Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Winchester '73 (1950)

The Naked Spur is the one that gets the most attention, but this Mann-Stewart Western (their first together) strikes me as the pinnacle of their achievements. Like a great deal of the Westerns of the period, it wrestles with the concept of manhood, thus anticipating the great revisionist Westerns of the late '60s and early '70s; what sets this film apart is its framing of the argument in concrete terms through the title object. It's more than just a film about machismo (though it certainly is that), it's a groundbreaking examination of the phallic, sexualized gun culture that is so integral to the genre. The gun in this film is literally fetishized ("one in a thousand!") so that its status as an object of desire seems appropriate as does James Stewart's obsession with finding it. There's a love interest (the incongruously lovely Shelley Winters), but her presence is secondary to the rifle roundelay. Winters is hitched to a man who is shown to be insufficiently 'manly' (note his feminization/emasculation in a late scene), as every Western requires a yella city boy; the most interesting wrinkle in the subtext, though, is revealed in the sequence where Winters, Stewart and Co. run across an entrenched cavalry group. Here we see men stripped of any reason to be macho, at peace with their role in the world and unafraid to die if they must. This sort of Zen purity in the middle of a sea of testosterone provides an emotional release that pushes the film into the realm of "masterpiece." This is, truthfully, one of the most emotionally wrenching Westerns I've seen, and it's also a taut thriller. Plotting, pacing, editing and all are tight as a nun's ass, and Stewart is fantastically curmudgeonly as a man possessed by the need to have the biggest dick, as it were. Also, placing this film within the recognizable flow of history (references are made to Wyatt Earp, Custer and Bull Run) gives it an authenticity that again sets the film apart from its compatriots. Did I already call this a masterpiece? I think I did.

Grade: A


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