Winchester ’73

The first things I have to say about this film are that it features one of the earliest credits for Tony Curtis, and that Rock Hudson is buried in the cast, and he plays an Indian. Right, now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the film.

I like this kind of film. Now, that statement’s not much good to you without knowing what kind of film it is, but regardless of that I like it anyway. It’s the kind of film where several smaller stories are all tied together through coincidence, or an object being passed from one to another, as is the case here. There are some exceptions – I wasn’t wild about Au Hasard Balthazar or Babel – but these types of collective narratives, like Magnolia, Short Cuts, Crash and Traffic, usually appeal to me, and having a great ensemble cast never hurts either. Here, the element that ties the stories together is a rifle.

Our introduction to the eponymous weapon is through James Stewart’s Lin McAdam, a cowboy on the trail of Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), a dangerous man with whom the two share a bitter past. When Lin rocks up in the town of Dodge City, presided over by Will Geer’s Wyatt Earp, he finds Dutch has entered into a shooting competition to win the rifle, so enters as well, mainly to stop his foe from winning the gun that won the West. After the competition, which also sees lookalikes of Davy Crockett and Colonel Sanders, so feels a bit like a western parody, the gun is passed from one person to the next, either by honest trade or dishonest force, and not always with it’s ammunition present. We follow the gun through the film until a fairly obvious and clearly signposted finale, where Lin eventually catches up to the on-the-run Dutch.

This film felt incredibly stagey and unnatural, so I rarely felt engrossed with the movie. For example, there’s an indoor scuffle early on that in which, mid-fight, someone draws the blinds to make the fight look more dramatic. Granted, this was also to try and hide the fisticuffs from those outside the window, but seeing as they were on the first storey I don’t think there was too much danger of that, and it’s clear it was done entirely to increase the dramatic tension. Also, a moment where Shelley Winters, who is great as the film’s predominant female presence, is sat tossing a coin up and down is just waiting for someone to come along and catch it mid-throw, and it just appears as if that’s the very reason shes sat there throwing it in the first place, which is just silly.

Stewart is good in the lead role, and he must have gotten on well with director Anthony Mann, as this is the first of 8 collaborations the pair shared, including The Naked Spur and The Man From Laramie, both of which also appear on the List. Some of the supporting cast are terrible though, particularly every bartender in the film, and there’s a moment where a man tries to hit on the girl whose fiance he just shot, which is bad form in my books.

If, like me, you love the sound of a bullet’s ricochet, then you’ll adore the final showdown, however I feel that there isn’t much here to hold the attention of people who don’t really like westerns. Now, I quite like them, so I thought the film was pretty good, though more could definitely have been done with the central premise, and the film peaks too early with the opening shooting competition. 

Choose film 6/10

Silver Lode

You ever have one of those mornings when you’re on holiday, you’ve woken up a few hours before your other half is likely to surface from the depths of slumber and you can’t go anywhere? Well, this happened to me recently, but fortunately I had my laptop and a copy of Silver Lode, yet I knew absolutely nothing of the film (save for it’s 81-minute runtime) so I settled down to watch it. I like watching films with o prior knowledge, and it happens less and less these days, so this was a nice surprise. In the opening credits though, I second-guessed the film completely incorrectly. You see, I could tell from the title that it was likely to be a western, and it stars a man called John Payne, who I’d previously never heard of, so I assumed it was a western spoof, and they’d tried to be funny by subbing the lead actor’s name with one comically similar to John Wayne. Nope, it turns out there’s an actor called John Payne who, according to IMDb, has 73 acting credits to his name, including this definitely-not-a-parody-or-even-a-comedy film.

Payne stars as Dan Ballard, a man who seems to only ever be referred to by his full name. On his wedding day, on the 4th of July, four U.S. Marshals, led by the greasy Ned McCarty (Dan Duryea), arrive in the town of Silver Lode and set about arresting Dan for a crime committed two years previously, just prior to his arrival in the town. Dan, who has become something of a pillar within the town’s community, initially has the support of his friend and neighbours, and especially his bride-to-be Rose (Lizabeth Scott), but it’s not long before the marshal’s story seems to make sense, and Dan is given two hours to put his affairs in order before he is to be arrested.

Surprisingly for a film released in 1954, I was bowled over by the cinematography in this movie. There is one shot in particular, which sees Ballard running for four blocks, dodging people, horses and gunshots, which has the camera following him the entire way. I’d even go so far as to call this the Children of Men of the 50s, so stunning is the shot. The actual story plays out in real time, from the moment the marshals arrive in town until the story reaches it’s conclusion, so in that way it was reminiscent of another classic western, High Noon, and in fact featured similar plot elements. Just as Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane had to plead with all of his friends to help him out, so too eventually does Ballard, and with similar results. If you liked High Noon, I’m fairly sure you’ll get on well with Silver Lode.

Some of the scenes have become almost cliches today, for example the opening-a-door-on-an-innocent-man-holding-a-gun-over-a-corpse trick, yet they remain effective if only a little eye-roll-worthy. The characters have become stock western tropes too – the tart with a heart of gold, grumpy magistrate, naive farmhand etc. They do spit out some wonderful, and occasionally cringe-inducing lines, with a young man, who I could have sworn was Ron Howard but apparently isn’t, telling Dan that he’ll never trust anyone again if he’s lied.

I approved of the way that initially the audience is kept as much in the dark as the townspeople, until around the halfway mark we’re put into Ballard’s shoes and shown what is really going on. This increased my empathy towards Dan, as it wasn’t until then that I knew what he was up against. Payne plays the man well, hinting at the possibility of a shady past, even though he  could be Cary Grant’s brother – in both speech pattern and the way he fills out a suit. The portrayal of Duryea’s McCarty was a little too on the nose as being the obvious villain of the piece. He definitely comes off as evil early on and not simply an antagonist for Ballard to overcome, which made some of the later reveals a tad unsurprising, but all in all I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and would recommend it to anyone else stuck for a couple of hours with nothing else they can possibly do.

Choose film 8/10