In 1950, the sizeable success of a modestly budgeted Western drama had an enormous impact on the future of the American film industry, one still felt today. The movie also marked the beginning of an extremely fruitful relationship between its star and its director and, for good measure, was—-and remains—-among the first and best of the genre’s darkening trend, a kind of noir western with complex and ambiguous reverberations. Since its subject, in essence, is the uniquely American obsession with firearms—-in this case, a highly prized rifle-—the picture obviously, tragically, retains a contemporary significance, an ominous quality perhaps not nearly as resonant, nor as grimly intended, on its initial release. But if one of the key uses of art is to illuminate, this work continues to serve its purpose. I’m talking about James Stewart’s first post-war Western, directed by the estimable Anthony Mann, and named after the weapon which is coveted by everybody throughout the story, WINCHESTER ’73 (available on DVD).
Although Cary Grant had flourished since the end of the ‘30s as an independent star, not signed to any studio’s long-term contract, and although by the end of the ‘40s such stars as Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney had their own production companies, it wasn’t until Jimmy Stewart’s percentage deal on Winchester ‘73—-negotiated for him with Universal by his agent Lew Wasserman (whose own company within a decade would buy this same studio)-—that the notion of a star’s receiving a hefty piece of the action in lieu of salary began to gain wide acceptance. As a result, by the start of the ‘60s the studio system had crumbled, and all stars were getting a piece and large salaries. What was initiated as a name-actor’s honest sharing of the gamble with a film’s financiers has deteriorated into a no-lose situation for the talent, and a deep crisis for the business and art of pictures.
In the late ‘40s, Anthony Mann had done a group of striking, dark-shadowed Orson Welles-influenced B-movies like Railroaded, T-Men and Raw Deal before he and Stewart teamed up for this fast-paced tale of a westerner’s intense pursuit of both the elusive rifle he wins—-“one in a thousand” manufactured in 1873—-and the murderer of his father. Mann and Stewart would eventually work together on eight other movies, most memorably four more of the finest fifties Westerns, with strikingly photographed exteriors and generally hard-edged stories of greed, ambition and vengeance: Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie.
Stewart—whose only previous Western role had been as a pacific, eccentric non-gun-toting marshal in 1939’s Destry Rides Again opposite Marlene Dietrich—used these tough, somewhat neurotic frontiersmen he played for Mann to radically alter his original image as all-American dreamer and whimsical man of integrity (though he still mined that area with occasional pictures like The Glenn Miller Story, also directed by Tony Mann). As a result of these films, and his three Hitchcock movies during the same years (Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo), Stewart became one of the five biggest stars of the ‘50s; indeed, it was by far Jimmy’s most popular decade, ending brilliantly with a N.Y. Film Critics Award as Best Actor together with an Oscar nomination for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. His edgy, chip-on-the-shoulder performance in Winchester ’73 set the standard and remains one of his most intriguing.
Originally a project developed by the German master Fritz Lang—-and his visual and thematic influence somehow sticks to it—-Winchester ‘73 features excellent weather-beaten character portrayals by Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, Will Geer, Millard Mitchell, John McIntire, and a tough Shelley Winters, with bit appearances from Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis before they had become stars. The ironies of this film seem only to improve and deepen with age since they connect sharply to the frontier mentality we still live with here.