Sunday, May 01, 2011

Winchester .73

Ed here: The Anthony Mann-James Stewart westerns are among my favorites. I'd recently run Winchester .73 then again watched about half of it on TCM this afternoon. I'm sure Vince Keenan can correct me if I'm wrong but I think it was Billy Wilder who said that people think of a good-great movie when it has three powerhouse scenes. By that measure Winchester .73 is a true masterpiece. It contains at least a dozen perfectly and uniquely written scenes.


"A 187, 44-40 caliber Winchester rifle is the star of the this motion picture. Every so often a rifle comes along that is just perfect - "1 in 1000" they call it. 'Winchester 73' was a revolutionary film in the development of Hollywood westerns. It almost single-handedly rescued the western genre and its box-office success acknowledged Anthony Mann for his key role in attaining its allure and stature. This was one of many westerns collaborating with Jimmy Stewart, helping to revive his post war acting image.

"Frontiersman Lin McAdam (Stewart) is out on the road with his buddy. What he needs is the-of-a-kind rifle that we won in competition - conveniently (eventually) stolen by his 'black sheep' brother. On the rifle's his journey we see many desperado individuals: a sociopathic highwayman bandit (Dan Duryea), an moral-less gun trader (John McIntire), a brutal jaded Indian (Rock Hudson) and a comely maiden (Shelly Winters).

"It remains a classic of the genre and Mann fans will love the development of 'mood'. Great cinematography shines through as well. Also note Tony Curtis in one of his first roles and Will Geer (Grandpa on 'The Waltons') as Wyatt Earp!"

I've come to prefer Stewart's work with Mann to most of Stewart's light comedy and his somewhat mawkish melodramas. Mann found an almost psychotic side of The Good Man and Stewart gave himself up to it.

Here's a bit from Wikipedia about the circumstances surrounding the funding of the film:

"Stewart had wished to make Harvey for Universal-International but when the studio wouldn't pay the $200,000 salary Stewart wanted, studio head William Goetz made an offer that Stewart could make both Harvey and Winchester '73 for a percentage of the profits that would be spread out over a period of time and qualify for a lower tax rate due to Stewart being taxed as a company rather than an individual.[6] Stewart's agent who was then Lew Wasserman was able to get his client 50% of the profits that eventually gave him $600,000 from the film's unexpected success.[7] The money from a percentage deal was taxed as a capital gain attracting a much lower rate of tax than a normal salary would incur.[8] Stewart's deal also gave him control of director and co-stars."

Ed here: Looking at the cast credits, you see how much this was a studio picture. Many notable young names here: Shelly Winters, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Charles Drake and James Best. They'd be seen in many many Universal films. The strangest casting to me was Will Geer (a very good actor) as Wyatt Earp. I'm not sure what writer Borden Chase and Mann had in mind going so much against the legendary (and false) image of Earp.

One of my top ten character actors has a major role here, Millard Mitchell. The picture he did immediately after this gritty western was as the studio head in "Singin' In The Rain" and he was every bit as snappy and good as the stars. I'm always checking TCM schedules for character actors so I've seen him in many films. He never missed.

Steven McNally had a run in the Fifties, mostly Bs. Apparently it was said somewhere by somebody that he was slated to be Universal's next Big Star. But (I think) it was Lew Wasserman (then the most powerful man in Hwood) who said--and this was widely quoted--"Steven McNally will never be a star." He was right; there was something small and nervous about McNally that ruled out stardom. Still having to work with that quote out there couldn't have been easy.

Jon Tuska would know this for sure but as I recollect writer Borden Chase (straight from the pulps to huge success in Hwood) was the guy who figured out how to write for Gary Cooper. Cooper was not a wizard with dialogue and when he had too much to say he couldn't cut it. The story goes that Chase and the director of a Cooper picture were having a hard time with Cooper and dialogue so Chase came up with the idea of putting the burden on the person in the scene with Cooper. Thus you had the sidekick saying "There's injuns on the hill and they're comin for us. I don't to tell you about injuns, do I?" And all Cooper had to say was "Nope."


Ron Scheer said...

A panel of students in my western class this semester picked this film to do a presentation on and at least one of them said it was their favorite film of the whole course - so it apparently has not lost its appeal.

Millard Mitchell is also a favorite of mine. I liked him a lot in this one; he holds up very well next to Stewart. I also like him opposite Gregory Peck in THE GUNFIGHTER.

Brendan DuBois said...


Considering all the swill that's on television nowadays, isn't TCM a jewel? Not a day goes by that I find something on their schedule to watch.

I hope they don't change. AMC used to be a great cable channel, but then they started broadcasting commercials, ran edited movies, and generally broadcasted a lot of slop.

Some months ago we were watching Apollo 13 on AMC and during the classic launch sequence -- a particularly moving piece --- the idiots at AMC broke in the middle of it to show a commercial!

Vince said...

Hi, Ed. The quote you cite is often attributed to Wilder, but it's my understanding that Howard Hawks is the one who said it. And you can't leave out the second part: a movie needs three great scenes and no bad ones.

Whoever said it and whatever the ratio, Winchester .73 fits the bill.