by Allan Fish
(USA 1950 92m) DVD1/2
One of a thousand
p Aaron Rosenberg d Anthony Mann w Robert L.Richards, Borden Chase story Stuart N.Lake ph William H.Daniels ed Edward Curtiss m Frank Skinner md Joseph Gershenson art Bernard Herzbrun, Nathan Juran, Russell A.Gausman, A.Roland Fields cos Yvonne Wood
James Stewart (Lin McAdam), Shelley Winters (Lola Manners), Stephen McNally (Dutch Henry Brown), Millard Mitchell (High Spade Frankie Wilson), Charles Drake (Steve Miller), Dan Duryea (Waco Johnnie Dean), John McIntire (Joe Lamont), Will Geer (Wyatt Earp), Jay C.Flippen (Sgt.Wilkes), Rock Hudson (Young Bull), John Alexander (Jack Riker), Steve Brodie (Wesley), James Millican (Wheeler), Tony Curtis (cavalryman),
They say the rifle of the title was the most sought after there was back in the day, “the rifle that won the west” it was called. And of those rifles, just every so often, one would be made so perfect it would get its own name, the ‘one of a thousand’, and every so often one such rifle would appear for the everyday Joe to feast their eyes. The president might have one, or Buffalo Bill, or James Stewart. Stewart wasn’t new to the western when he made Winchester ’73, there had been Destry Rides Again all those years before, but on his return from the war Stewart started less to resemble an idyllic poster boy for the world of Frank Capra and more a grizzled piece of Hollywood granite, not out of place on their own equivalent of Mount Rushmore, carved in the rock above Hollywood by the sign alongside the faces of Bill Hart, Harry Carey, John Wayne and Gary Cooper. This was the film that set him on that path of great westerns of the fifties, all directed by the long underrated giant who made this, the first. Anthony Mann had already carved himself out a niche as a master of low budget film noir and his segue into the west was seamless, as smooth as the inside of a Winchester barrel.
Stewart’s Lin McAdam is on the trail of his brother, Matthew, a renegade who killed their father by shooting him in the back. On the trail he stops off in Dodge City where he puts his name forward to win the eponymous Winchester in a rifle shooting competition, not realising that his brother will be his main rival, now operating under the name of Dutch Henry Brown. Lin wins the rifle, his brother steals it and then hotfoots it out of Dodge, leaving Lin and his friend, High Spade, to go after him. Dutch Henry, however, had to leave town in a hurry and didn’t have time to get his guns from marshal Wyatt Earp, so he’s forced to buy some from a lowlife Indian trader who also cons him out of his stolen Winchester for his trouble. The trader is then killed by the Indians, the chief of whom takes the gun as his own…and so it goes on, passing from there, through several more hands before finally returning to its rightful owner.
If one were to watch Winchester after one of Mann’s noirs, one could see a natural progression. D.P. Bill Daniels was familiar with noir, having shot Dassin’s Brute Force and The Naked City, and if chiefly remembered as Garbo’s premier gloss-merchant, he was also a master of photographing the wide open western landscapes, in the tradition of Arthur Miller and Joe MacDonald. Yet it’s more than the photography, for in actual fact much of the film takes place in daylight (certainly compared to the heavily shadowed next Mann effort, The Furies), it’s more that sense of mood, a sense of a country finding its identity after the Civil War. The rifle itself is basically a McGuffin, a valuable item passed from one to another in much the same way as the earrings in Ophuls’ Madame de…, but one can see the hunger in the eyes of those who seek it. And while Stewart was a revelation in the lead (at the time), let’s not forget Duryea’s typical sneer, McNally’s career best bastard, Brodie as his sidekick who could very well be his Out of the Past gumshoe taken back seventy years, Mitchell’s wonderfully laconic High Spade, McIntire’s gun runner, Flippen’s grizzled cavalryman, even Geer’s jovial cameo as Earp. Chuck in a bit from a young kid from the Bronx, the gleam in Shelley Winters’ eye and the Rock as an Indian chief. A spicy western stew, serves as many as you like.