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Winchester '73
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by Jay Seaver

"If these characters had a choice between a gun and a woman..."
3 stars

Genre films have certain trappings. They're comfortable, and they work as shorthand. The trouble with "Winchester '73" is that some trappings don't age particularly well, and spending a lot of time on others may only interest those who really get into the details of the specific topic.

Here, the troublesome details are guns and Indians. I don't think many will disagree when I say that fifty-odd years ago, the average American looked at both rather differently than they do now. Watching Ron Howard's The Missing was a bizarre experience, with its simplistically villainous Native Americans; it's a characterization we have mostly grown past. Kids don't play Cowboys & Indians any more. Of course, part of the reason they don't is that that involves guns, and the general population isn't as fond of or knowledgeable about guns as they once were. There are groups that do, and they're not all violent nuts, but there's a more widespread distaste for firearms, even among men who would have grown up with them had they been around when this movie was originally released in 1950.

So I kind of snickered at the opening text describing the Winchester rifle, how the 1873 model was sometimes called "the gun that won the west". And it seems a little peculiar that one awarded as a prize to Lin McAdam (James Stewart) in a Dodge City shooting contest would become such an object of obsession, that second-place contestant Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) would just have to have it, to the point of stealing it and then later acting like he would rather sell his hypothetical wife than trade it in for food and shelter. Characters who encounter the weapon are awestruck by it, which may be accurate, but may strike a twenty-first century audience member as weird.

Not that the idea of following a gun (or any other object) as it moves from person to person is a bad one; it's been done well on many occasions. And there's enough interesting backstory to McAdam's pursuit of Brown to to make for a compelling movie, and enjoyable secondary characters with fun western names like McAdam's partner High-Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) and Dutch's outlaw compatriot Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea). Even Lola Manners (Shelley Winters), whose primary job is "hostage", is a plus when the woman in these pictures is so often dispensable. And with some more even-handed characterization, having the story intersect with a battle between the army and the natives would be an interesting angle.

Unfortunately, the three writers and director Anthony Mann get hung up on the details. Not just the fetishizing of the prize gun, but also the way Western icons are pointedly name-checked, be they Wyatt Earp or George Custer. Or when High-Spade pauses meaningfully before adding "in the back" when relating the story of a shooting. It's too bad that these things often overshadow a solid story and an interesting method of structuring the narrative. He also manages a couple of taut, suspenseful action set pieces that more than balance the dull shooting contest in the beginning.

It's a pretty good cast, too. Stewart's career often seems defined by his lovable role in It's a Wonderful Life, but he's played a lot of darker characters, including this film's lead. The amiable Jimmy Stewart-ness is just a front; this is a guy driven by revenge, even if he's not a slave to it. Shelley Winters is proactive without coming off as unfeminine or being tagged with some kind-of-insulting tag like "spunky". McNally does what he can with a sketchily-written and motivated character, while Dan Duryea, without as much backstory, can be more gleefully evil. Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis also show up in early roles.

Winchester '73 has it in itself to be a better movie than it is, and it probably comes off better to someone who enjoys the trappings of the Western more than I do. A little more attention to what's under the surface, and this is a much stronger movie.

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originally posted: 06/19/05 12:07:37
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User Comments

12/03/07 Screwball A great western. Five stars !!! 5 stars
5/28/07 Joe Blow Start of the Classic Stewaert/Mann Westerns 5 stars
1/08/06 T Max Beautifully photographed. Well written script. Terrific acting by strong, interesting cast. 4 stars
5/19/05 R.W. Welch Western with a different slant. Gun ges top billing but Stewart is even better. 4 stars
5/18/05 tatum Perhaps the greatest western ever made 5 stars
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  DVD: 06-May-2003



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