Friday 30 March 2012

1,001 Films: "Winchester 73" (1950)

Winchester 73 is a rare Western in which the guns aren't regarded so much as tools of the trade as they are accursed killing machines. Civil War veteran James Stewart rides into Dodge for a shooting contest, and duels with rival Stephen McNally over the top prize: a limited-edition Winchester rifle. Stewart wins the contest, but McNally later jumps him in his hotel room and makes off with the weapon. As the former tracks his quarry through the old country, the gun passes between characters entirely out for themselves: to an arms dealer prepared to sell his stock only for the right (inflated) price; to Indians who aren't the peaceful, put-upon sages of Western lore, but bloodthirsty warriors who've picked up everything they know about killing from the white man; to a groom prepared to leave new bride Shelley Winters behind him (a cynic might add: with good cause); to Dan Duryea as a giggling psychopath who uses his cohorts as human shields while making his escape; and finally - as we come full circle - back to Stewart as a sorrier man than before.

Innovative in its structure - Stewart, the nominal star, is off-screen following cold trails for long stretches - the film isn't shy about dropping names to remind us this venal West is the same world inhabited by such "heroes" as Wyatt Earp and General Custer. The director, Anthony Mann, keeps up the action to offset any preachiness, and to help us overlook how from the opening contest onwards - actually a tie that only properly gets resolved in an unusually protracted last-reel shootout - the film is constructed as a series of stalemates. Characters keep on firing until there are no bullets left in the chamber; stand-offs prevail until there are no men left standing. Even Stewart (whom Winters greets at one point with the immortal "hello, nice people") finally succumbs to this murderous madness, turning against his own brother, driven to pursue a long-standing grudge to the ends of the earth and back.

Winchester 73 is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

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