other hand, despite the presence of another trail partner, and an emergent female love interest too, it’s the pull of the rifle that counts, a weapon propelling bullets through a metal tube as man’s one true love.  

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