Winchester ’73 (1950)

Not the first film to tell its story through an object being passed from one owner to the other, but probably one of the better examples of same. In this case, the object is the Winchester rifle of the title, one of only a comparative handful of “perfect” examples of the weapon ever made, so impossibly valuable that it couldn’t be bought, but it could be stolen… which is exactly what happens to it a few times. The film is a revenge drama in good Western style, and though James Stewart’s reasons for hunting Stephen McNally’s character are not made explicit until the last few minutes, we know pretty much from the off when McNally reacts to Stewart’s appearance in Dodge City that the two have a history behind them; when Stewart wins the prized rifle in a marksmanship competition and McNally promptly steals it, the theft is just icing on the cake as far as reasons to pursue him go. Winchester ’73 was, to some extent, the making of James Stewart as a star; after years away from Hollywood on wartime service he’d apparently actually thought of retiring from the screen, and though he didn’t give up the films he did were middling successes at best. This was one of the films he made in 1950 that reversed the trend for him and made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars for the rest of the decade; plus it opened up a new career path for Stewart as a Western star. And it helped open up the genre itself to more complicated themes; in this case the potentially episodic narrative is reined in by an overall structure, where the individual smaller tales that unfold as the rifle passes from one character to another all come together rather than remain separate. Not hard to imagine this being remade as a big widescreen epic, except that these days it’d be twice as long and probably half as effective; there’s a lot to be said for the ninety-minute economy of this film.

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