The first collaboration between director Mann and actor Stewart, a team that would create a series of superior westerns that added a new, psychological dimension to the genre.
WINCHESTER '73 begins as Stewart, who is pursuing his father's killer, rides into Dodge City with his friend, Mitchell. The whole town is celebrating the Fourth of July under the watchful eye of the fatherly Wyatt Earp (Geer), who collects pistols from gun-toting strangers and keeps them in his
office until they leave. Stewart enters the local saloon and orders a drink. Out of the corner of his eye he sees McNally, and both men spastically grope for their sidearms, only to find empty holsters. Stewart's nerves are frazzled by the event, and he leaves the saloon shaking. The two men
square off again, this time in a shooting contest with a brand new "one-of-1,000" Winchester '73 rifle as the first prize. The contestants are evenly matched in an intense fight, but Stewart manages to best McNally and wins the coveted rifle. Before Stewart can leave town with his prize, however,
McNally attacks him and steals the rifle. Stewart then sets off on a maniacal pursuit of McNally and his rifle which culminates in a memorable shoot-out with decidedly Oedipal overtones.
WINCHESTER '73 was the first of the so-called "psychological" westerns that became the benchmark of the genre in the 1950s. Mann and Stewart present a basically decent hero driven to the brink of madness by dark forces from his past. Played out against breathtaking landscapes that reflect the
emotional turmoil of the main characters, Mann's film gives us one of Stewart's greatest performances, his manic intensity evoking both terror and pathos. The supporting cast is fine, with both Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson appearing in small roles.
WINCHESTER '73 was once a project for Fritz Lang, who worked on the script with Silvia Richards in 1948. Lang eventually walked away from the film, and Mann took over at Stewart's suggestion. Beginning a collaboration that would last through two more westerns (BEND OF THE RIVER, 1952, and THE FAR
COUNTRY, 1955), Mann rewrote the script with Borden Chase. WINCHESTER '73 was a great success at the box office and reestablished Stewart (who was suffering a decline in popularity) as one of Hollywood's top actors. In addition to providing both star and director with a career boost, the film
launched a whole new series of adult westerns directed by such notables as Mann, Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel, Sam Fuller, and Nicholas Ray.
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