Winchester ’73

winchester_73_-_1950-_posterIf you’re a fan of western movies and American history in the west in general, two firearms come to mind as the most iconic of the era. First? The Colt .45, a six-shot revolver made famous by gunfighters and cowboys. The second? The Winchester 1873 model, a repeating rifle that earned the nickname ‘the gun that won the west.’ The iconic rifle gets a starring role in an excellent western from 1950, Winchester ’73.

 

It’s July 4, 1876 in Dodge City with the town hosting a shooting contest bringing riflemen from all over the country. The prize? A so-called perfect Winchester rifle, dubbed the one in a 1,000 rifle. Among the competitors is Lin McAdam (James Stewart), a rancher/cowboy who’s a deadshot with a rifle. He wins via tiebreaker against a man from his past, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), but Dutch isn’t having it. He and two fellow gunfighters rob Lin of the prized rifle, racing out into the desert. Lin and his partner, High Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell), aren’t far behind. In the aftermath of the massacre at the Little Bighorn, reports of Indians on the warpath are escalating. Can Lin and High Spade track down the man and the gun while still keeping their hair?

John Wayne had John Ford, Randolph Scott had Budd Boetticher, and James Stewart had Anthony Mann. The star-director combo team here for the first of five movies they would make together (6 if you add The Glenn Miller Story), and it’s a gem. I’d have to go back and rewatch all five, but this definitely belongs up at the top. At 92 minutes, it is an episodic story with an ensemble cast that moves along at a quick pace. There is almost the feel of a TV show with 15 or 20-minute segments as the prized rifle finds itself in new hand one after another. How though? That’s the fun. The Winchester ends up being a star, jumping from person to person with some bad luck, greed, violence, betrayals and some blood dotting the way.

 

Stewart rarely gets the credit he deserves in the western genre. Other than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he didn’t star in a classic western. This movie is close, as is The Naked Spur, and there’s a handful that are really, really good. My point? He plays a great anti-hero of sorts, although here he’s in more typical hero mode. His Lin — for lack of a better description — is a good dude, if a touch obsessed with exacting some revenge. His backstory is familiar but well-handled and feels a good twist. It’s leisurely revealed, but it’s Jimmy Stewart. You know he’s a good guy. His chemistry with Mitchell’s High Spade is excellent too, two driven cowboys who are stubborn, loyal and sturdy.

 

What appealed to me is that Mann’s film uses a whole bunch of genre conventions (you could say stereotypes) but manages to breathe some new, fresh life into it. Case in point is the cast, with the revenge-seeking cowboy, the saloon hall girl with a heart of gold, the unhinged gunfighter, the loyal sidekick and so many more. Everyone gets almost equal screen-time throughout. Look for Shelley Winters as Lola, the saloon girl, Dan Duryea as Waco Johnny Dean, a psychotic gunfighter, McNally as Dutch Henry, Charles Drake as Steve Miller, Lola’s fiance, John McIntire as gunrunner Joe Lamont, Will Geer as Marshal Wyatt Earp, J.C. Flippen as a cavalry sergeant and a young Rock Hudson as an Indian chief.

 

Also look for Tony Curtis and James Best as young cavalry troopers, Steve Brodie and James Millican as members of Dutch’s gang, and John Wayne stuntman Chuck Roberson late as a potential bank robber. Familiar face Ray Teal has a shadow-marked supporting part as a marshal leading a posse.

 

Winchester’ covers a fair amount of mileage in its brisk 92-minute running time. The early shootout is a highlight, but there’s also a manipulative gunrunner, an Indian attack on a cavalry patrol, a posse chasing bandits, a bank robbery, a not forced (thankfully) love story, and a genuine good twist late. Filmed in black and white, ‘Winchester’ has an almost artsy look — plenty of shadow and silhouette, almost a noir western — and definitely capitalizes on the Arizona shooting locations, including Old Tucson.

Held in high regard by many, ‘Winchester’ still doesn’t get the classic attention it probably should. It’s a great western, entertaining with some action but also well-written and well-executed. Highly recommended.

Winchester ’73 (1950): *** 1/2 /****

The Last Sunset

the_last_sunset_-_film_posterA Hollywood legend, Kirk Douglas wasn’t one to follow the beaten path during his career. He marched to his own drums, sticking to his beliefs and doing what he wanted, not what Hollywood necessarily wanted. Even though writer Dalton Trumbo had been blacklisted, Douglas chose Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus in 1960. It started a streak of three movies where the duo worked together, continuing next a year later with 1961’s The Last Sunset.

Riding deep into the Mexican countryside, Bren O’Malley (Douglas), a gambler and gunfighter, is on the run, but he knows where he’s going. He rides to an isolated ranch where he finds a beautiful woman, Belle (Dorothy Malone), from his past. He fully intends to get back together with her…but she’s married. O’Malley isn’t alone though. A sheriff, Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), is on his trail for a murder he’s suspected of. Stribling finally catches up with O’Malley, but the duo make an unlikely deal. Belle’s husband (Joseph Cotten) is driving a herd of cattle north to Texas. For vastly different reasons — Bren wants Belle, Dana wants justice — both men agree to help drive the herd north, their confrontation awaiting at the end of the trail. Bandits, killers, Indians and betrayals may have something to say about that.

What an odd, interesting, flawed western from director Robert Aldrich. I saw ‘Sunset’ for the last time six or seven years ago, revisiting it recently. It’s fascinating. It is a true adult western, avoiding the soap opera tendencies of so many 1950’s westerns while also avoiding going full-on dark, revisionist westerns that became prevalent late in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. It manages to tread the fine line in between, a bit of a loner in the western genre.

