Except for possibly John Ford the westerns of Hollywood’s Golden Era didn’t really do shades of gray. The cookie cutter pattern was set for decades.
Good guys were upholders of the law. There was nothing dark in their personality or past. Decency was their code always within a hair’s breath of saving the town, the damsel in distress or both.
Their reward was a peck on a cheek and the satisfaction of a job well done.
Bad guys were…well…bad. No explanation or reason was given for their behavior other than they wanted to take over the town marry the damsel in distress or foreclose on the family farm which in turn would force the aforementioned damsel to succumb to his villainess charms. It was strictly black and white with no areas of commonality.
Jimmy Stewart great actor that he was would more than likely not be anyone’s first choice to create a new kind of western hero. After all this is Mr Smith Goes To Washington.
But times change and so do people. Stewart was looking for something different and thanks to Anthony Mann he found it.
Anthony Mann by the late nineteen forties was a director on the rise. His collaborations with cameraman John Alton had turned the low budget productions of Eagle-Lion Studios into some powerful hauntingly dark films.
T-Men, Raw Deal, He Walked By Night were textbook examples of how a cheaply made B-movie could become a classic in atmosphere and direction. Later on he would do the same thing at MGM with Side Street and the brutal film Border Incident.
So when both men started working at Universal in 1950 there was a sense they were already on the same page. That would be confirmed with Universal’s release that same year of Winchester ’73.
The film written by Robert Richards and Borden Chase tells the story of how a rifle won by Stewart in a shooting contest is stolen and then passes from hand to hand with Jimmy in hot pursuit trying to get it back.
With Stewart’s acting and Mann’s direction that might be good enough except another element gets added. Stewart is on a mission to find the man that killed his father and take his revenge.
This fixation twists the actor who epitomized the “gee whiz” school of storytelling (as Capra referred to it) into a borderline psycho.
He and Mann had taken the can do no wrong steady as a rock Western hero and turned him into a man so consumed with rage, pain and obsession that Stewart’s Lin McAdam should have been pursuing a psychiatrist instead of the man who stole his rifle.
The Stewart Mann westerns became known as “The Man with A Secret”. Whether it was Bend In The River, Naked Spur or The Far Country something in the protagonist’s past would take over Stewart’s whole reason for being and drive him relentlessly toward his goal.
Make no mistake this was a landmark moment in movie history. One of the golden rules of westerns was you never ever show the hero in bad light. His only problem was helping you solve your problem.
Now you weren’t so sure. It’s not like you could doubt his capabilities it was more so wondering if the derangement would completely over take him and in the process you.
This was a remarkable period for both Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann. Stewart needed a jolt to his career which had been steady but unspectacular since the end of WWII. Even It’s A Wonderful Life now regarded as a classic was a flop upon it’s release.
Mann needed to work with a star of Stewart’s stature. While he had made inroads into the ranks of good young directors he was in many ways still regarded as a B-movie technician. He could get the most out of what was available but execs were not ready to trust him with something more expansive.
The Mann-Stewart collaborations not only got both men what they needed but pushed them to do some of the best work of their respective careers. And while their overall relationship did not end very well they undoubtedly had changed the cinematic landscape forever.