I’ve watch three James Stewart films in the last week, culminating in Winchester ’73 (1950) which is probably the more iconic of them. Beginning with The Spirit of St Louis (1957) which I watched more out of curiosity than anything, a biography written and directed by Billy Wilder . It was an interesting effort, the only time that Wilder dabbled with factual events, there were hints of his wit, however watered down by history. If it wasn’t for Stewart at the helm, combined with his past war record in the U.S. Airforce. Hearing some of the sharper lines delivered from Stewart didn’t really have the desired effect. With fiction Wilder is able to have a lot more fun with the characters, only able to do so here through flashbacks that did more for padding the film out as Lindberg made his ground-breaking transatlantic flight. Maybe in the hands of another director more used to biopic’s this could have been something special.
Turning then to The Naked Spur (1953), the third collaboration for Anthony Mann and James Stewart they hit a slight snag with this lower budget affair. A smaller cast of characters, there’s potential for more tension and drama than there is on-screen. It just doesn’t spark your attention. If we turn back to their first film together Winchester ’73 (1950), Stewart’s first straight Western, needing to find a new direction in his career in a post-war world. He has seen the darker side of life whilst at war, which comes through into his performance that show more to the master of the every man. Before he was a bumbling and love-able man who got himself in all kinds of situations. It was It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) changed that for him, a man with good intentions, dreams whose brought to the brink, nearly ending his own life. Never had we seen that side of him. Anthony Mann developed that side of him out in the West where as could “play out all kinds of cide” in the American landscape.
So why watch these two films in reverse order? sheer luck of how the cards were dealt at the time. I needed to remind myself of this classic western which I watched at least 4 years ago. Following not the journey of just men, but that of a gun, a powerful emblem in the West. Part of the constitution to bear arms, it helped the country win the West. Yet today there is a fight for gun-control, there’s not a month that goes by in the States a mass-shooting takes places. There’s a warm place in the hearts of the American public, a protector for the weak, a sign of strength, and danger to the powerless. Going back to the film was a chance to rediscover how rich this film really is. Not just starting a long relationship between actor/director but changing the course of Stewart’s career to be part of the American mythology that is the Western.
I should really start now, set in an dream-like version of the West a shooting contest in Dodge City home of the infamous Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) who doesn’t really add much to the on-screen mythology of the historical figure. He definitely runs the town, ironically with an iron fist in regards to gun-control, his office is full of gun-belts. He is also considerate of the tone of the town, sending barroom singer Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) on her way for the contest, not wanting to lower the tone. Much to the surprise of Lin McAdam (Stewart) and High Spade (Millard Mitchell) who are in town for McAdam to track down fast-gun Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). On first meeting they naturally go for their guns, met by a feeling of nakedness that men in the West rarely have. Stripped partially of their masculinity and a right to defend it. You can feel something palpable in the room, they share a history that I barely remembered from the first viewing, not wanting to shout it out before the reveal at the end.
This could be the start of a standard Western, a silent stand-off before a show of masculinity in the streets. Naturally Stewart wins the much prized repeating rifle a Winchester 73, a weapon that is even admired by the young boys, part of the image of being a man. The history of the gun in the West is further explored in other films but not the aspect of the objects journey through a film, as it passes from owner to owner. Usually taking on a fictional version of facts of entertainment value. Here we have pure story and journey as it leaves after a fight in town with Brown to then be lost in a game of cards with Joe Lamont (John McIntire) an Indian trader who gambles his life when he tries to hide his find from Young Bull (Rock Hudson) who dies with it in battle. It brushes by Mcadams leaving it for Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) to take it into a gunfight where it in turn looses it.
The journey goes on until the rifle is reunited with Mcadams in a gunfight to end all gunfights between himself and Brown. The big reveal of their past is laid bear in a few scenes and a gunfight that relies more on knowledge that the accuracy of the gun itself. The skill of the man using the weapon truly make it what it is. A tool, is only as good as the man/woman who uses it, if you don’t use it the right way, not just as it was designed, you never unleash its potential or understand it. So why did McAdams want to win the gun? Was it to prove a point to Brown or to himself that he hadn’t lost his edge, the skills he was taught by his father. The journey that happens with the gun proves that it’s just a gun, that what happens to the user was going to happen anyway, it can bring out the best and the worst in us. It’s a tool that can make or break a man in the West.
