Director: Anthony Mann | Producer: Aaron Rosenberg | Editor: Edward Curtiss| Screenplay: Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase| Story: Stuart N. Lake | Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1950 | Running Time: 92 min.
Principal Cast: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Stephan McNally, Millard Mitchell, Rock Hudson, Anthony Curtis
The Western has long been a staple of Hollywood storytelling with films involving cowboys and Indians going back it’s earliest days however by the mid-1940s, its popularity had apparently past. 1950’s Winchester ’73 would renew interest in the Western with its new way of looking at the genre, and as a result usher in the beginning of the modern western.
The first of several classic collaborations between actor James Stewart and director Anthony Mann, the film both summarized the Western genre up to that point and managed to reenergize it at the same time. It’s episodic story-line, developed by Mann, working with writer Borden Chase, incorporated many of the stock situations and characters that had become well known in westerns up to that time including a shoot-out, a runaway carriage, a poker game, a bank robbery, and Indians attacking a cavalry. The difference in the film comes from the addition of a new level of inner psychology to the characters.
The story that would evolve into Winchester ’73 had been floating around Universal as a project for several years in the late 1940s. Originally attached to direct the film was Fritz Lang who was famous for westerns like The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941). The project got its star, James Stewart, as the result of a two-picture agreement that had been made with Universal, in which the actor would be given a percentage of the film’s profits, rather than being paid his regular salary or a flat fee. It was a deal ultimately proved lucrative for Stewart as some modern sources estimate that he received $500,000 as a result of the box-office success of Winchester ’73.
After Lang backed out, it was Stewart who suggested that Mann direct the picture after seeing his work on the M-G-M film, Devil’s Doorway (1950). The move would begin a successful Stewart and Mann partnership as the two would go on to work together on a total eight films. One of the first things that Mann did upon taking over was to bring in screenwriter Borden Chase to re-write the existing screenplay by Robert L. Richards. Chase had just had a great success co-writing the screenplay to Howard Hawks’ classic western Red River (1948).
Stewart, Mann and Chase were very conscious of the fact that Stewart’s character, McAdam, was a clear break from the sort of hero the actor was previously associated with, especially in comparison with his previous westerns like Destry Rides Again (1939) which had been released a decade earlier. In Winchester ’73 Stewart plays a morally ambiguous hero that is driven by revenge to the point of psychosis. The audience is introduced to the new type of hero in the moment that McAdam confronts Dan Duryea’s character in a saloon, smashing his face down onto the bar. The scene helped to silence earlier ridiculing from the press at the idea of James Stewart, the “thin man,” playing a tough westerner. Chase was later quoted:
When the picture was given a sneak preview, there had even been some titters in the audience at seeing Stewart’s name in the opening titles of a western. But once he smashed Duryea in that bar, there would be no more snickering.
Shelley Winters was worried upon finding out that both she and Stewart thought that their best-photographed side was their left side, but she found that Stewart would yield in their close-ups. As she later said,
A couple of Left Profiles don’t make for a convincing love scene when the two of them are staring off in the same direction. Since he was the star… I knew who’d be told to turn right. I couldn’t have been more wrong. One morning Tony Mann came to me and said that Jimmy wanted me to be shot from the left because he knew that the whole thing was making me anxious. Naturally, Jimmy never said a word to me directly.
While she gave an excellent performance in the film, Winters evidently didn’t think much of the role, later commenting:
Here you’ve got all these men… running around to get their hands on this goddam rifle instead of going after a beautiful blonde like me. What does that tell you about the values of that picture? If I hadn’t been in it, would anybody have noticed?
The film received almost universal praise, in particular for Stewart’s performance and the new “maturity” in his acting style. In 1952, Stewart was named the winner of the third annual Reno Silver Spurs award as best Western actor of 1951 for his performance in the film. The film was also named best Western film with Anthony Mann being named best Western director. Mann himself later said that the film: “…was one of my biggest successes. And it’s also my favorite western. The gun which passed from hand to hand allowed me to embrace a whole epoch, a whole atmosphere. I really believe that it contains all the ingredients of the western, and that it summarizes them.”
Winchester ’73 changed the way audiences saw the Western as it forced them to confront the idea of the noble hero of the west, as a man besieged by personal problems, violent and even psychotic, an idea that became increasingly prevalent in American film from Winchester ’73 onward.
Some Interesting Trivia:
In the famous scene where James Stewart shoots a bullet through the washer with the postage stamp…that is not Hollywood magic. The shot is performed successfully by renowned marksman Herb Parsons.
Winchester ’73 was the last film which Tony Curtis was billing as “Anthony Curtis.” Beginning with his next film, Kansas Raiders (1950), his billing became the Tony Curtis most audiences know him as.
The horse used by James Stewart in the film was named Pie and by the end of filming he had became very fond of the horse but when he tried to purchase him, the company that supplied the horse refused to sell him. Still Pie was available to Stewart for every western he made for the next twenty years.
For Further Reading:
Dewey, Donald. James Stewart: A Biography. Atlanta, Ga.: Time Warner Publications. 1996.
Horton, Robert. “Mann & Stewart: Two Rode Together.” Film Comment. March 1990; 26(2), 40-47.