Winchester '73 Review

Trace a line through the early stages of Anthony Mann’s career and you’ll notice that it grows ever darker. The breezier likes of taut little thriller Two O’Clock Courage give way to the key noirs, T-Men and Raw Deal amongst them, and then we get to the brooding Westerns, arguably his finest achievements. Keeping this trajectory in mind, we’re able to approach Winchester ’73 with certain expectations. Despite being his first Western, Mann nonetheless transposes noir-ish elements into the genre thereby creating a continuity with his late forties’ efforts. Moreover, James Stewart arrives to initiate a lengthy period of collaboration with the director having recently mined dark territory with the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope; in the eleven years since his previous Western, 1939’s Destry Rides Again, Stewart’s become an actor more willing to deal with inner complexities.

As such Mann doesn’t have to work too hard to get us where we need to be. He simply throws us into the action and lets such associations do the work. The use of noir, as well as more archetypal genre modes – the chase movie and the revenge flick – means that even if we’re not too aware of this grounding, we’re still able to find our feet. Moreover, his Western landscape is a well-known one: Wyatt Earp appears in the first act whilst there are reference to General Custer, Gettysburg and Buffalo Bill, each of which prompts the necessary subconscious associations. Indeed, Mann makes light work of setting up his drama – all we need truly concentrate on is the plot itself.

Though ostensibly a tale of its titular rifle (“An Indian would sell his soul to own one,” or so we are told), such a description is incredibly loose. Indeed, place a similar idea in the hands of a different director and the results would bear little similarity. (Consider the various thematic anthology/portmanteau pictures which work along similar lines, Paris vu par, say, or the Ten Minutes Older… efforts, and this becomes clear.) Rather the weapon is merely Mann’s starting point: it’s the prize in a July 4th shooting contest won by Stewart and stolen by Stephen McNally; the pair have an undisclosed history which is eventually resolved once the rifle has swapped various hands.

Again following suit from his brisk early thrillers and noirs, Man tells this tale using only the essentials. The entire shooting contest is rendered as a masterful set piece and the rest of the film is treated likewise. Every scene is key to the drama. Everyone who appears is a character as different paths cross and intersect (from the card sharp Indian trader to Charles Drake’s cowardly everyman). Every situation is soaked in tension. Indeed, Winchester ’73 burns with a fierce intensity as it rattles through its scenes, each one told in the most laconic of fashions, yet also with a curtness and sharpness of wit that allows it to keep a twinkle in its eye.

Of course, those speaking such dialogue contribute much to this and it has to be said that Winchester ’73’s casting is little short of impressive. Stewart truly comes of age with this picture, allowing himself to get in touch with his darker side (though he’s still “nice people” as Shelley Winter’s prostitute has it), a move that would hold him in good stead for his later works with Mann not to mention the key Hitchcock collaborations, Rear Window and Vertigo. Elsewhere we have Dan Duryea being typically dandy, but mean with it as though his pimp from Scarlet Street has stepped back in time and become handy with a six-shooter; early appearances from Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis (the latter especially fresh faced and credited as “Anthony”); and a whole host of old reliables from Winters and McNally to the likes of Will Geer, a favourite of Western aficionados. In fact, reliability is the key phrase here as it applies perfectly to Winchester ’73 as a whole; it’s exactly the kind of picture to wallow in time and again – indeed, any time you want 90 minutes worth of perfect entertainment.

The Disc

Though perhaps not in the same league as the presentation Universal have given their other Mann-Stewart Western, Bend of the River, Winchester ’73 still looks serviceable on disc. We get the film in its original Academy ratio and with mono soundtrack (rendered as DD2.0), but then we also have to contend with some intermittent damage and the occasional, highly noticeable grain. Yet given that such instances only appear from time to time, such flaws are easily overlooked even if the film is perhaps deserving of a little better. (It’s also worth noting that focus is also somewhat variable during certain shots, though this may very well be the result of the filming process as opposed to any problems with either the print or the disc’s mastering.) As for the soundtrack, this is likewise generally fine. There are moderate levels of distortion at times, especially during the ricocheting gunshots, but again this may have been inherent in the film’s production and not a result of this disc itself.

Such flaws are likely to be easily overlooked by potential buyers, however, as the ace up this disc’s sleeve is its audio commentary. Original recorded for a previous laserdisc incarnation, this track is of huge importance as it offers the insights of the late James Stewart himself. Initially, the piece comes across as a little strange given that commentaries have since evolved into slicker affairs; here we get an extended interview of a kind that we’re perhaps not used to. Indeed, Stewart is very formal as he only answers the questions given to him rather than go off on his own paths. That said, his answers are lengthy, considered and absolutely fascinating, thereby offering insights into everything from Mann’s working methods to the acting qualities of a young Rock Hudson. All in all, a great listen and one given an added poignancy – but therefore also a vitality – as Stewart is no longer with us. The package is rounded off with Winchester ’73’s original theatrical trailer.

Unlike the main feature, both extras come without optional English subtitles.

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