I had forgotten how action-packed this film is, it has everything you want in a western as we ride on through, never looking back. Bringing together a cast that would work again with Mann and Stewart. A stock company that could even rival John Ford‘s. Even the main female is anything but set-dressing, she has teeth and not afraid to show them. Of course playing the voice of reason in the film, she can stand-up for herself, no one is left on the sidelines which makes this an important Western in the cannon of the classic genre.
- “He said if a man had one friend, he was rich…I’m rich…” (eddieonfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- Winchester ’73  – Profound and Influential Western Movie (movieretrospect.blogspot.co.uk)
- Winchester ‘73 (1950) ** (1001moviesblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Winchester ’73 (Universal, 1950) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- WINCHESTER ’73 (Universal, 1950) (westofriver.blogspot.co.uk)
Towards the end if the Film noir cycle, it was still producing some classic piece of cinema. The war was over but there was still a need to see the darker side of life on the big screen in the heavily religious overtones in The Night of the Hunter (1955) which gave Robert Mitchum one of his most memorable roles as the crooked preacher man Harry Powell who would stop at nothing throughout. Set during the depression era when a father Ben Harper (Peter Graves) robs a bank to give to the poor, on the run from the law, he hides the money, swearing his children John and Pearl Harper (Billy Chapin & Sally Jane Bruce) to absolute secrecy. Even the audience for a time has no knowledge of the money. Knowing more than his soon to be widowed wife Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) who believes the moneys list. In a god-fearing and tightly woven community, lead buy the likes of Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) who believes in traditional values and those set down by the bible.
When recently released ex-preacher Harry Powell arrives in their sleepy town, his poetic use of the scriptures has everyone under his spell. A man driven by evil, under the guise of the God, who he believes tells him to commit the awful crimes he has already committed. Having a flawed morality that allows him to go on, in the word of god-mighty. Mitchum injects him with a deadly presence that spell-bound’s everyone to see only a preacher whose interpretation of the bible that the Southern community understands, which has been lost in recent times. A dangerous predatory throw-back allowed to flourish.
Only the children, mainly young John Harper who sees right through his new father who has no intention of sticking around, driven by his negative interpretations of the bible. Wanting more than anything to break a secret that two children made with their father. A powerful bond that cannot easily be broken, John is far stronger than his younger sister Pearl who is more easily lead, thankfully remaining faithful to her older brother.
The films made up of three strong parts, all theatrical and deeply stylized by the lighting to produce a dark film where traditional American values are tested, the basic religious foundations of a country opposite the right to protect the family home. Strong performance throughout. Lillian Gish shows in the role of Rachel Cooper a spinster who takes in stray children that she still can hold her ground against the formidable Mitchum who owns the film without a doubt. It’s faultless in the making of a classic thriller in the hands of Charles Laughton who gives it his all.
It’s hard to ignore the symbolism, namely found within the book of Revelations that talks of the horsemen of the apocalypse. focusing on the white horse which can be pure, and still carry death on it’s back. Powell would’ve had interpreted this book of the bible in a way that allows the righteous to carry out evil acts.
“When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come and see!” I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
Unlike the pale horse which is death, ridden in film by the likes of Clint Eastwood‘s preacher in Pale Rider (1985) who kills only those who have deserve to be killed in the eyes of god. The abuse of power in the later film is more justified, to kill those who trespass on those who are good.
“I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come and see!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.”
The white horse in film is seen usually as a symbol of purity or an unachievable object that cannot be tamed easily. Owned mainly by the enemy. Far rarer than other horses. Used in Night of the Hunter beautifully to illustrated the flawed righteousness of the Powell using the word of God as a reason for committing his terrible crimes, He knows he has left a trail of death in his wake. Blind to modern ethics. Whilst Winters Willa Harper wants to do right by her community and family before doing right by her new husband who puts God in the bedroom before his wife.
Gish’s spinster is the opposite of Powell, whose interpretation of the bible is all about love, taking in lost children. Even with her weary outlook on life, she doesn’t project this on those views onto the children, especially Ruby (Gloria Castillo) on the verge of adulthood, more understanding of her age and life. Life changes people, and love and understanding’s needed to do that, which the bible teaches.
A fascinating film that is rooted in religion, its power on society, and how we must use our own judgement, with an open mind to its teachings. Not being blinded by it, using it as a guide to living by the letter. An entertaining thriller that is the right length for its content, rooted in Americas fabric, yet so very of its time.