The Great Villain Blogathon: Dan Duryea in Winchester ‘73 (1950)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon 2015, hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy.  Click here to read all the posts. 

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images from http://www.sarahbethonline.com/ , http://www.brianrxm.com/, gonemovie.com

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35 thoughts on “The Great Villain Blogathon: Dan Duryea in Winchester ‘73 (1950)”

  1. This is my favorite Western! In a movie where nearly every supporting role is beautifully written and acted, Duryea is absolutely the stand-out. Can’t believe he never got an Oscar nomination.

    1. Oh I love it too! Was just waiting for an excuse to rewatch it! It is really saying a lot for Duryea that he manages to steal the movie among those amazing actors, because as you say, you cannot overstate how fabulous everybody is. The writing gives him so much to play with but it’s also hard to see anyone else doing that kind of performance. Also a case of a real life super nice guy who made great movie villains. Glad you liked it and thanks 🙂

    1. You must! One of the greatest western movies ever IMO and the acting is great. Mann made a number of super westerns and that’s a good place to start but don;t stop there 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  2. Excellent, Kristina! A marvelous breakdown of what makes Duryea such a tantalizing bad guy in this film, and in many others too. Even his character’s name has a kind of swagger.

    1. Thanks so much! I figured I had to write a bit more than “I love Dan Duryea” because I do, he can make you like and even root for his villains, makes any character more complicated and interesting, and with great writing like this is one of my faves in westerns. Cheers!

      1. Some actors were only ever as good as the material they were given to work with. Others, like Duryea, seemed to make the best stuff even better just by appearing in it.

  3. Great look at Dan Duryea in this classic western. I like your distinction in levels of villainy between Duryea and McNally.

    1. Thanks, it was fun to really think about and work that comparison out, since I enjoy McNally a lot, but Duryea steals it in the villainy dept. There are some great westerns villains that stick in your memory forever…

  4. This is a wonderful description of Duryea’s magic. I just saw this film for the first time last year and thought Duryea had one of the greatest entrances I’d ever seen. You’ve just about forgotten his name was in the opening credits and pow! in he comes through that window. It’s spectacular.

    You also capture something I think makes Duryea so beloved to many of us — he takes a real joy in what he’s doing. The actor, we suspect, is having as much fun as his character. Then you add in that by all accounts he was a supremely nice and decent man off the screen, and his adeptness at playing memorable villains is even more striking.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    1. Thanks so much, very true, he could do it all, from tightly coiled and scary to unhinged to kind of delightfully bad here, and always gave it his all which makes him such a joy to watch. In that house scene he shifts gears so quickly and smoothly, it’s amazing to watch him do it and also notice the gears in his head constantly turning too. Grade A acting, plus that something extra, had a great time revisiting it. Best!

  5. Duryea an all time great. It’s impossible not to love what he brings to a bad guy role. That image of Dan and Jimmy at the bar is iconic. He’s like a cat toying with his prey only he does it verbally. Great breakdown of a must see.

    1. He made the villains so fascinating, love how he uses victims as entertainment. That scene at the bar also hit me this time I watched, because it does something interesting, it shows Stewart to have an equally explosive and violent streak as the villains, which to me, seemed to scare Duryea even more than McNally ever could. Sign of a great film that you find things like that to talk about. Thanks very much!

  6. True! Duryea steals the entire movie, which is a tall order with a cast like this. And what a movie to steal! It’s so tense, and (as mentioned previously) Jimmy Stewart is a man teetering on a thin line mentally. This was a perfect choice for the blogathon.

    1. One of those films you can watch over and over and always see and appreciate new things. I loved him in this and loved revisiting a western, nice to have them included in the villainy! Thank you!

  7. Ooohhh – he made me so mad when I watched this film! You did a masterful job, Kristina – great post. And thanks for co-hosting this very fun event.

    1. Thanks so much! And you remember him, don’t you? So it worked. It is such a fun event and I can’t wait to make the rounds and check it all out !

    1. You’ll like it, I’ll bet– can’t go wrong with this acting and cast. And director too, if you like Mann’s noirs you’ll see the same artistry and good plotting. Thanks for reading!

  8. In the years before the internet introduced me to other western fans, I felt like “Winchester ’73” was my private, secret movie. I didn’t realize it was the thing that binds us together.

