This first collaborative effort between director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart is a must for anyone who wants to understand the latter’s evolution from the droll figure of Harvey and It’s a Wonderful Life to a personage capable of the depths of racking psychological despair he evinced in Vertigo. Here, he plays a charismatic but grim and singleminded sharpshooter whose life is narrowly defined by his hunt for a sort of doppelganger — the smug, black-hatted criminal who killed his father. The title refers to a rare specimen of Winchester rifle, so snugly and exactly assembled that its very existence is a perfect accident that occurs only once in every thousand guns produced. This weapon is the prize in a bravura shooting contest that takes place less than 20 minutes into the film, and it becomes the focus of the story. The narrative doesn’t always follow Stewart, but Stewart is always following the gun, which he knows will eventually lead him to his arch-nemesis.
Winchester ’73 may be the first of the latter-day westerns, perhaps exemplified by The Searchers, that deliberately attempt to elevate the genre. It’s bound up in conventions that today seem cruel or tedious, like the Indian chief portrayed by Rock Hudson (!), who manages to act both dorky and savage. But, probably working under the influence of his own down-and-dirty films noirs, Mann adds a layer of dark complexity to familiar character types. Still, it’s best read as a pure, unpretentious western, celebrating bedrock American values and serving up action in wide open American spaces; in that, it functions like a well-calibrated rifle. The highlights are the tense, funny opening scenes in Dodge City; a showdown between an encircled cavalry unit and a riotous pack of determined Indians that begins with a galvanizing chase sequence as a pair of unwitting travelers are herded into the trap; and a final confrontation on the rocks that boasts sharp dialogue, psychological gamesmanship, and startling deep-focus cinematography. The film drifts a little during some detours along the way – one of which pits spitfire dancehall girl Shelley Winters against strutting outlaw Dan Duryea, who’s holding her captive in a house under siege by the law.
If the narrative is a bit fragmented, Stewart has the job of holding the film together. Far from his genial western turn as Tom Destry Jr., his performance here is tinged, slightly and skillfully, with desperation and dementia. It’s the work of a great actor discovering a new boldness inside, learning how to bring audiences willingly to ever-darker places found within the cavernous labyrinthine mythology of the American Everyman.