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The beginning of a beautifully twisted friendship: James Stewart in Anthony Mann's Winchester ’73

This Gun for Ire

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When it comes to popular star/director pairings in the Western genre, the obvious choices are either John Wayne and John Ford or (for the edgier, pro-Tarantino crowd) Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone. But people tend to forget about the successful bond James Stewart forged with director Anthony Mann back in the day.

The pair worked on eight films together, five of them being Westerns, and you could say Stewart did his most complex work with Mann. While most directors capitalized on Stewart’s Everyman appeal — Alfred Hitchcock, another frequent collaborator, seemed to take sick glee in perverting his likable image, usually having the actor play heroes with a quietly twisted side — Mann saw that he had a leading man who could also play troubled, tortured souls just as effectively.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in their first collaboration, the hit 1950 Western Winchester ’73. showing at The Belcourt this weekend as part of the Universal Pictures 100th anniversary retrospective. Stewart is all straight-faced seriousness as Lin McAdam, a weary cowboy who wins the titular rifle during a shooting competition, only to have it stolen from him by a dastardly rival (veteran tough guy Stephen McNally). He then spends most of the movie on a hunt for both the rifle and the guy who stole it.

Mann, who already had several taut, resourceful noirs under his belt, was Stewart’s choice behind the lens after Universal passed on handing over the reins to Metropolis director and famed “master of darkness” Fritz Lang. (I can’t help thinking how batshit crazy the movie might have been if Lang had directed it, with his Marlene Dietrich psycho-Western Rancho Notorious as an indicator.) Nevertheless, Mann’s vision of the West is just as dark and dangerous, as the rifle passes through various hands, becoming a weapon a choice for both cowboys and Indians (including a then-unknown Rock Hudson as a young warrior). In the middle is Stewart’s disillusioned gunslinger, a man who can convey how much horror and bloodshed he’s witnessed with just a cockeyed expression, practically going on a pilgrimage through hell to stop the gun from doing any more damage.

With Stewart in front of the camera, Mann found a perfect leading man for his Westerns, someone who could convincingly play men who still try to hold on to some semblance of honor in a treacherous, amoral world. And Stewart found a director who would let him explores the darker, more neurotic attributes of his talent. Oh yes, Winchester ’73 was definitely the beginning of a beautiful friendship — and it’s a friendship that should be remembered and celebrated more often.

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