Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for May on TCM

I wonder if cinematographer William Daniels ever got tired of looking at Jimmy Stewart.  The acclaimed master of Black & White cinematography fame is often linked with the great Garbo whom he filmed 21 times.  She would insist upon it.  However, Daniels also gave us images of James Stewart in 14 films from his MGM years in films such as 1936s Rose Marie and 1940s The Mortal Storm and The Shop Around the Corner to Jimmy's glorious 1950s career.  The 1950s films include westerns like 1954s The Far Country and 1956s Night Passage, along with the 1954 biography The Glenn Miller Story proving Daniels to be as proficient in Technicolor as in Black & White.  In 1950 when Stewart began seriously to shepherd his post-war career, Daniels was the cinematographer on the whimsical adaption of Mary Chase's Harvey and the western classic Winchester '73.

Winchester '73 is based on a story by Stuart Lake (Frontier Marshal/My Darling Clementine) with the screenplay by Borden Chase (Oscar nomination - Red River).  It is the first, but certainly not the last, western directed by the master of noir Anthony Mann (Raw Deal, Border Incident).  During the 1950s Mann and Stewart would collaborate on eight films, five of them would be westerns.  The IMDb features this quote by William Daniels:  "We try to tell the story with light, and the director tells it with action."  Both gentlemen are at their best with Winchester '73.

James Stewart

I believe it wasn't until my fourth or fifth viewing of Winchester '73 that I was suddenly struck by the beauty of Daniels camerawork.  Whether it was a silhouette of riders along a ridge, the soldiers by the campfire at night, the harsh majesty of the scenery for the final shootout and the faces.  The faces of the acting ensemble are an integral part of the time, the place and the characterizations.

Millard Mitchell, James Stewart

Our film tells the story of Lin McAdam (Stewart), a Civil War veteran single-minded in his quest for vengeance against an outlaw.  The why's and the who's come about in the telling of the story.  Millard Mitchell (Singin' in the Rain, Thieves' Highway) is Lin's loyal friend High-Spade, who keeps a wide perspective on their narrow focus.  Shelley Winters (The Big Knife, A Patch of Blue), never a glamour puss, is a compelling mix of soft and tough as feisty entertainer Lola.  Traditionally, westerns don't offer an actress much of a chance to display their range, but Winters is so good that the movie could almost have been "The Adventures of Lola Manners".

Dan Duryea, Shelley Winters

Stephen McNally is Dutch Henry Brown, the object of Lin's obsession and a man with an equal stubborn streak.  The same year as this film McNally played the compassionate doctor in Joseph Mankiewicz's No Way Out with young Sidney Poitier.  McNally, under his given name of Horace McNally played another caring physician in the Broadway production of Johnny Belinda.  When that play was filmed McNally played the loathsome villain of the piece Locky McCormick.  While Lin and Dutch Henry flirt with madness in their overwhelming need for vengeance, Winchester '73 has a genuine crazy in the character of Waco Johnny Dean played by the always compelling Dan Duryea (The Little Foxes, Scarlet Street).  Johnny is a loose cannon if ever there was one and is a joy to watch.

John McIntire, James Millican, Stephen McNally, Steve Brodie

The Winchester of the title is the prize at an Independence Day shooting match and as the rifle changes hands throughout the film, it changes the fate of many.  Winchester '73 is a journey through which our characters move physically and emotionally.

The outstanding cast includes Will Geer (TVs The Waltons) as a folksy Wyatt Earp.  John McIntire (TVs Wagon Train, The Virginian) as a gunrunner.  James Millican (Carson City, Diplomatic Courier) and Steve Brodie (Crossfire, The Steel Helmet) are Dutch Henry's "gang".  Abner Biberman (His Girl Friday) backs up Waco Johnny Dean.  Ray Teal (TVs Bonanza) is on the right side of the law.  John Alexander (Arsenic and Old Lace) plays a laconic way station owner.  Charles Drake (Harvey, No Name on the Bullet) is an interesting character involved in one of the more shocking scenes in any western.

Charles Drake, James Stewart, Millard Mitchell, Jay C. Flippen

Jay C. Flippen (The Killing, They Live by Night) is a veteran cavalry sergeant and under his charge are fresh-faced youngsters played by James Best and Tony Curtis.  Their adversary is young Rock Hudson as a fierce and earnest young native chief.  Keep your eyes on those young fellas, they might amount to something in years to come.

Film historians point to Winchester '73 as beginning a cycle of adult westerns in the 1950s and while it truly is a touchstone for a golden era for the genre, it is a film that need not appeal only to fans of that enduring genre.  It is a film for anyone who appreciates strong storytelling, fine acting and the art of William Daniels.

TCM is screening Winchester '73 on Monday, May 20th at 3:45 p.m.




  1. Great pick, CW! I never truly appreciated the brilliance of this film until AMC showed all five James Stewart-Anthony Mann Westerns one summer. They're exceptional films (though MAN FROM LARAMIE isn't as strong as the others). In addition to the brilliant location photography that you mentioned, I love the narrative structure in WINCHESTER '73. At several points in the film, we follow character A, who then meets B, and we start following B's story arc. How clever is that?

  2. Thanks, Rick. Funny how the greatness of the movie sneaked up on both of us.

    What a summertime treat AMC offered movie fans. Even the weaker "The Man from Laramie" gives us Aline McMahon and Donald Crisp. Not too shabby.

    You are so right that the structure of "Winchester '73" doesn't lag for an instant. Always something to grab your attention and interest. These are characters you wonder about after they leave your sight.

  3. I don't lean heavily to Westerns, so this film has never crossed my path. But I have quite a thing for Dan Duryea, so I definitely need to seek this film out.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Patti, the great Dan D. does not disappoint.

  5. Haven't seen this in years, C.W. I think my brother and I are the two only two people in the history of movies who never really cottoned to James Stewart.

    I know, I know, how do you figure it? EVERYONE LOVES Jimmy Stewart...

    Still, I might just line up this movie to view again.

  6. You don't have to love Jimmy to like this movie. In fact, he'd probably prefer it if you didn't. On the other hand, a re-watch after such a long time just might put you in his corner. First and foremost, it's a dandy movie.

  7. Great review. I love how you mention your fourth viewing! I guess I've seen this classic western quite a few times too.
    Great cast as you say, and a plot that never lets up.
    And thank you for making me think about the excellent photography.

    Vienna's Classic Hollywood

  8. Thanks for the kind words, Vienna.



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