To the German-born Anthony Mann, the postwar Stewart must have seemed like the absolute physical embodiment of expressionism, all angles and angst and darkened corridors.
Mann directed five classic Westerns with Stewart, beginning with Winchester ’73 in 1950. For many, The Naked Spur (1953), which also starred Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh and Ralph Meeker, is in a class by itself. The ads for it claimed it was “an avalanche of furious emotions.” Who can argue with that? Today, Firecreek (1968) seems like a dress rehearsal for the even more sinister work that Henry Fonda would do in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, released here a year later. The film tells the story of a community in hiding, looked after by James Stewart as a genial but ineffective sheriff. Fonda runs a pack of hard cases who figure the town is theirs for the abusing. It was an unpleasant film full of unlikable characters like many 1960s Westerns that were meant to be somewhat more adult but were bleak and repellent. Fortunately, the flipside of this disc offers 1970’s The Cheyenne Social Club, which involves that most current of cowboy tropes, the two grizzled cowpokes who are married to their work, their freedom and each other. John (James Stewart) tells his good-natured pal Harley (Henry Fonda), “Harley, you’ve been with me for 10 years and I don’t even know why.” “Does it worry ya?,” Harley asks. “No.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Fonda and Stewart are a bit old for their parts and the women of Stewart’s new bordello are so lacking in character they may as well be hand puppets in Victorian drag. In spite of those minor snags, however, the movie is quite charming.