Winchester '73 (Anthony Mann / U.S., 1950):

The sense of steely geometry -- a line from Dodge City to Tascosa, but really a circle -- was inherited from Lang, though the ruthless dismantling of the Western’s heroic veneer is Anthony Mann’s own stroke of genius. The eponymous "gun that won the West" is introduced in sacramental close-up and put up as top prize at the shooting competition. A wry Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) presides over Fourth of July’s festive bulletfests, looking "undressed" without his tin star. The James Stewart who rides into town is a shadow version of the actor’s prewar dawdling sopranos, wrapped in gunslinger leather and with brutal neuroses ready to flare; he and Stephen McNally have unfinished business, eventually they’re revealed as Abel and Cain in the sagebrush. "That’s too much gun for one man..." Stewart wins the prized rifle, which is then seized by McNally, then by a gunrunner (John McIntire), a Sioux chief (Rock Hudson in war paint), a reformed outlaw (Charles Drake) and an unreformed one (Dan Duryea). If Ford is evoked (vide Shelley Winters’ entrance à la Stagecoach), it’s as a point of departure -- the genre’s old gallantry turns obsolete in a West as astringent as Mann’s, his cowboys are modern brooders negotiating the impending collapse of terrain, body, and mind. Mann bends horizons with tight yet volatile spatial arrangements: A trio of bushwackers and a wily trader crowding a poker table, framed against a mountain of rusty artillery. A tiny, scalped figure seen from atop a canyon. The battered desert floor in the wake of Little Big Horn, with Cavalry soldiers waiting out the hours before a morning skirmish. A husband getting himself shot while trying to atone for an act of cowardice. Above all, the giant cacti and jagged boulders in the fraternal showdown, where bullets ricochet inches away from the actors’ faces. The Winchester fills the weary screen at the close, just an instrument at the end of a trail of corpses. With Millard Mitchell, Jay C. Flippen, John Alexander, Steve Brodie, James Millican, Abner Biberman, and Tony Curtis. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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