Photography: Universal Pictures
Photography: Universal Pictures

James Stewart stars in Anthony Mann’s classic 1950 western.

When James Stewart saddled up for the classic 1950 western Winchester ’73, he earned for himself a footnote in Hollywood history.

No kidding: When Lew Wasserman, Stewart’s agent at the time, hammered out a deal that would guarantee his client a sizeable percentage of the film’s profits in lieu of a hefty up-front salary, he set a precedent that would forever change the dynamics of deal-making between studios and stars. Not incidentally, Wasserman — who later wound up running Universal Pictures — also ensured that Stewart would enjoy the biggest payday of his career to date.

But that’s not the only reason why Winchester ’73 looms so large in any account of Stewart’s illustrious career.

Throughout most of the many movies in which he starred before World War II — including Destry Rides Again (1937), his only movie released prior to Winchester ’73 that’s a western of any sort — Stewart came across as an affable, aw-shucks kind of fellow whose easygoing charisma enhanced his performances in comedies and dramas alike.

After the war, however, Stewart — who earned commendations and decorations for his distinguished service as a bomber pilot during dangerous missions over Nazi-occupied territories — returned to Hollywood significantly changed by his combat experiences. Indeed, while filming It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) for director Frank Capra, he openly questioned whether acting was a suitable job for any serious individual, and was mollified only when co-star Lionel Barrymore convinced him of the importance of their profession by waxing eloquent: “Jimmy, don’t ever forget that acting is the greatest profession ever invented. When you act you move millions of people, shape their lives, give them a sense of exaltation. No other profession has that power.”

One could argue that Stewart’s image makeover — evolving from sunny affability to anxious intensity — started with It’s a Wonderful Life, the movie in which he played the owner of a small-town savings-and-loan who’s driven perilously close to suicidal despair, and who recovers his lust for life only after being given a harrowing view of an alternative world in which he never played a part. But Winchester ’73 is the film most widely credited as the one that allowed Stewart to demonstrate for the first time the full range of darker colors on his palette.

“If the pre-war Stewart stood for something essentially American,” notes film historian and Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, “the post-war Stewart stood for something truly universal. It’s a difficult to think of another American star who remade his own image so thoroughly, or so bravely.”

Stewart stars in Winchester ’73 as Lin McAdam, a steely-eyed sharpshooter who traverses the Wild West of 1876, accompanied only by loyal and leathery sidekick Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) while obsessively pursuing outlaw Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). It’s not until late in the movie that the audience discovers what set McAdam out on his vengeance trail: Dutch Henry is his brother, and years earlier killed their father. Right from the start, however, it’s more than a little unsettling to note the enormous enmity between the two men, especially when they compete in a Dodge City shooting contest for a prized Winchester rifle under the watchful eye of Wyatt Earp (Will Geer).

McAdam emerges as the victor, but he doesn’t hold on to the Winchester for very long. He’s relieved of the weapon after being brutally beaten by Dutch Henry during one of many scenes in the movie that, even by western movie standards, seems unusually vicious and convincing. The rifle continues to change hands, moving from a tinhorn gunrunner (John McIntire) to a renegade Indian warrior (Rock Hudson — yes, that Rock Hudson) to a smiling sadist of an outlaw (Dan Duryea) even as the battered but unbowed McAdam continues his tireless hunt for Dutch Henry.

Everything leads to an extended shootout on a rocky hilltop between the brothers. And throughout it all, Stewart maintains a sensationally deft balance of vulnerability and violence that makes him all the more arresting and impressive as a western hero.

Stewart biographer Marc Eliot singles out Winchester ’73 as the first film in which the celebrated star played “a tough, strong, hard killer,” taking particular notice of a scene in which Stewart’s McAdam “pounds bad guy Dan Duryea’s head to a near pulp on the hard wood of a saloon bar, a scene that anyone who sees it for the first time is not likely to forget.” According to screenwriter Borden Chase: “When the picture was given a sneak preview, there had been some titters in the audience at seeing Stewart’s name in the opening titles of a western. That was before Broken Arrow [a western actually filmed before Winchester ’73] was released. But once he smashed Dan Duryea in the bar, there was no more snickering.”

