Saturday, June 5, 2010

Winchester '73

Winchester '73, 1950
Dir: Anthony Mann

This has to be on of the best genre films ever made.
This film shows Mann's abilities, much more so than Side Street (1950), to depict a large cast of complex and fleshed-out characters. Indeed, this will remind one of those multiple connecting story line narratives that are so popular in modern cinema, but Mann handles it in manner that is far more gentle than Paul Thomas Anderson, or whoever else specializes in such pictures nowadays.

Lin McAdam (Jimmy Stewart) has been trying to track down his brother (Steve McNally) for some time now. He is not on friendly terms with him though, because he killed their father. To make things worse, he shot him in the back. Finally, Lin catches up with him in Dodge City, but neither of them has guns because Marshall Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) makes sure no one has weapons while in the city. Both participate in a shooting contest, and Lin emerges victorious and his prize is a Winchester ’73, a one-of-a-kind rifle. His brother, who now goes by the name of Dutch Henry Brown, steals the rifle and quickly escapes out of town. Lin’s interest lie more in capturing his brother than it does in retrieving in the gun, but the story of the movie quickly shifts to that of the gun, which is passed through multiple characters, all of whom are in close contact with Lin. Two of them, Indian Trader Joe Lamont (John McIntire) and Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea) are out-of-this world awesome for the duration of the time they are given. The entire mood of the film is also shadowed by the arrival of the news of Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn, which gives the local Indians, led by Young Bull (Rock Hudson), more reason to be aggressive.

There is certain type of dramatic predictability that goes hand-in-hand with these connecting story line sort of films, but whatever it is, Mann stays clear of it. It is astonishing to think that this was marketed as a conventional action movie in 1950, especially when modern audiences would most likely give up as soon as the camera strayed from Jimmy Stewart, who, by the way, delivers a great performance here. I’d go so far as to say that he was really a great performer with an ability to imply a certain depth not present in the scripts of these sorts of films. Of course, much credit goes to Mann as well, who labored over this stock script and transformed it into the cinematic masterpiece it is.

The way in which Mann implies that something much more important and emotional is going on underneath the obvious drama is one of the highlights for me. The condition of these characters compliments the dramatic arc, which makes them all the more difficult to notice. The cinematography here doesn’t have the benefit of being widescreen or being in color, but it is absolutely gorgeous. The visuals have the same sort of clarity and beauty found in many of Mikio Naruse’s films of the same time. In a way, Mann is somewhat of America’s answer to Naruse. Both filmmakers create something underneath the simple surface drama, and that is what makes their work so appealing.

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