Thursday, July 19, 2012

Winchester '73

Thanks to the dispute between DirecTV and Viacom taking several channels off the DirecTV lineup, DirecTV has given its customers free access to the several Encore chnnels through the end of July. Unfortunately the post-1953 movies seem to be panned and scanned, but that of course isn't an issue with movies that were filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio. At any rate, having the Encore channels for a few weeks gave me another chance to see Winchester '73. It's airing again tonight at 8:00 PM on Encore Westerns, and is also availalbe on DVD if you don't have any of the premium channels.

James Stewart stars as Lin, a man who shows up in Dodge City for the centennial anniversary of Independence Day in 1876, and clearly has an ulterior motive for being there. The good people of Dodge are running a marksmanship contest in which the winner will receive a "perfect" Winchester repeating rifle, and Lin enters the contest for that. Also in the contest is Dutch (Stephen McNally), who, it is implied at the beginning of the film, has a past involving Lin. (What that past is should be fairly obvious, but isn't revelead until near the end of the movie.) The very next thing that happens is fairly simple to predict: Lin and Dutch are by far the two best marksmen in the contest, making the contest run longer than the organizers expected. Eventually Lin wins, and takes possession of the rifle. Not so fast. Dutch is ticked off and has henchmen with him. They waylay Lin in his hotel room, conk him on the head, and take his Winchester, running off before they can reclaim their pistols from Marshall Wyatt Earp (Will Geer in a small role). Unsurprisingly, Lin rather obsessively goes after them in order to get his rifle back.

It's at this point that the action really picks up. Dutch loses controle of the rifle, and wants it back, as does Lin. However, it goes through a series of owners: a trader, Indians, a settler, and a bank robber. All the while, Dutch stays one step behind whoever has the gun, while Lin is only one step behind Dutch. The stories of the people who wind up with the Winchester are just as interesting as Lin's pursuit of Dutch, and intertwine nicely: this is no anthology movie. The settler, named Steve Miller, is played by Charles Drake. He's a man who wants to settle down with his fiancée (Shelley Winters, whom we first see being escorted out of Dodge City, but whom Lin would defend given the chance) but first has to settle some financial affairs with Waco Johnnie (Dan Duryea, who gets a high billing despite not showing up until about an hour in), which turn out to be robbing a bank. Waco is a real man if a criminal, unlike Steve who turns out to be a coward, and there are some fun scenes when Waco first shows up fleeing the authorities. A young Rock Hudson shows up, nearly unrecognizable as an Indian chief.

Winchester '73 is quite a good movie, thanks in part to a good script, and in part due to excellent characterizations from several of the actors, especially Stewart. Stewart was directed here for the first time by Anthony Mann, and a lot of people give Mann credit for the change in Stewart to playing much darker heroes than he had done a decade earlier in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I think Alfred Hitchcock deserves some of the credit for putting Stewart in Rope two years earlier. But Mann definitely deserves some credit, especially for casting Stewart in a western (in fact, they'd go on to do a series of westerns together), something I don't think Stewart had done since Destry Rides Again (which is almost a comic western) a decade earlier.

No comments: