Winchester 73 (1950)

17 08 2008

If wasn’t for the sentimental bias I attribute to Mann’s The Tin Star, this would probably be my favorite western of his. While most of his work during this period is classified as being personal and centered on a single protagonist’s psychology, this film shows his abilities to depict a large cast of complex and fleshed-out characters. Indeed, this will remind one of those multiple connecting storylines narratives that are so popular in modern cinema, but Mann handles it in manner that is far more gentle than Paul Thomas Anderson, or whoever else specializes in such pictures.

Lin McAdam has been trying to track down his brother for some time now. He is not on friendly terms with his brother, though, because it is he who killed his father. Finally, the two catch up with one another at a shooting contest. Both participate, but Lin emerges victorious and his prize is a Winchester ’73, a one-of-a-kind rifle. His brother, who now goes by the name of Dutch Henry Brown, steals the rifle and quickly escapes out of town. Lin’s interest lies more in capturing his brother than it does in retrieving in the gun, which is passed through multiple characters, all of whom are in close contact with Lin.

There is certain type of dramatic predictability that goes hand-in-hand with these connecting storylines sort of films, but whatever it is, Mann stays clear of it. It is astonishing to think that this was marketed as a conventional action movie in 1950, especially when modern audiences would most likely give in as soon as the camera strayed from Jimmy Stewart, who, by the way, delivers a great performance here. Between this and The Naked Spur, I’d go as far to say that he was really a great performer with an ability to imply a certain depth not present in the scripts of these films. Of course, much credit goes to Mann as well, who labored over most of these stock scripts and transformed them into the cinematic masterpieces they are.

The way in which Mann implies that something much more important and emotional is going on underneath the obvious drama definitely reminds one of Hiroshi Shimizu’s Arigato-san, in which the upbeat attitudes clashes with a rather tragic tale. In Mann’s case, the condition of these characters compliments the dramatic arc, which makes them all the more difficult to notice. This is what Mann has always done, though, and it is what makes his films so great. The cinematography here doesn’t have the benefit of being widescreen or being in color, but it is absolutely gorgeous. The visuals have the same sort of clarity and beauty found in many of Mikio Naruse’s films of the same time. In a way, Mann is somewhat of America’s answer to Naruse. Both filmmakers create something underneath the simple surface drama, and it is what makes their work so appealing.

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