It’s unusual to see a “cowboy movie,” especially one starring Jimmy Stewart and directed by the great Anthony Mann, pop up in a film festival anywhere. “Winchester ’73″ was selected for MIFF’s 2019 festival because of Mann’s fame as one of the great action directors of his time.

Mann is revered by great directors such as Martin Scorsese, Curtis Hanson and fans of the trade.

There’s an old saying that goes, “When the stars are good, it’s the stars. When the background players are real and catch the eye, it’s the director.” That’s Mann.

As you watch “Winchester,” observe the folks of Dodge City at a Fourth of July shooting contest that will give the winner the “Gun that won the West,” the Winchester, which became a favorite of the likes of Buffalo Bill, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, President Teddy Roosevelt and all the beleaguered tribes of the plains.

Mann made eight westerns with Stewart. They included “Bend of the River,” “The Naked Spur” and “The Man from Laramie.” All were big money makers.

The story itself is a relatively thin — a basic tale of revenge, of cowboys, Indians and historic villains.

The script lay on desks around Hollywood for years, tossed aside by studios, actors and directors, until the famous power agent Lew Wasserman (eventually head of Universal Studios) brought it to his client Jimmy Stewart, just back from the war and suffering career lag.

Both men saw something in it, and Stewart, a canny Scotsman, agreed to do it for a percentage of the profits. Both got rich.

The plot takes two men from childhood, Lin McAdam (Stewart) and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally).

We learn that Dutch shot Lin’s father in the back when they were boys, and that Lin has followed him through the years from one cow town to another and found him here in Wyatt Earp’s (a pot-bellied Will Geer) Dodge City, where dance hall bar girl Lola Manners (a young Shelley Winters, on her way to fame) becomes Lin’s love interest.

Both of the riders compete for the fabled weapon. Linn wins, takes possession, but is later waylaid by Dutch and his band of thieves.

Stewart, bloodied but unbowed, recovers and saddles up. The chase proceeds through the great John Ford American landscape, clouds of dust and rock, sun and blood, where soldiers including Tony Curtis and Indians such as “Young Bull” (Rock Hudson in brown face paint) appear in bit parts, much to the amusement of fans who will later watch their careers explode on the screen.

But the Winchester, that which men will kill and die for, is the powerful symbol floating over the action here. Like the “Maltese Falcon,” it’s the “stuff dreams are made of.”

In the final shootout, Mann takes his camera and combatants into the “high lonesome,” the craggy sun-bleached rocks where every great western finally winds up. Older film buffs will recall King Vidor’s 1946 “Duel in the Sun,” with Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones shooting it out on similar stones and Humphrey Bogart fending off the cops in Raoul Walsh’s 1941 “High Sierra.”

Here, Lin and Dutch chat and shoot, curse and spit and confront fate. Somehow, these two expert marksmen keep missing one another until the final bullet hits it mark.

Stewart is always Stewart, the great American guy we come to watch, and as usual, he delivers.

McNally, you’ll remember, was the baddie who raped Jane Wyman in “Johnny Belinda” and made his share of westerns. Here, he snarls, sweats, spits and lusts.

The supporting cast list is filled with stars in the making — Dan Duryea; Millard Mitchell, of “Singin’ in the Rain”; and as I warned you, the young Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson, both, at the time, $700-a-month contract players at Universal.

Also included is the late Shelley Winters, the blonde before Marilyn, who, in a couple of years, will be drowned by Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun,” and then win best supporting Oscar for “Anne Frank.”

I hope this will only be the first of Mann and Stewart’s westerns in future MIFF summers. Enjoy.

 

J.P.  Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.

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