This is Anthony Mann’s first western. It’s James Stewart’s first western. Rock Hudson and Shelley Winters get their first significant roles here and young Anthony Curtis shows enough promise to get more than two lines in each of his subsequent films.
Not many films can claim quite so many debuts as Winchester ’73 but that isn’t why it is regarded as one of the most important films of the fifties and one of the most influential westerns of all time. There are two areas where this film breaks new ground. First the cinematography; in the various ways in which a story is told pictorially. Secondly we have step change in moral certainty and predictability.
A typical TV western of the time had a single plot line, a predictable outcome and black hat/white hat moral compass. In other words we have beginning, middle and an ending that involves the good guy beating the bad guy. The audience are asked to watch, abdicate any need for ethical engagement, and enjoy the entertainment.
John Ford had disrupted this approach with Stagecoach in 1939. Essentially the good guy wins in the end but there are multiple storylines and the audience have to join a debate as to just who the good guys are. It is ravelled but it doesn’t take too much untangling. Once you realise that high social status doesn’t always equate to being a decent person, you’ve largely cracked the code.
In Winchester ’73 there is no beginning and an uncertain ending. The story had begun long before the first frame and will continue after the final credits. The audience are invited to make an imaginative journey from each of these poles. The true beginning (at least parts of it) is slowly revealed but the ending is left entirely up to the viewer. Does McAdam go off with Lola or stay with High Spade? Is his mission over? Will he be able to settle to a quiet life? Will he be tried for murder? The camera hovers over both Shelley Winters and Millard Mitchell in a teasing manner before settling on the rifle stock as a final shot. If there is a message it is that he may or may not keep/ditch the friend/girl but he’s definitely keeping the gun.
The moral uncertainties don’t relate to the bad guys. They are bad, period. There are two absolute stinkers in the film: Dan Duryea’s Waco Johnny Dean and the cold-hearted, unredeemable wickedness of Stephen McNally’s Dutch Henry Brown. The former an almost balletic portrayal of psychopathic sneering and masochistic pleasure in almost any misfortune, provided it isn’t his own. McNally plays it straighter but is actually easier to dislike. The areas of moral doubt are in the main character and his side-kick, in the treatment of women and in the treatment of Native Americans. The latter two seem to conform to the established practice of an unenlightened age. Shelley Winters is treated dreadfully by almost everyone and comes through the ordeal as a result of inner strength. What makes this film different is that we condemn what happens to her as not just wrong, but outrageously wrong, and by the stoical strength and flashes of anger that Winters displays in a remarkable performance.
Native Americans continue to be treated badly in the movie but there is at least some explanation why they are so ready to attack. It is the beginning of the movement that will seek a true telling of American history. What progress there has been can be measured by how ridiculous ( offensive even) we find the casting of a white man (Rock Hudson) as Chief Young Bull.
Today, it is easy to point out the unacceptability of having a white man play a Native American. Rightly it has become accepted as just plain wrong. We can either condemn the earlier age for its uncomfortable views on race, or thank our luck to be living at a time that has, despite continued toleration of manifest injustices, learnt to respect the right of black actors to play black roles. Let us Brits not be too virtuous about it. Our track record in England isn’t all that good. It is only in the last decade that we have seen that black actors may be considered for any Shakespearean role and not just Othello and it’s only two decades since Othello was the only role considered suitable at all. Prior to that black actors were simply not considered. In 1965 Laurence Olivier blacked up to play an entirely unconvincing Moor. Anthony Hopkins applied the Leichner Number 7 as recently as 1981 and looked and fared no better.
It still goes on. Jake Gyllenhaal is a fine actor but what is he doing as the Prince of Persia. Ridley Scott would have been lambasted for casting Anglos as Egyptians if Exodus: Gods and Kings hadn’t already been lambasted for being bloody awful. And while I’m on the subject, what is Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing aping a French accent and pretending to be a tight-rope walker when Man on Wire already exists, is a brilliant film and stars the real (Philippe Petit) man who walked between the twin towers?
Winchester ’73 introduces the morally ambiguous hero. There is no more affable fellow in the film than Lin McAdam just so long as his brother isn’t in the same room. He is an almost wholly good man. He is loyal and considerate. He bravely steps in to halt the obvious injustice of bundling a lady into a stagecoach against her wishes. He joins with the lost cause of fighting with the massively outnumbered cavalry troop and we discover that he (and High Spade) had fought bravely in defeat in the Civil War. Yet he cannot let go of his quest. One mention of Dutch Henry and his face contorts into violence and rage. The red mist descends. He is quite capable of almost any deed when in this state. And we gather that such anger is a regularly recurring state of mind. They say that when you go after vengeance you should carry two shovels: one for your victim’s grave and one for your own. McAdam’s unstoppable need for revenge results in a lot more than two deaths. There is nothing attractive, good or decent about this quest. These are Old Testament Westerns. Right and wrong depends as much on who is doing it as what is being done.
High Spade Frankie Wilson is an interesting character. At times he seems to be a calming figure and yet he has ridden with McAdam for years in this mad pursuit. He seem balanced and the exchanges between them can be fast and very funny. They both have a highly developed sense of irony and both appear to have an equally developed sense of right and wrong. Stewart’s character is doing it all to avenge his father’s memory (a father shot in the back by Matthew McAdam a.k.a. Dutch Henry) and yet the father’s contribution to parenting seems to have been to teach them both how to track and shoot and turned out a couple of killers. And yet we (rightly?) admire one of the sons and despise the other. We cannot reach this judgement without a complex moral argument with ourselves and it is in this internal debate that the greatness of the film lies.
What is High Spade’s role. In the previous post I suggested he was side-kick and psychiatric nurse. There is always a question of possible homosexuality (either spiritual or physical) when the buddy relationship is as close as this one. Neither man seems particularly interested in the beautiful woman who is making strong advances on them. Is he a platonic lover? Is he a servant? A sort of Sancho Panza to Stewart’s Don Quixote? Or is he a device for telling the story. We find out far more about McAdam from High Spade than we do from the man himself. I would suggest the answer is most of the above. If you are familiar with Anthony Mann westerns you will find the storyteller sidekick is a recurring feature and quite often the sidekick is played by Millard Mitchell.
Shelley Winters later joked that the men were so set on shooting and gaining revenge that, for all they noticed, she might as well not be in the picture. It was a joke. Without Lola this film doesn’t look forward. She is in many ways the development of the character Dallas, played so wonderfully by Claire Trevor in Stagecoach. The whore with the heart of gold. But the character has moved on. She’s both tougher and more resigned to her lot. To say she has been unlucky with men is a powerful understatement. It is no wonder that she is prepared to take a gamble on the obviously unbalanced hero.
As for cinematography. Just sit back and enjoy. Seldom will you see so many different shades in a black and white movie. And never will you see depth of focus to match this. It’s like spearing fish through fathoms of crystal water. In the vast hill country you can make out the individual hairs on a characters head while picking out the twigs on far away trees. In the city scene you can focus in on the uneven hairs of Will Geer’s moustache or pick out almost as much detail on the people standing on a distant balcony. Dialogue has an importance here but there are several sections where barely a word is spoken for whole pages of script. Mann, like Ford and Hitchcock believed in the primacy of the visual image in telling the story. I think you could watch Winchester ’73 without hearing the words and not lose too much of the glory of the film.