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 /****
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The Scalphunters

the_scalphunters_posterIn a legendary career that spanned parts of 6 different decades, Burt Lancaster was always at home in the western genre. There are more than a few classics in the bunch — The Professionals, Vera Cruz, Ulzana’s Raid — but one that always seems to slip through the cracks is 1968’s The Scalphunters. Not a classic but a highly entertaining venture with a fun cast.

After a busy season trapping and with a pack horse full of pelts and furs, fur trapper Joe Bass (Lancaster) is heading to the nearest town to sell his haul. Well, that’s the plan anyways. He’s stopped by a Kiowa war party who “trade” him for the furs, giving him a captured slave, Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis), for his season’s work. Joseph Lee had previously been a captive of Comanches. Now, Joe Bass is on the trail to get his furs back, but there are more problems. The Kiowas are attacked by a gang of scalphunters led by outlaw Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) who in the process also captures Joseph Lee. Howie’s gang is on the run and heading for Mexico, now with Joseph Lee in tow. Trailing not too far behind is Bass, just waiting for his chance to strike.

The first of three efforts Lancaster and director Sydney Pollack did together, ‘Scalphunters’ is an interesting western. Reading the plot synopsis, you wouldn’t think it had some heavy comedic — even slapstick — undertones. They are there though, giving the final product a kind of helter-skelter feel. Oh, Bass and Lee comedically beating the crap out of each other? Ah, a massacre of Indians! The tonal shifts provide some odd moments for sure, but the movie is still entertaining. When everything about westerns was changing in the late 1960’s, Pollack’s western seems like a bit of a throwback…that still’s trying to be violent and dark and unsettling at times.

What holds things together despite the oddness? I’d give you two guesses, but you’ll only need one. Lancaster, Davis, Savalas and Shelley Winters. There are other speaking parts, but this movie rides (or derails) on the shoulders of this quartet. It is definitely an ensemble too with each cast member given their chance to star. Lancaster is off-screen for large stretches of the 102-minute running time. When he’s on-screen, he’s a scene-stealer. It’s a bigger, showier performance but he doesn’t chew the scenery like several of his most iconic parts.

Sometimes chemistry is just spot-on, and that’s the case with Lancaster’s Bass and Davis’ Lee. Bass is the grizzled fur trapper, uneducated but not dumb, able to survive in the wilderness while quoting the Bible. Lee is an educated, intelligent slave who can talk his way in and out of plenty of uncomfortable situations. Throw them together, and you’ve got some great dialogue and a great back and forth dynamic. The story pulls the duo apart, but what’s there is excellent. Savalas gets to ham it up a bit as outlaw Jim Howie with Winters playing Kate, a prostitute and Jim’s woman who’s apparently also on the run for some past misdeeds.

As for the gang of scalphunters, look for Dabney Coleman, Paul Picerni, Nick Cravat, Dan Vadis and Chuck Roberson (John Wayne’s stunt double and a familiar face). Armando Silvestre plays Two Crows, a Kiowa chief who gets along with Joe Bass but always seems to come out with the upper hand.

Nothing groundbreaking here, but an enjoyable western. ‘Scalphunters’ was filmed on location in Durango, Mexico in similar locales as The War Wagon, Major Dundee, The Sons of Katie Elder and others, but it’s definitely a good-looking western. Composer Elmer Bernstein is on-hand to provide the score, and even if it’s not a hugely memorable score, a Bernstein score isn’t something to shake your head at. A good western with some excellent lead performances, especially Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis.

The Scalphunters (1968): ***/****

The Treasure of Pancho Villa

trpanvilposThe western genre loves to revisit some historical eras and periods over and over. One of my favorites? The Mexican Revolution where it seems via the movies that countless American cowboys, bandits and gunfighters rode south to join the fighting. Released in 1954, Vera Cruz was ahead of its time in that portrayal of Americans involved in the fighting. Just a year later, 1955’s The Treasure of Pancho Villa tackled similar topics with a similar story. It’s not as good, but it’s still an enjoyable watch.

It’s 1915 in Mexico and the Revolution is raging. An American mercenary working for whoever pays him, Tom Bryan (Rory Calhoun) is sick of his chosen profession and looking for one last job that will allow him to retire. He finds that job — potentially — through an old friend, Juan Castro (Gilbert Roland), an officer in Pancho Villa‘s army. An immense shipment of gold is being shipped via train and Castro knows when and where. With a small company of revolutionaries, Castro and Bryan pull off a successful robbery but now comes the hard part. They’ve got to transport the gold via mule train to safety and with the Mexican army chasing after them. Can they? Can they avoid treachery among their ranks?

Following in the footsteps of the previous year’s Vera Cruz, ‘Treasure’ is a lot of fun. It had been years since I’d seen it, but once it popped up on Turner Classic Movie’s schedule, I had to set a recording on the old DVR. Too often 1950’s westerns are either too polished and clean or too much like a soap opera with big EMOTIONS and FEELS! ‘Treasure’ goes for more action, more betrayals, more cynicism, and overall, just a much darker story. Like Vera Cruz, it reflects more where the western genre will go than where it came from. These are stories that seem perfectly fitted to the spaghetti western and all the crazy violence and unhinged bandits and in-your-face violence. A fun, little B-western from director George Sherman.

Stepping in for Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, we get Rory Calhoun and Gilbert Roland. Neither actor was a huge star, but they’re perfectly cast as quasi-partners who don’t quite trust the other one. Their chemistry is easy-going and full of snappy dialogue, two tough guys who can always get the job done, however nasty. Calhoun played roles like this with ease, anti-heroes who were not always sure of their intentions. He also lugs around a Lewis gun — dubbed the Cucaracha — as his weapon of choice too, another spaghetti western precursor. Roland gets to ham it up some as Castro in bandito-mode, bandoleers across his chest, well-kept mustache, leather chaps, stylish hat and always smooth, always suave mentality. Nothing rattles this guy.

There’s not much of a cast here with Calhoun and Roland dominating the screen (that’s a good thing). The biggest weakness here is Shelley Winters as the daughter of an American miner forced to travel with Castro’s gold train. A schoolteacher, she talks a ton with Calhoun’s Bryan about principles, ideologies and motivations for fighting in the Revolution in scenes that lack any real punch and slow things down in a big way. Joseph Calleia is very solid as Pablo Morales, the mule driver who’s got some greedy plans for the gold if he gets a chance. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos has a small uncredited part as a representative of Pancho Villa working with Bryan.

I don’t know if my memory played tricks on me or what, but I remembered liking the movie a lot more than I did this time. A tad slow in portions in a 93-minute movie that should pop a little more. The action when it’s there is pretty solid, especially the train robbery and the finale with a sandbag fort of gold coins helping to hold off an advancing company of cavalry. Most of the movie is an extended chase, but it doesn’t always have a ton of energy.

Still a fun western but not quite as fun as I last remembered. Plenty to recommend though. Some great location shooting in Mexico add a whole layer to the story, a great feeling of realism as we watch things develop. We’re watching a story happen on the land it probably did happen so that’s pretty cool! Give it a shot. Not a classic but very entertaining.

The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955): ** 1/2 /****