An essential western: Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950)

winchester

Winchester ’73 follows the one-in-a-thousand, unfailingly accurate weapon of the title through the hands of a string of owners, its story inextricable from Lin McAdam’s (James Stewart) efforts to avenge his father’s murder. Across dry plains and down Tombstone’s dusty thoroughfare, past Saguaro cacti and up rocky hillsides, from the opening marksmanship contest to the closing gunfight, this film always has an eye for camera positions that pull the viewer into the physicality of its world. In this, as well its interest in the psychology of its characters, it seems to fulfil some of the most rewarding potentials of the genre.

The film’s dialogue never rests, offering a sly or neat or witty turn of phrase at any moment, be it in the villains’ bickering, the soldiers’ reminiscences about their wives and children, or the heroes’ discussions of friendship. This makes each scene enjoyable and brings life to the characters that Lin and the Winchester ’73 encounter, no matter how familiar their types, or how brief their screentime. A weary cavalry Sargeant, played by Jay C. Flippen, is particularly memorable, especially in his interactions with Lola Manners (Shelley Winters).

The hooker who has a heart of gold, and may be redeemed by embracing domesticity, is not a character type to be enthusiastic about. Still, I like Winters in this film. Lola can be wonderfully sarcastic and indignant, and the oblique references to her profession are often amusingly wry. She’s a practical, brave and likeable character despite the problematic dichotomy she‘s a part of.

Though much of the cast acquits themselves well (Tony Curtis tries a little too hard in a small role), Dan Duryea makes the biggest impression, despite not appearing until late in the second act. Waco Johnny Dean is irredeemably, extravagantly bad, and a pleasure to watch. Just as he knows when to keep his cool, though, Duryea keeps enough control to avoid being totally hammy (watch him showing what’s going through Dean’s head when he first meets Lin). Dean and Lola are such an quippy, odd double act that they could practically have their own movie (if she had fewer morals, anyway).

Nuanced and well-made, Winchester ’73 shows every sign of having being helmed by one of the genre’s most significant directors. It’s my first Mann film, and I’m glad that I have so many more ahead of me.

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