    I love the description of Dan Duryea in Leonard Maltin’s Encyclopedia: “On-screen, Duryea exhibited every human weakness: He was mean-spirited, cowardly, selfish, weak – and yet, somehow, strangely compelling if not totally endearing.” Yes, sir! That’s our guy! You could not have chosen a more perfect villain for the blogathon nor done more to present him in the best way. Excellent!

    1. Yes, thanks for that, endearing is a perfect word– no matter how good he is at being bad, he can’t stop me from enjoying him! 🙂 Like I do with Vincent Price, I always find Duryea more lovable than hateful or evil. Winchester ’73 is an amazing piece of art, one of the movies I like to recommend to people who don’t think they like westerns (they do, they just don’t know it yet ;)). Many thanks as always

  9. I loved it Kristina! First of all, I’m glad you chose this character and you did a great job going over how he fits into the whole and the ways that we respond to him.

    Duryea’s Waco Johnny Dean is one of my all-time favorite villains too. From his spectacular entrance–seems like everyone who sees it agrees this is a great moment and it is one of the most brilliantly staged and filmed moments in Anthony Mann and likely wouldn’t have been done that way with any other actor–to his final compelling interaction with Stewart, he’s simply mesmerizing. I’m less inclined to say he steals the movie because I love all those people and they are all perfectly cast, but easy to say at least that he is the standout and in what is surely no more than 15 minutes on screen. It was surely a good decision for the whole movie to give him such a late entrance.

    I love Dan Duryea generally and most things he has done but this is my favorite of all his roles. If Academy Award winners were up to me he would have had Supporting Actor in 1950 hands down for this. But it doesn’t even matter if that’s only a fantasy–who won these awards is much less important than how we respond to them now in a context such as you’ve provided, and your piece is a great example.

    1. Many thanks for the kind words. Yes it’s very true, the whole cast is great, everyone is well suited to their roles and the interplay makes the whole better still. Millard Mitchell especially deserves to be named in any discussion of this movie. And it bears repeating how both Winters and McNally help make Waco the character he is through their exchanges and contrasts/similarities, and give Duryea so much to play off.

      I like your comment about Mann likely not doing the entrance the same with any other actor, he really did bring us up close to Duryea’s face and follow his frenetic but very deliberate movements. I love watching him in that house sequence, he just flips from one emotion and intention to another like that kind of acting is the easiest thing in the world. Only looks easy if you’re THAT good. Thanks again for stopping by, best!

  10. Super job, Kristina!

    I’ve never seen this film, but now I wish I had. For one thing, Stewart is one of my favorite actors ever, and I love it when he goes against type and plays something other than a totally nice guy.

    And as for your villain, Duryea’s portrayal sounds so well layered, I’m ashamed I’ve missed this until now.

    Plus, this is great:
    “…A good movie villain is a joy to watch, easy to understand and fun to hate…”
    THAT’S a perfect statement.

    Your review was a treat to read, Kristina.
    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go to my Amazon Prime account and order this movie…. 😉

    1. Get it, you will not be sorry! It’s one of my fave westerns, and a great place to start if you haven’t seen the other Mann-directed Stewart westerns, some fantastic roles there for him. Duryea is one of those actors you love to follow and spot in movies. Thanks for the kind words and for being part of this event too! Best!

  11. I just watched Winchester ’73 again the other day on Encore Western and I have to agree. Waco Johnnie is a wonderfully sophisticated villain. But then Mr. Duryea was so good at playing nuanced characters! It is really hard seeing anyone else playing Waco Johnnie and pulling it off so well.

    1. Yes he really was good at being ambiguous, and has that glee you can’t help but enjoy (I keep going back to that scene where he sends his gang to their doom and somehow makes it funny! not many actors could do that) Thanks so much for reading.

  12. What a brilliant piece! I always think of Duryea as well when I think about Winchester ’73. You did a great analysis of this villain.
    Thanks for hosting the blogathon! It has been grat fun to read the entries.
    Kisses!
    Le

    1. He’s one of the best! So it was fun to watch this again and try to describe why I like it. Thanks for being part of the blogathon again this year!

  13. It’s interesting how you chose to write about a secondary villain, than the main villain. I haven’t seen ‘Winchester ’73’, but would love to check it out now. Sounds like a unique movie in relation to a rifle. Nice Review!

    1. Yes, both were great actors but Duryea had such impact I had to talk about him 🙂 I think it is one of the best western films ever, hopefully you’d enjoy it. Thanks so much!

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