Winchester ’73 (1950), the first of eight collaborations between actor James Stewart and director Anthony Mann, is practically a film noir on the frontier.
The one-of-a-kind repeating rifle of the title is the first prize in Fourth of July marksmanship match in Dodge City that Lin McAdam (James Stewart) wins and immediately loses when he’s bushwhacked by the bitter runner-up (Stephen McNally). The plot is really a quite clever gimmick—Lin and his easy-going riding sidekick (Millard Mitchell) track the rifle across the west as it changes hands—but the story packs a much darker tale of hatred and revenge with a Cain and Abel twist.
Fusing the spare style and hard edge of his earlier noir thrillers with the open spaces and frontier violence of the western, Mann turns the wide open American west into a jagged landscape of danger and death and transforms All-American icon Jimmy Stewart into a ruthless man of the west.
It was the first geniune western that Mann directed and Stewart’s second as an actor—his first was the lighthearted comic western Destry Rides Again—and it changed the entire arc of both careers. Stewart showed a darker side of his range and Mann brought a psychological intensity and psychopathic edge to the western, where beauty and danger alike are in the same jagged mountains and barren deserts, and where vicious villains explode with startling violence.
The supporting cast is packed with contract players from Universal Studios. Shelley Winters gets second billing as a dance hall girl engaged to a cowardly rancher (Charles Drake), the always entertaining Dan Duryea is the outlaw Waco Johnny Dean, Will Geer is both folksy and savvy as Marshal Wyatt Earp, Rock Hudson plays a young rogue Indian warrior under body paint, and Jay C. Flippen, Steve Brody, James Best, and a pre-fame Tony Curtis costar. Borden Chase helped adapt the novel, written by Stuart Lake, and went on to script three more westerns for Stewart.
It was added to the National Film Registry in 2015
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