The town of Dodge City is celebrating its centenary with a sharpshooting contest and for the victor there's a brand new Winchester '73 rifle to be won, and not any old rifle, but one of a sort that represents the finest manufacture it is possible to create. Such guns are one in a thousand, so rare are they, so understandably many are keen to own this particular item, which is what brings Lin McAdam (James Stewart) to the area, but not simply because he thinks he can win it, also because of a certain other man he believes will be attracted to the competition...
If anyone made the defining Hollywood Westerns in the nineteen-fifties of a psychological type, then director Anthony Mann would be a strong candidate, especially those he made with star Stewart. Not that this example had their formula perfected, but for all its rough edges it remained one of the best of their collaborations which could have been down to its sheer freshness after years of black hat versus white hat Roy Rogers or Gene Autry adventures. Certainly there had been Westerns for the grown-ups before this, but few were quite as influential in announcing that the genre was getting serious more often than not from now on.
You could track the evolution of the style from this film all the way to the Spaghetti Westerns of the sixties to the all-too-brief renaissance in the nineties with the likes of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, and if cinema outgrew it, then you couldn't really blame Mann and Stewart for setting that in motion when what they were doing was a minor revolution, perhaps born of the film noir approach and what that had done for thrillers in the forties. As it stood, the plot was simple enough here, deceptively so as we followed the journey of the gun of the title through the hands of a selection of characters, one brave and noble, one cowardly, one villainous - well, make that a few villainous.
The point being that no matter how the rifle was regarded as a useful tool for existing in the Old West, it was only a matter of time before it would be used against a human being. This burden of potential murder may not weigh heavily on the inamimate object itself (it's not as if it has any personality to speak of) but on the characters who move into its orbit. When McAdam catches sight of the man he's been tracking for quite a while in a Dodge City saloon, he goes for his gun and his quarry, Dutch Henry Brown (Steve McNally), goes for his... but there's a snag when the Marshal, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) has confiscated every weapon in the area, so all they can do is bide their time until someone wins that rifle.
Despite the first-billed Stewart, this was as much an ensemble piece as it was a star vehicle; he was taking a chance on this film to give his post-war career a boost, and it needed it after a string of underperformers (including It's a Wonderful Life, oddly), yet was generous enough to disappear from the action for fairly long stretches, allowing his fellow castmembers a chance to shine. Among them were Shelley Winters as a saloon girl (i.e. prostitute, except they couldn't say that onscreen in 1950) who backs the wrong horse when she thinks Charles Drake will protect her, John McIntire as an expert cardsharp who trades with the Indians (including Rock Hudson in warpaint!), and best of all Dan Duryea, one of the finest weaselly bullies Hollywood ever brought to the movies, and here on great form as an outlaw even less scrupulous than Dutch Henry. There is naturally a backstory between McAdam and him which we find out at the end, but it's clichéd business: what wasn't was Mann's forthright, mature and exciting style, with Stewart matching him perfectly.