Tonight's 35mm double bill at UCLA's Anthony Mann Festival began with the film noir with SIDE STREET (1950) and concluded with a Western released the same year, WINCHESTER '73 (1950).
WINCHESTER '73 is the first film I've watched from my list of 10 Classics to see for the first time in 2014, and I enjoyed it as much as any film from my "classics" viewing lists of the last few years. This was definitely my kind of movie, a superbly made Western starring James Stewart and an outstanding cast. It's a film I'm certain to return to again with some regularity now that I've seen it at last!
WINCHESTER '73 is a sprawling, somewhat episodic story, which begins when Lin McAdam (Stewart) and his pal "High Spade" (Millard Mitchell, THE NAKED SPUR) ride into Dodge City, where Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) keeps law and order. Earp presides over a shooting competition in which Lin and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) compete for the prize of a "perfect" Winchester rifle.
Lin wins the rifle, but Dutch Henry, an old enemy, beats him up and steals it. The film then traces the rifle's meandering path among several different people, with the gun ultimately coming full circle just as Lin approaches his final confrontation with Dutch Henry.
There's a whole lot more to the story, which makes it a challenge to describe concisely while not giving too much away; suffice it to say this is one of those films a first-time viewer should simply let unfold and be surprised. The superior screenplay, which flows beautifully, was by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards, based on a story by Stuart Lake.
Although Lin is a man on a mission who's carrying great sorrow, I didn't find the overall tone of the movie as dark as some of the later Stewart-Mann Westerns I've recently seen, THE NAKED SPUR (1953) and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955). I thought WINCHESTER '73 was closest in feeling to the very next Stewart-Mann Western, BEND OF THE RIVER (1952). BEND OF THE RIVER is one of my favorite '50s Westerns and like WINCHESTER' 73, it was written by Borden Chase.
The movie has an absolutely superb cast, down to the smallest roles. Stephen McNally has been enjoyed by me in recent months in APACHE DRUMS (1951) and THE STAND AT APACHE RIVER (1953), and he's terrific as Stewart's somewhat mysterious nemesis. Why have they hated each other so much for so long? McNally increasingly strikes me as an underrated actor, and I look forward to seeing more of his work.
Dutch Henry's sidekicks are played by frequent Western baddie Steve Brodie, the star of Mann's DESPERATE (1947), and a Western actor who's become a huge favorite of mine, James Millican, who would go on to appear in Mann's THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955).
Shelley Winters is an actress I frankly find grating in most of her films, and I think her prominent presence in the cast is the main reason I had put off seeing this highly regarded Western for so many years. I must say she does quite well in this movie, restraining her more obnoxious or whiny tendencies and coming off as pleasant and responsible. It was a nice change for me to see her in a film and not be wishing she'd hurry up and get offscreen! Her fiance is played by Charles Drake, who does quite a good job in a role as a man who performs a jaw-droppingly unchivalrous act and then must atone for it.
Like the movie itself, I've saved the best for last. It takes so long for Dan Duryea to make his first appearance in the film that a viewer could easily forget he was in the opening credits, but that simply makes his spectacular entrance all the more enjoyable; surely it's one of the really great character introductions of the movies. Duryea manages to steal every scene he's in, and the moment his character, Waco Johnny Dean, enters the picture it takes the movie up a notch from "very good" to "great."
The cast also includes a young James Best, plus Ray Teal, Abner Biberman, Jimmy and Timmy Hawkins, Bonnie Kay Eddy, and John Doucette. Actor-stuntman Chuck Roberson, described by my husband as "that guy who's in all the John Wayne movies," appears as Long Tom.
William H. Daniels. Watching the 35mm print on UCLA's huge screen, I felt at times that I was looking at great paintings which just happened to move. This is a film to see in a theater if at all possible.
WINCHESTER '73 is available on DVD, including as part of sets such as the James Stewart Western Collection. It's also been released on VHS.
It can be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.
series: DR. BROADWAY (1942), which was paired with the previously reviewed TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE (1945); THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955), shown with the previously reviewed STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (1944); THE NAKED SPUR (1953), shown with the previously reviewed HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948); THE LAST FRONTIER (1955), seen with the previously reviewed STRANGE IMPERSONATION (1947); RAILROADED! (1947), shown with the previously seen DESPERATE (1947); RAW DEAL (1948), shown with the previously reviewed T-MEN (1947); and SIDE STREET (1950).