Best Movies by Farr: Darker Jimmy Stewart

December 15, 2011 | John Farr

Following World War II, James Stewart decided he needed to pursue roles that reflected the darker atmosphere of the Atomic Age. He found them in westerns.

Winchester ’73 (1950)

Lin McAdam (James Stewart) is roaming the prairies, looking to settle an old score with one Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). Unfortunately, when the two meet up, they’re in Marshal Wyatt Earp’s jurisdiction and must surrender their weapons. The two do compete in a shooting contest for a brand-new Winchester ’73 rifle, the finest firearm made. McAdam wins, but through an act of treachery, loses the rifle. McAdam goes after Dutch Henry again, only this time, he wants his rifle back too.

James Stewart wanted a change from his folksy, everyman roles, and in a risky move, chose a western to give his image a harder edge. Director Anthony Mann and he would collaborate on four more oaters after this outing, which proved a huge success. “Winchester” brought a new complexity of character to the Western form, literally resuscitating a fading genre. This role also revived Stewart’s career by displaying the actor’s impressive range: Stewart’s McAdam is a dark, conflicted, angry fellow, far removed from the Mr. Smiths and Elwood P. Dowds of the world. Film also features sterling support from Dan Duryea, Millard Mitchell, and a comely Shelley Winters as a sweet-natured showgirl. Also look fast for Rock Hudson playing an Indian brave.

The Naked Spur (1953)

Kansas rancher-turned bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart) faces a stubborn obstacle in his effort to return fugitive killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) for a $5,000 reward: old timer Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and dishonorably discharged cavalryman Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) turn up at an opportune moment to help Kemp corner Ben and his feisty gal, Lina (Janet Leigh), and now they want a share of the money. But it’s a long way from the Indian-inhabited Colorado mountains to Kansas, and everyone, it seems, is watching out for number one.

Filmed in Technicolor in the gorgeously rugged Rocky Mountains, Mann’s gritty, thrilling Western hinges on the hidden motives of its five protagonists, each of whom is running from a sordid past. In a none-too-wholesome role, Stewart is brilliant as a bitter war veteran whose fiancee abandoned him while he was away at the front-and made off with the title to his ranch. Mitchell’s no-luck miner and Meeker’s unsavory, no-account soldier vie with Kemp as Ryan, cackling like a jackal, sets all parties against each other while plotting his escape. The radiant Leigh rounds out the cast playing Lina, a misguided gal longing for a new life in California who falls for Stewart. “Spur” is a tough, bristling horse drama by noir director Anthony Mann.

The Man from Laramie (1955)

Laramie native Will Lockhart (James Stewart) rolls into Coronado, N.M., with a wagon train of goods he aims to deliver, but his real motive is to find the person responsible for selling rifles to the Apaches who killed his brother. Lockhart soon learns the town is part of a vast empire owned by Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), an aging patriarch trying to decide whether to leave his vast holdings to Vic (Arthur Kennedy), his right-hand man, or his only son Dave (Alex Nicol), a dangerously unhinged cretin. Lockhart’s dust-up with Dave soon puts him into conflict with the Waggomans and town authorities.

Anthony Mann’s first picture in CinemaScope was also his last with frequent collaborator Jimmy Stewart, terrifically gritty here playing a former Army captain with a chip on his shoulder who becomes embroiled in a family’s Shakespearean conflict. Shot on location in New Mexico desert, “Laramie” has a stark visual flair to match its tough cattlemen (Kennedy is great as Waggoman’s cunning second in charge) and dark psychological themes of vengeance and greed. Saddle up!

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