Trying to pin down Duryea’s Waco Johnny Dean for The Great Villain Blogathon.
Winchester ‘73 (1950) is the story of a most desirable and well-travelled rifle, one that changes hands several times, and as it does it reveals much about each person holding it, much about the character and will of the man who originally won it and wants it back, and about the man who stole it. In this first western from the great team of director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart, the Winchester is a gorgeous item that inspires envy and murder as well as a device that connects people and resolves a long simmering feud.
The story has Stewart entering the Dodge City rifle shooting contest, where he faces off with Stephen McNally. Through an extended series of “playoff” rounds, we learn that their expert marksmanship is identical because they were trained by the same man, and their competition is heated, revealing deep animosity between them. Stewart wins the gun but McNally attacks him, steals the prize and rides away. Stewart spends the rest of the story tracking McNally, unaware that he’s lost the gun to weapons trader John McIntire, who loses it to Indian chief Rock Hudson, whose death passes it to Charles Drake, the cowardly boyfriend of dancehall woman Shelley Winters, who’s soon killed by flashy outlaw Dan Duryea, who… well I won’t tell you the whole story.
It’s clear from that setup that McNally is our primary villain. He’s bad, unlikable, and set against Stewart though we don’t fully know why. He gets a lot of screen time and as much story detail is devoted to piecing together his true identity and relation to Stewart, as is focussed on the whereabouts of the Winchester. It must also be said that McNally is a wonderful, solid actor in this, as he was in most of his roles.
So why did I pick Dan Duryea to focus on as the villain in this movie? Because he does wonders with his smaller role, because in this cast of fine actors doing top notch work, Duryea steals the movie, because when he’s on screen I smile, and because when I think of Winchester ‘73 I always think of him. Duryea always made villainy seem delightful, a little ambiguous and enjoyable to watch; I can never totally hate him. Added to the talent, the zeal and appeal Duryea brings as an actor, the story also gives his character, Waco Johnny Dean, some wiggle room out of the purely evil category. He’s hard to pin down on the spectrum of the more typical good/bad characters, because he sometimes understands or even takes up the good guys’ side, does a few things the viewers’ might agree with, is compared to the heroes through similar actions, and contrasted to McNally’s style of villainy. Which is not to call Duryea a villain with a heart of gold, just that he’s a slightly more complicated and compelling bad guy brought to life by a great actor who was great at playing mercurial, layered and offbeat.
McNally’s identity (going by “Dutch”) is a mystery for most of the picture, a puzzle assembled through hints and clues presented to the different characters, that mean little to them at the time but help us piece the picture together. As a personality, though, McNally is straightforward; he’s bad, mean, sullen, antisocial, intimidating and strikes without warning. He has no patience for Duryea’s brand of play or sarcasm, since his idea of clever is to just point his gun at people and stare at them to signal his intentions. Duryea is a far more creative and engaging villain, narcissistic, supremely confident one who laughs at his own jokes and is entertained by bullying others. He’s an attention-craving performer from his fantastic first appearance late in the film. Mann fixes the camera close on his face as he breaks into the boarding house, runs to the window, fires a shot, and gives us that signature giggle before cordially greeting Drake and setting his sights on Winters.
Winters rebukes Duryea for his cowardice, mocks him for holding women and children hostage and tells him she wouldn’t be surprised if he used the kids for shields. Duryea is more impressed by her directness and excited by what he recognizes as a similar spirit, than he is offended or angered by her attack. Put McNally in his place and he’d kill her on the spot. As part of her tirade, Winters lets slip the comment that Duryea is a coward, “another brave man.” Duryea instantly picks up on her meaning which is confirmed by Drake’s reaction and sees both a yellow streak and a sign of discord he can exploit. Duryea releases the woman and kids (more to impress Winters and save his reputation, than to admit she’s right) and then he spots the Winchester in Drake’s hands. When his offer to purchase the gun is refused, Duryea’s mind is made up to get rid of Drake and take both girl and gun. Here again he’s not impulsive enough to just murder the man, he does like a predator toying with his prey and spends time humiliating Drake instead.
He forces Drake into a woman’s role, ordering him to go make coffee, put on an apron, clean up a spill. Winters gets that he’s pushing Drake to draw but not before making her see what a “man” she’s picked, but her warnings are useless. Drake snaps, pulls his weapon and gets himself killed. It’s an evil act, but there’s no denying that the viewer still thinks Drake might have it coming, considering the way he abandoned Winters to a sure death in an Indian attack earlier in the movie. In a small way here, Duryea plays into the viewer’s feelings and as he says later to Winters, you can understand why he thinks he did her a favour. When the law sets that house on fire to smoke him out, Duryea proceeds to double cross his own gang by sending them out into the fire and the line of fire before sneaking out a back way with Winters. Even though it demonstrates an utter lack of loyalty or honour, selfishness to the extreme, it’s a moment Duryea plays so easily and lightly, you can’t help but laugh.
Duryea takes Winters to McNally’s shack where they will plan a bank robbery, and where that Winchester falls back into McNally’s hands. After his grand, seemingly indestructible confidence in the previous scenes, here, in the brief exchange over the gun, Duryea looks quite easily subdued and diminished by McNally. It leads Winters to tell him, “you’re a strange person.” She’s confused by his lusting after that rifle, being willing to kill Drake for it, and then so easily giving it up. But it shows us Duryea is smarter than McNally, he knows his place, when to back down and plot his move at a better time. “I’ll get it back later.”
In his exchanges with Winters we see another interesting angle to his character; he almost treats her as an equal. He tries to defy McNally by insisting on her being present as they plot the robbery. He thinks he’s complimenting her value by getting rid of her (in his view) useless and unworthy boyfriend Drake. He tells her the truth about his intentions and feelings and loves to interact with her. He feeds off her put downs and takes her insults and judgments as encouragement, playful, teasing, more chances to show off his wit, and get her to see his appeal. For all his badness, he doesn’t treat her too shabbily. They’ve both got brains; she uses hers to discover his left-handed “tell” and passes the info on to Stewart when they meet again. Sure enough, when Duryea distracts Stewart by overfilling his shot glass, Stewart is ready. He twists Duryea’s arm behind him and presses his head into the bar until he agrees to betray McNally.
This time Duryea is too rattled to wait for a better moment to strike back. All his joviality and bravado is gone, replaced with a desperate grab for the first gun he sees and a badly timed spin to try and shoot Stewart. True to form, Duryea even goes out in style, giving us a memorable death scene in which he writhes, still standing, mindlessly emptying his pistol into the ground before dropping dead.
A good movie villain is a joy to watch, easy to understand and fun to hate. Duryea knew how to achieve all those things, whether he’s mocking the law, slickly putting moves on Winters, staring daggers at McNally, sizing up Stewart or going out with a bang. He’s riveting in every scene and, in one of the best westerns ever made, creates one of that genre’s most memorable villains.