Winchester ’73 (1950) Directed by Anthony Mann
Anthony Mann’s first western collaboration with James Stewart proves to be an adventurous reformulation of the classic myths of the old American West as seen through a gritty revisionist lens. It evokes all that is best in this splendorous genre, the quintessential American genre, yet conspicuously the atmosphere of its folklore has evolved from classic to modern. This transformation is foreshadowed in the complicity of its characters, dubious in morality and merciless in vengeance, proliferating a flavor more of pessimism in its glorious landscapes than of heroism. Winchester ’73 does not demystify the conventional lyricism of the classic westerns that precede it, but rather adapts, and transposes, the exaltation of the dangers and romances of the American scenery to a contemporary consciousness.
An atypical James Stewart plays Lin McAdam, a man determined to satiate his vengeance in pursuit of the sleazy, vicious and mysterious gunman, Henry “Dutch Henry” Brown, played with cunning and vile gusto by Stephen McNally. Although the characters are presented in the story with intimidating gifts of complexities, the plot gives a major center stage to the unique and beautiful weapon of this film’s title. This Winchester 1873 rifle is loved by any good gunfighter, it is longed for by any connoisseur, it does not discriminate social barriers, owning this rifle is an ecstasy of inexplicable power. Lin McAdam, thanks to his impeccable skills maneuvering the rifle, wins a shooting contest where the special prize is that rare Winchester 1873. However, his nemesis, Dutch Henry, cowardly steals his valuable prize; now Lin McAdam’s fury has not one but two reasons to consummate his revenge. The story, shot in a melancholy monochrome contrasting psychological expressionism, unfolds with zero uniformity. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing for its nuanced storytelling, yet its fragmented form feels continuous thanks to the prominent role given to an inanimate object as simple as a rifle.
The Winchester 1873 rifle seems to be as enigmatic as Charles Foster Kane’s last words before his death. As Max Ophuls would do in his opulent The Earrings of Madame de… (1953), Anthony Mann uses instead of earrings a rifle to transport us in the same space-time unit of distant characters but linked by the same consequences of this object. The universal sense provided by this tempting rifle is that of a growing allegory to the reality of the characters who temporarily own it. Between aggressive duels, violent battles against Native Americans and utopian ambitions, the reality that overwhelms and seduces the characters in Winchester ’73 is that of a paroxysm of masculine pride. Discovering that each character has an internal battle to prove, flaunting his gallantry is legitimately the most exquisite factor that makes this western a raw reinterpretation of the misconception of the American hero.
Amorality becomes compulsively vivid. That’s when Mann makes his objectives legible as the conductor of this compendious revenge story. The James Stewart and Stephen McNally confrontations are transcendent for suggesting something more anti-romantic to the dramatic mores of the genre; the gestures, anger and vehemence defy Western morality. The wild occurrences in the plot, function as oscillations of dialectical emotions, as for example, the voluptuous femininity of Shelley Winters in the midst of the irrepressible macho rivalry establishes for curious, delicate moments, an aura of stability and composure, in others, eroticism and audacity. This is how Anthony Mann’s supreme cinema plays at being an unpredictable yin and yang, modesty and exaggeration, humility and arrogance.
The legends transposed into pictorial cinematic eloquence in Winchester ’73 are the apothegm of a new revisionist period.