17 October 2005 | theowinthrop
The Travels of a Magnificent Rifle
In 1942 a film TALES OF MANHATTAN told a set of stories that were basically unrelated, but tied together with a suit of men's evening wear. Each story began when the "tails" were passed from one owner (Charles Boyer, for instance) to another (Ceasar Romero). WINCHESTER '73, a superior film, and a great western, has a similar plot twist. Initially it is about how Jimmy Stewart is seeking Stephen (Horace) MacMahon for some deadly grudge. But in the course of the film the two men get into a shooting contest, the prize (given by Marshall Wyatt Earp - Will Geer) being one of the new Winchester rifles. Stewart barely beats out MacMahon, but the gun is stolen from Stewart, and the chase is on.
The gun passes from hand to hand, including John McIntyre (as an arrogant trader who fatally does not know when to stop being arrogant), to Rock Hudson (in a surprising role - and a brief one at that), to Charles Drake, to Dan Duryea (as the delightfully deadly and psychotic Waco Johnny Dean), to MacMahon. Eventually it does return to Stewart.
The film is expertly directed by Anthony Mann. Every character has a wide variety of experiences. Duryea gets the rifle literally over Drake's dead body (Duryea forces the issue). But he loses it to MacMahon, who is faster on the draw - not that Duryea is stupid enough to fight for the rifle. As he and Shelley Winter look at MacMahon in the distance, Winter (who watched Duryea kill her former boy friend Drake) drops her distaste for the gunman momentarily to ask why he put up with MacMahon's bullying for the gun. Philosophically, Duryea explains he can wait. Some opportunity will come up later on (i.e., when he can safely kill MacMahon and get back the rifle).
The characters are remarkably human. Winters first appears as the future bride of Drake, but she sees a really big negative side to him - an unforgivable side. Drake is aware of this lapse, and it helps lead to his destruction. Other characters have realistic touches, such as J.C. Flippen as an army sergeant who fights an Indian attack with Steward and Steward's friend Millard Mitchell. Oh yes, and with Flippen's fellow soldier - Tony Curtis. Flippen makes one believe this soldier has been on a hundred battlefields before, since 1861 probably. Steward had showed emotions in other films. In IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE he showed a degree of anger at times, and also a near nervous breakdown when he thinks everything is wrong with his life. But here he showed a demonic anger - at the expense of a surprised Duryea (who normally would show such anger himself).
The parts of this film fit very neatly together, under Mann's competent hands. This is one western that never wears out, as the audience watches the travels of a Winchester rifle.