In 1950, the Academy ratio (1.37:1) was still the norm in Hollywood cinema, although wider image formats were just around the corner. Filmmakers could use the traditional film frame in any number of ways, but in contrast to today’s familiar widescreen images, the old style often emphasized vertical space while blinkering horizontal space. In other words, a sense of confinement can be deliberate, even if the lion’s share of a movie is set outdoors. So it is with Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73, a crucial entry in the western genre. While the film is a veritable omnibus of classic western scenarios, following a prize rifle from owner to owner, a unifying visual motif sees characters trapped or surrounded. The story is about a mad scramble for unclaimed power, with each character who attains it becoming the next target. The script, by Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase, employs historical context to paint the events into the larger story of the brutal American West.
The first moments of confinement happen right away, as two riders, glimpsed on a distant hill in the opening credits, find themselves in Wyatt Earp’s Dodge City for a Centennial celebration. One of them, James Stewart’s Lin McAdam, is also on the hunt for a killer (played by Stephen McNally). They find each other, but neither is armed, as Earp (Will Geer) has confiscated their guns. So they both enter a marksmanship contest to win the famed 1873 model of the Winchester repeating rifle, as the first step in a duel that will last the whole film. The contest is a constricting affair, with each man exhibiting airtight accuracy. McAdam emerges victorious, but the killer, who calls himself Dutch Henry Brown, later ambushes him in his room and steals the rifle. From there, Brown and his men head to an isolated bar, where they find a gun trader. The claustrophobia becomes more literal here, the men hunkered down in hostile territory, surrounded by guns not their own. Brown hesitates to trade his unloaded Winchester for more useful weapons, but he ultimately relents when the trader (John McIntire) hustles him out of all his cash in a poker game. So they go on their way, and the rifle stays.
With news of the Battle of Little Bighorn giving everyone ideas, the gun next passes to an aggressive party of Native Americans. In the film’s middle section, even the barren vistas of the Great Plains become a trap. McAdam and his partner Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) are set upon as they ride at night, but they find a small squad of U.S. soldiers at the base of a hill and take cover. The soldiers are outnumbered and ill-prepared to fight the unnamed tribe. Luckily, McAdam has the experience not only to see them through the night, but to supply a cunning strategy for the inevitable battle as well. Upon surviving, he rides off without seeing the Winchester, which gets passed off to someone else yet again.
Here’s where things get really interesting. The third-highest billing in the film’s cast belongs to Dan Duryea, whose character doesn’t make his entrance until an hour into the movie. Playing another outlaw named Waco Johnny Dean, he finds his way into a house occupied by Lola (Shelley Winters) and Steve (Charles Drake), characters who have already weaved in and out of the story a number of times. Steve is the current steward of the rifle, but Dean has his eye on it. A posse surrounds the house, but Dean won’t budge without a fight. The posse decides that setting fire to the house is the surest strategy, so the air that had already grown thin inside the house becomes unbearable. Dean takes the gun and manages to escape to parts unknown, but being that this is a ninety-minute movie that has established an overarching narrative, the destination is of course Dutch Henry Brown’s gang. Later, McAdam finds Dean and forces him to reveal Brown’s location. The last claustrophobic moment is also the best: the final showdown between McAdam and his nemesis, out in the wilderness alone, jockeying for the high ground among jagged rocks. Both are well-armed this time, and they spend what feels like an eternity just barely missing each other, with screaming reports cratering the landscape.
Throughout the film, cinematographer William Daniels employs low angle shots and high horizon lines to amplify the pressure on desperate men in an unromanticized frontier. His and Mann’s experience on films noir lend the traditionally open genre trappings a sense of nocturnal menace. The casting of Stewart, on the cusp of one of the finest decades any film actor could ever boast, was immeasurably fortuitous. As written, his character is already an ambiguous hero (hardly a revolutionary step for the genre at this point), but Stewart gives him a curdling rage and despair that finally boils over at the end. For McAdam, violence is a pained necessity, the after-effects of past trauma. There is a sense of suffering even to the way he snaps the rifle into position to fire.
A whole lot of thematic exegesis is possible with this film, not only due to those historical references, but also because of that last name, McAdam, and the full truth about the hero and villain that is slowly parceled out. Anthony Mann was anything but pretentious, though. The impact of his film doesn’t come through allusions or straining for significance. At the level of form, Winchester ’73 helped usher in the era of the psychological western, a new strain of films that unmasked the American mythos and allowed the Man of the West his demons. Certain bankrupt cultural ideas are still left standing at the end of this film, but the door had been kicked open. And the film’s sober attitude toward guns is very much worthwhile today. Although CinemaScope and Technicolor would soon allow for more “realistic” views of those beautiful, desolate western landscapes, the portrait presented here still has a tale to tell.