WINCHESTER ’73—hot-damn cowboy action! Blazing away for 92 minutes with bare pauses for breath, the story begins on July 4th,1876, with a shootin’ match for the title rifle. James Stewart wins it, but he doesn’t get to keep it long, least not until he tracks the beaut down. The Winchester changes hands eight times in flavorful, witty vignettes that culminate in a boulder-strewn long-range duel that give ricochet sounds their moment of zen.
Anthony Mann’s locomotive direction propels a great script through a score of vivid gunfights, honed by William Daniels sharp cinematography and the outstanding sound effects crew.
A great supporting cast of rogues is led by Dan Duryea, having a helluva good time as ‘Waco Johnny Dean’, a giggling gunslinger mean enough to give ‘Liberty Valance’ a run. Stephen McNally runs a close second as another angelic type, ‘Dutch Henry Brown’.
A couple of Universal’s budding contract players show up for target practice: Rock Hudson as an Indian chief, and Tony Curtis as a soldier. Stewart draws the lines on his saddle persona, one he’d weather into over fifteen westerns between this 1950 classic and The Shootist, 26 grizzled years later. He’d done only one in the genre, the classic Destry Rides Again, eleven years earlier, but that was still Nice Jimmy, pre-war gawky at 31. Here, at 42, he’s lean and tough, his explosive bursts of violence a bracing tonic to the amiable Stewart audiences were used to.
Director Mann dropped the kid gloves with his stylings and keenly locked in on Stewart’s flip-side potential. They did seven more films together, four of them well-regarded westerns.*
This bullseye’d good business, 35th for the year, grossing $6,400, 000. Regarded as a classic, it also features Shelley Winters and a gallery of familiar faces: Millard Mitchell, Charles Drake, Will Geer, Jay C.Flippen, John McIntire, James Millican, Steve Brodie, Ray Teal, Abner Biberman, John Doucette, James Best and Denver Pyle. Remade (not well) for TV in 1967.
*Mann also helmed two more superior, overlooked westerns that same year: The Furies and Devil’s Doorway. 1950 was a major shift for the genre into stronger and darker territory, with a terrific lineup: The Gunfighter, Two Flags West, Broken Arrow, Wagon Master, Rio Grande and Rocky Mountain. For Stewart, this broke a losing streak at the box-office, revitalizing his career; he also changed the industry by being the first actor to take a percentage deal on the profits in lieu of a big salary. His gamble on this tough cookie and Mann’s handling of it not only had him end up with more than $600,000 in his jeans but set the marker for other performers in taking more control of their working life from the not-always benevolent studio tyrants. Fans know that Mann-Stewart followed this with Bend Of The River, The Naked Spur, The Man From Laramie and The Far Country, as well as Thunder Bay, The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command.