Decades later, Stewart described Winchester ’73 “a desperation move that proved a lifesaver” in terms of his career. “It opened up sort of a new area for me in the picture business, in the type of story I could do,” he told film historian Paul Lindenschmidt. “I’ve always felt that the western – which is a sort of pure motion picture, when you come right down to it – has had trends, right from the beginning of the picture business. Up and down, up and down. It’s continued all through the history of the picture business.

“And if you’re able to get the story started at a time when that trend is starting up, you’re in very good shape. That’s what I got a feeling would happen when I got Winchester at that particular time.”

Stewart would go on to appear in several other westerns, including Two Rode Together (1961), in which he starred opposite Richard Widmark for director John Ford; the star-studded epic How the West Was Won (1962); Firecreek (1968), which cast him as a small-town part-time sheriff forced to tangle with a murderous outlaw played by Henry Fonda; The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), a comedy that reunited Stewart and Fonda, two long-time off-screen friends, as unlikely owners of a frontier bordello; and, of course, two classics with his buddy John Wayne: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), also directed by John Ford, and The Shootist (1976), the Duke’s final film.

But many movie buffs and most film historians agree that the most significant “horse operas” on James Stewart’s resume — the ones that solidified his screen image as the flawed and sometimes ferocious outsider who goes to extremes and doesn’t aim to please — are the five he made for director Anthony Mann, the filmmaker who guided Stewart through the rigors of Winchester ’73. After that successful collaboration, they memorably reteamed in fairly rapid succession for four more westerns: Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954) and The Man from Laramie (1955). (They also worked together on three popular non-westerns: Thunder Bay [1953], The Glenn Miller Story [1954], and Strategic Air Command [1955].) And even though they eventually had a falling out during the filming of Night Passage (1957), a western completed by director James Neilson, Stewart seldom was stinting in his praise of the Hollywood craftsman who helped redefine him in the eyes of moviegoers.

Mann was his first choice to direct Winchester ’73, Stewart said, because he was “very impressed” by an earlier western by the filmmaker, Devil’s Doorway (1950). “You could see that he had a thing that is absolutely essential in a western,” Stewart said. “You could see that he had a very conscious feeling that a western had to be a visual thing. Talking is all right. But in a western, the story is told visually. And if all you’ve got is a lot of people sitting around talking, you don’t have a good western.

“I know Anthony Mann believed that. And the further I got, when I did some pictures with John Ford — well, this was like reading the Bible, as far as he was concerned. He’d come out very strongly and say, ‘If you can’t tell the story and get it up on the screen without reliance on the spoken word, you’re not using the medium properly.’ Which is pretty much what I realized when I started doing westerns.”

Influential film critic Andrew Sarris praised the Stewart/Mann westerns “for their insights into the uneasy relationships between men and women in a world of violence and action. Stewart, the most complete actor-personality in the American cinema, is particularly gifted in expressing the emotional ambivalence of the action hero.”

Perhaps because Stewart saw himself as playing a different kind of action hero.

“My characters in westerns,” Stewart told Lindenschmidt, “probably were more vulnerable than, say, Duke Wayne. When Duke was in it, everybody pretty much knew that Duke was going to come out on top. But there was a little question about that with me. Actually, I think this vulnerability worked pretty well into the western way of doing things.”

Which ranks high among the reasons why Clint Eastwood is a great admirer of the classic Stewart/Mann collaborations.

“James Stewart is one of my heroes,” Eastwood told me during a 1990 interview. “And in all of those Anthony Mann westerns that I grew up with – like The Far Country and Winchester ’73 – Stewart was always good.

“He wasn’t a violent-looking man. And he wasn’t a real huge man, although he’s very, very tall. But he could portray violence, he could portray anger, better than almost any other actor. I mean, there was this underlying anger – when Jimmy Stewart was mad, it really projected well on the screen. It wasn’t like some actor frothing at the mouth, and making a lot of gestures. He was in touch with his own anger somehow. And he presented it well.

“And I think that’s what made him a good protagonist in westerns.”