#222. Winchester ’73 (1950)

After streaming this at Tea & poets a few months ago I went directly to eBay and ordered the DVD for $2 because apart from just admiring the movie, enjoying it, I was also kinda stricken by the shape of it, made just contemplative and, like, quietly enthused for a while, telling myself with so much certainty that this is a movie I’d be re-visiting so’s to better appreciate the blocky, patient, yet somehow also propulsive structure, the way that the story runs like an odyssey that pits our two oppositional characters in a buncha different situations (conflicts) on the road to confronting/killing one another.

Life happened, though, and I only got around to watching it for a second time last night and, while I definitely still enjoy at admire the movie, I think I see its flaws a little more clearly now. Those ostensibly digressive episodes, in which our hero and villain are pulled into little self-contained squabbles en route to their confrontation, aren’t always so great in and of themselves. in fact it’s kinda dizzying at times to suddenly find ourselves out of the protagonists’ company, and following, instead, the peril of a young couple, for instance, whom we somehow know are only in the movie to serve as victims, punching bags against whom a secondary villain can flex his cruelty for the audience, establish himself as a formidable dude (which is then belied by the ease and haste with which our hero dispenses of him later).

The ostensibly insurmountable secondary villain, played by Dan Duryea, finds himself surmounted.

But the package experience is entertaining as hell, some of the episodes are genuinely suspenseful and exciting (a shooting contest at which the eponymous Winchester, one of just a thousand ever made, is held as the prize, and the two lead contestants, harboring some yet-to-be-explained blood feud, lead us to believe that the winner will use this prize rifle to kill the other; then, later on, a poker game between two duplicitous dudes in which the rifle is again lain at stake). Jimmy Stewart is maybe a little tiresome as the unambiguously virtuous and courageous hero in pursuit of vengeance. Galloping ont he bad guy’s trail for so many days, his sidekick (Millard Mitchell) suggests they rest. Stewart refuses. Too driven to stop. He ain’t got time to bleed.

What he wants is to kill Stephen McNally so’s to avenge the murder of their former mentor. Not exactly a heroic pursuit, murder, but whatever. It’s Jimmy.

So while I’m a tad more lukewarm about the movie now than when I first saw it, I’m still impressed by how it’s carried along with so much momentum, how it keeps moving us toward that climactic confrontation between the hero and villain by showing them on separate paths and pulling our attention away from that narrative so that we’re getting immersed in (and distracted by) smaller narratives that happen, in their own weird way, to be ferrying the larger one along.

Our proper villain, played by Stephen McNally, admires his stolen Winchester with two cronies.

What I also think needs mentioning is the depiction of Native Americans here because, good lord, it’s pretty cringeworthy. They’re monosyllabic savages, thieves, they’re superstitious and not that smart and we see them ultimately slaughtered in droves. That’s apart fromt he title card that, looking to communicate the vale of our eponymous rifle, emphasizes how an Indian in particular would lose his mind for it.

Otherwise it’s not too impressive or shocking or interesting. I’m just hypnotized by that structure. I think the last time I was so hooked by the shape of a story on the List was with Captain Blood (for which I drew an actual diagram). Stuff like this is making me itchy about wanting to write fiction again. Which I guess is one of the highest praises to give a piece of art, is that it triggered both my imagination and, what, craftsmanship?

It’s making me wanna create shit.


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