The first of five films to team director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart, Winchester ’73 (1950) begins with Lin McAdam (Stewart) and “High-Spade” Wilson (Millard Mitchell) tracking killer Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) into Dodge City, Kansas, arriving in time for the centennial July 4th “rifle shoot,” where the eponymous rifle is first prize. The centennial celebration allows Mann and screenwriter Borden Chase to weave several strands through this nearly twenty minute set-piece sequence: Over a shot of the prize rifle nestled safely in a window display, a superimposed text declares it “the gun that won the west“–an object lesson, as it changes hands throughout the film, in the uses and abuses of violence. The rivalry between McAdam and Brown is quickly sketched in, using the shooting contest as pretext, their constant needling of each other threatens several time to erupt into violence, kept in check only by having to hand over their six-guns when they enter town.
Stewart’s protagonist, Lin McAdam, sets the pattern for subsequent films–haunted by past violence, bent on revenge, hard-edged yet not immune to the tender mercies of a good woman (here, Shelley Winters‘ Lola, the “dance hall gal”). A word, also, about Mann’s female leads: Surrounded by violence, often romantically attached to violent men, and frequently their victims (wounded, never killed), these women present a stark contrast to the starched, upright matrons found in all-too-many Westerns (they are never too good, merely goodish). Ultimately, though, they do not radically depart from the genre’s paradigmatic female function–to provide the protagonist a measure of “redemption” after his “regeneration through violence” (a structure pervasive across the Western genre).
The rivalry between McAdam and Brown turns out, by film’s end, to be a fraternal one, the crime for which Lin stalks Brown patricide. Taking his thematic cue here from the biblical story of Cain and Abel, Mann would look as well to tragedy–both classical and Shakespearean–for inspiration, frequently mashing up the two to novel effect (see The Man from Laramie below).
Third in the series, and the second filmed in Technicolor, The Naked Spur (1953) opens with Stewart’s Howard Kemp running across grizzled prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) while on the trail of escaped killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). Kemp does nothing to disabuse the older man when he assumes Kemp’s a lawman, recruiting him to help corner Ben atop a rocky bluff. (Mann loves these high/low confrontations between antagonists, the rockier the better–it recurs in practically every Western he directed.)
Held at bay by several rock-slides Ben triggers, Kemp and Jesse finally triangulate a successful assault on Ben’s redoubt only when cavalryman Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) turns up to lend a hand. But the trouble’s just getting started, unexpected complications follow–Kemp and Jesse soon discover that Ben’s not alone, having dragged young Lina (Janet Leigh) along as a girl Friday; turns out Roy has been dishonorably discharged for being “morally unstable.”
On the trail to Kansas to claim the reward money on Ben, which they intend to split three ways, the trio must contend with unfriendly Indians (hardly “savages,” they’re after Roy for some unwanted hanky-panky with the chief’s daughter), as well as Ben’s psychological manipulations–pitting each man against the rest, a divide-and-conquer strategy that’s hazardously successful.
Filmed around Durango, Colorado, Mann uses the stark natural beauty of the landscape to his advantage–the lush natural beauty contrasts sharply with the growing distrust each of the characters feels for the others, until things come to a head when the band takes shelter from the elements in a cave. Ben sics Lina’s feminine charms on Kemp, while he tries to make his escape via a back entrance.
Mann stages the final showdown around another rock outcropping and a raging river. Ben takes the high ground again, leaving Jesse’s shotgunned body sprawled across the rocks as bait. It’s a virtual reprise of the opening scenes, only this time Roy stands in for Jesse, drawing Ben’s fire, while Kemp scales the sheer rock-face, using his spur as a piton. (Not the only use it’ll be put to, the spur earns its title-worthy status in a nasty little bit of business.)
The Man from Laramie (1955), the fifth and final Western teaming Mann and Stewart, was the first filmed in CinemaScope. Mann found ways to maximize the widescreen format’s formal advantages: playing up broad open-air vistas and using carefully balanced compositions, rigorous geometrical configurations, for the interior scenes, in other words emphasizing the pure horizontality of the frame.
For instance, when Stewart’s Will Lockhart marches across Coronado’s central plaza to confront spoiled scion Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol), the camera dollies back in front of Stewart, the open expanses on either side of him highlight his social isolation and dogged opposition to Waggoman domination.
As discussed above, Mann targets classical and Shakespearean tragedy for his thematic and narrative structure, lifting and rearranging elements like so many building blocks: Alec Waggoman’s (Donald Crisp) resolve to bequeath his empire to an ungrateful, spiteful child derives from King Lear, and his single-minded determination to find the source of his own betrayal, as well as his resultant blindness, stems directly from Sophocles’ Oedipus plays.
The violence in the film is stern stuff, often sadistic in nature, and parodies unforgiving biblical-based justice/vengeance–as when Dave shoots Lockhart’s hand at point blank range, inflicting an overblown “eye for an eye” punishment on him for wounds suffered in a sneak attack. Or, earlier, when he burns Lockhart’s wagons and shoots his mules in “compensation” for trespassing upon the Waggoman salt flats.
Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell) represents something of an exception to the “Mann woman”: associated with mercantile goods “from the East,” she’s closer in type and tone to the Woman as Civilization standard throughout the genre. But the differences are telling: Her conflicted feelings for Lockhart and Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) are more psychologized, and more finely rendered, than in many another instance. And it’s true that Lockhart at film’s end rides off into the distance–though the possibility for future romantic involvement between the two is left open and viable. Scenes between O’Donnell and Stewart may threaten to tip into the sentimental, but ultimately her function within the narrative economy is to establish yet another layer of dissimulation and betrayal, when in the final act Vic is revealed to be the film’s true antagonist, more calculated and cunning in his deceptions than the impulsive, dim Dave Waggoman.
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