Alongside Fox's "The Gunfighter" (1950) Universal International's WINCHESTER '73 - made the same year - is generally held to be the first of the more mature and adult type westerns that began to emerge from Hollywood in the fifties. Here was the template for the style and approach the studios would now adapt from then on when producing westerns. Produced for the studio by Aaron Rosenberg WINCHESTER '73, from a story by Stuart N.Lake, was beautifully written for the screen by Robert L.Richards and Borden Chase. Genius cinematographer William Daniels shot the picture in luminous Black & White and the masterful direction was by Anthony Mann. Although MGM's "Devil's Doorway" (1950) was Mann's first western WINCHESTER '73 is regarded as his masterpiece. It was also his first picture with James Stewart with whom he would have a very fruitful working relationship throughout the fifties. They made eight films together of which six were westerns including the brilliant "Naked Spur" (1953) and "The Far Country" (1955).
In WINCHESTER '73 Stewart plays Lyn McAdam who arrives in Dodge City hot on the trail of one Dutch Henry Brown - the man who shot and killed his father. Taking place in the town is a sharp shooting contest which McAdam knows Brown will be present to compete in. They both enter the competition and in an exciting finale McAdam wins the top prize of a spanking new Winchester rifle - the "one in a thousand". Brown, the bitter runner-up snarls "That's too much gun for a man to win just for shootin' rabbits" Later Brown with his two cohorts (Steve Brodie and James Milican) waylay McAdam in his hotel room and steal the rifle. On his trail again the notorious gun goes from Brown to unscrupulous Indian trader (John McIntire), to an Indian chief on the warpath (Rock Hudson), to a cut-throat outlaw (Dan Duryea) and finally back to Dutch Henry who, as it turns out, is McAdam's wayward brother Matthew. The picture ends in a terrific chase sequence culminating in a well staged shootout between the two siblings in a rocky terrain ( The bullets ricocheting off the rocks in this sequence is a brilliant special effect and is quite extraordinary!). Finally McAdam kills Matthew and regains possession of the prized rifle.
With an excellent cast - performances are outstanding. Stewart of course is great! That gangly ah shucks persona is as ever appealing. An engaging characterization the actor would maintain and reuse in all of his westerns along with the same sweat stained Stetson. With WINCHESTER '73 he would join the pantheon of iconic western heroes alongside Wayne, Cooper, Scott, McCrea, Fonda and Ford. Stephen McNally too is exceptional as the evil brother and Shelly Winters was never better in the female lead. But a revelation is Dan Duryea as a wild and slightly loony killer with the cracker of a name - Waco Johnnie Dean. Affecting a creepy effeminate snigger and demeanour he steals every scene he's in as the sly and giggling gunman. The supporting cast are also wonderful - character actors such as J.C. Flippen (a Mann favourite), Charles Drake as a coward, Will Geer as an aging Wyatt Earp and watch out for a young Tony Curtis as a cavalry trooper.
The picture also has a terrific score but there is no composer credit. The soundtrack, supervised and directed by Universal's head of music Joseph Gerhenson, was made up of stock music from a plethora of composers including Frank Skinner, Hans Salter, Julius Styne and a host of others.
WINCHESTER '73 is one of the finest westerns ever made. It is arguably Anthony Mann's greatest achievement and stands proudly with other great fifties westerns that never wane in their appeal. WINCHESTER '73 - the coming of age of the American western!