Let’s talk nuts and bolts first. ‘Sunset’ is a visual stunner, filmed on-location in Mexico in the vein of Vera Cruz and The Wonderful Country. You feel like you’re there riding north with the herd through the jagged rock-covered mountains and dusty, sand-swept trails. The musical score is understated and has some cool, memorable notes here and there. Aldrich mixes it all together, using some incredibly interesting camera angles. A final shootout is clearly an inspiration for future spaghetti westerns. The visual look pulls you in from the start. As the story proves, this isn’t your typical western. The camerawork and film techniques are just the start.

When I say a ‘true adult western,’ I’m not saying pornographic. I mean adult issues, no-holds barred, no joking around. There is no comic relief, just major personal issues, history and hidden agendas anywhere and everywhere. Its main proponent? The unlikeliest of plot devices; the love triangle! Bren wants Belle back, Belle doesn’t want anything to do with him, Dana wants justice and he wouldn’t mind getting Belle too in the process. It isn’t light and fluffy though obviously. These lives depend on the resolution. Not everyone will make it through that resolution.

The strongest aspect of ‘Sunset’ is the pairing of Douglas and Hudson as the rivals turned unlikely trail partners. Their relationship is cautious to say the least. They’ve agreed to put off their confrontation/showdown until they reach Texas…but what’s keeping your word in a life and death matter? Their scenes together crackle with a simmering intensity. You’re waiting for one or the other to pull a gun, throw a punch, make a decisive move. The key though is how the relationship develops over the course of the drive. It might seem odd where it goes, but the whole dynamic works. Throw in Malone too who more than carries her weight. Three very solid performances, even if Hudson’s Dana seems to fall in love at the drop of a hat.

Also look for Cotten in a scene-stealing (if small) part, Carol Lynley as Belle’s teenage daughter, Regis Toomey as the ranch foreman of sorts, Neville Brand, Jack Elam and James Westmoreland as three treacherous trail hands, and Adam Williams as a sneering gunfighter who knew Cotten.

How about something not often associated with the western genre? Yeah, ‘Sunset’ features a doozy of a plot twist revealed in the last 25 minutes. On second viewing, that twist seems telegraphed from a mile out, but it still doesn’t take away from the impact. Ahead of its time in the actual twist, it makes for incredibly interesting viewing as all these seemingly separate storylines and characters converge. There are some slow moments on the trail getting to that point, but this is an above-average western that deserves more notoriety, more of a reputation. Definitely worth checking out.

The Last Sunset (1961): ***/****

Showdown (1973)

showdown_281973_film29Sometimes all you need is two stars. That’s it. That’s all. Unfortunately for 1973’s Showdown, that is all the western has in its entirety! It’s got two A-list stars — a little past their prime — but little else going on. Is star power enough to at least make the proceedings interesting? Better read on and find out.

Chuck Jarvis (Rock Hudson) and Billy Massey (Dean Martin) have been friends for years going back to their childhood. They stood by each other through thick and thin — with Billy making that especially tough at times — as they grew up, eventually buying and working a small cattle ranch together. They finally go their separate ways when a woman, Kate (Susan Clark), chooses Chuck over Billy. Not wanting to stick around, Billy rides out while Chuck marries Kate and becomes a town sheriff. Years later, their paths meet again when Billy joins a small gang and robs a train in Chuck’s territory. Now, the old friends find each other on opposite sides of the law. Will their friendship last or will it be done in for good?

I figured Rock Hudson and Dean Martin working together would be enough to make a pretty decent little western. I was wrong. From director George Seaton, ‘Showdown’ simply isn’t very good. Released in 1973, it feels about 10 years too late. While so many westerns were going for the unconventional, the revisionist look at the wild west, Seaton’s film has an incredibly uneven tone with bits of humor, a love triangle, some jokes, some unnecessary flashbacks, and only then goes for a downer ending. In the meantime, it’s far too slow-going for its own good and never quite recovers.

Western fans will still appreciate the pairing of Hudson and Martin, working together for the first time by my digging. Their chemistry is solid, two pros trying to liven up some familiar characters in an all-too familiar story. Hudson’s Chuck is the worrier, the hard-worker, the cowboy while Martin’s Billy is the fun-loving, hard-drinking ladies man who’s a skilled hand with a gun. In other words, a western Odd Couple of sorts. I liked the idea here, but it never clicks. The flashbacks become repetitive immediately and don’t do much to advance the story. Through it all, the duo keeps at it and makes things mildly entertaining, but never enough to lift up a pretty bad script.

My theory is that a love triangle can ruin just about any movie, and that plot device does nothing to help here (even if its far from the biggest issue). Clark’s Kate feels like an add-on for the sake of adding on. Donald Moffat is good if underused as Art Miller, Billy’s vengeful partner in the bank robbery. John McLiam does what he does best and plays a condescending a-hole who you just want to see get smacked in the face (or worse). No one else really jumps out from the supporting cast. Too bad because there’s some stock characters here and there that could have been better with even a little more development, or at least some more familiar faces.

‘Showdown’ has its positives. Hollywood legend and one of the best cinematographers ever Ernest Laszlo doesn’t disappoint, delivering a beautiful, sunny western that was filmed on location in New Mexico. It is a good-looking western. The musical score from composer David Shire is limited but manages to shine in some late scenes. Coincidentally? The movie is much better — if still too slow — in the last third as the tone shifts to a darker path. Unfortunately, it’s too uneven getting to that point. Things get dark, they get bloody and there will be casualties. The tonal shift comes too late to save things though.

Probably for diehard western fans, or maybe diehard Hudson and Dean-O fans. Not especially good but not awful.

Showdown (1973): **/****