P.O.V. No.24 - The Western

The Shape of a Western
- Visual Design in Winchester '73 and The Man from Laramie

Jakob Isak Nielsen

This essay addresses an overarching question: How did the transition from Academy ratio (1.37: 1) to CinemaScope (2.66, 2.55 and 2.35: 1) affect the compositional principles of the Hollywood Western? [1] Space prohibits me from answering this question in relation to the entire genre so I will limit myself to the Westerns of Anthony Mann and single out two of these - Winchester '73 and The Man from Laramie - in order to explain how Mann and his crew use the possibilities facilitated by the two formats for characterization, articulating character relationships and for incorporating Western iconography into the films' visual design.

Mann was one of the most prominent directors of Westerns during the transition from Academy ratio to various forms of widescreen presentation and directed a total of ten Westerns during the 1950s. [2] Three of these were in CinemaScope (The Man from Laramie, The Last Frontier & Man of the West), two were in widescreen formats 1.75-1.85: 1 (The Far Country & The Tin Star)[3] and the rest were in Academy ratio. Winchester '73 was Mann's second Western after Devil's Doorway but the first to be released (consequently his first in Academy ratio) and The Man from Laramie (1955) was Mann's first Western in CinemaScope. James Stewart is the star of both these films as he was of three other Westerns directed by Mann but Winchester '73 and The Man from Laramie also share a number of traits at the level of narrative organization. Jim Kitses argues that at the formal level these are the only Westerns directed by Mann to have revenge at the centre of their narrative design (p. 33). [4] In both films Stewart's character hunts a man for revenge with a persistence that borders on obsession.

Another salient common denominator is the narrative significance of rifles in the two films. Winchester '73 takes its title from the Winchester Rifle Model 1873 or "the gun that won the West" as the opening title informs us. The Man from Laramie is structured around Will Lockhart's (James Stewart) search for the man who sold repeating rifles to the Indians, which they in turn used to massacre his young brother on a routine cavalry patrol. [5] I do not mean to say that the functions of revenge and rifles are identical in the two films. In fact I will come to argue that the Academy and Scope formats facilitate different staging strategies which substantiate the different narrative functions of rifles in the respective films as well as the different relationships between Stewart's character and the man he is hunting.

High and Wide
Considering what Jean-Pierre Coursodon refers to as Anthony Mann's "predilection [...] for stories involving prolonged journeying" [6] one would expect to see in his CinemaScope Westerns the horizontal landscape vistas highlighted by Arthur Edeson who shot one of the first widescreen Westerns: the 70mm version of The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh, 1930). [7] A number of scenes in The Man from Laramie are in fact played out in flat and horizontal landscapes: the opening shot (Fig. 1), Lockhart's first encounter with the young and reckless Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) at the salt lagoons, Lockhart's meeting up with Charlie (Wallace Ford) in the desert, and Lockhart's high speed pursuit of Vic (Arthur Kennedy) towards the end of the film (Fig. 2). Academy ratio on the other hand yields more opportunities for vertical staging. [8] E.g., in the pursuit scenes in Winchester '73 there is a stronger use of steep diagonals (Fig. 3-6).

Fig. 1. The horizontal landscape, lateral grouping of objects and lateral movement contrast with the opening shot of Winchester '73 (see fig. 13).   Fig. 2. Pursuit at dusk. Lockhart's pursuit of Vic emphasizes movement across flat landscapes.

Fig. 3 - 6. Pursuit at dusk. The Academy ratio favors dynamic staging along steep diagonal lines. As the Indians chase Lin and High-Spade into the cavalry camp, Mann and his cinematographer William Daniels make use of the vertical dimensions of the image. They use the height of the image and let both groups ride up and down a hill. In Fig. 6 the diagonal plane of the format is again put to dynamic use but this time extended in depth: In the upper left corner one can glimpse Lin in the distance pursuing Dutch Henry whom we see in the lower right corner of the frame.

The differences of lateral staging in Scope and vertical staging in Academy are best illustrated by those key scenes in Mann's films where Stewart's character advances towards the man he has been hunting for the final showdown - facing a nemesis placed at a higher altitude from which he must take him down.

Mann's countless vertical set-ups during the final showdown in Winchester '73 are not simply a way of accommodating the action to a taken-for-granted frame ratio. The vertical set-ups substantiate the psychological and physical relationship of two brothers - the younger of these about to take down his elder brother. Dutch Henry/Matthew (Stephen McNally) being perched on top of bluffs carries multiple meanings. It does of course substantiate that he is a cunning character - it's the cowardly position, the position of an ambush, the position where a criminal will seek refuge from the law or - as in this case - a big brother can gain an unfair advantage over his younger brother. In this sense it can be seen as a partial re-staging of child play just as Lin earlier had to relive the painful experience of being beaten by Dutch Henry (his big brother).

Fig. 7-9. Mann and Daniels make good use of the vertical prominence of the Academy frame. Not only are Lin and Matthew at the very top and bottom of the frame, they are virtually touching the frame lines. Since TV presentation slightly crops images these shots would hardly have occurred after TV became an important ancillary market for feature films.

As in Winchester '73 (and The Naked Spur) James Stewart's character arrives at the final showdown in The Man from Laramie "below another man's gun." But as opposed to Winchester '73, which uses the vertical dimensions of the frame extensively and stacks the characters on top of one another (Fig. 7-9), Mann foregoes an encounter along vertical lines and instead lets Lockhart sneak into frame laterally by means of his own movement as well as that of the camera (Fig. 10-11).

Fig. 10-11. Lockhart steps closer to Vic as the camera tracks right.

The lateral staging used to bring Lockhart and Vic into the same frame for the final showdown in The Man from Laramie is revealing of Lockhart's relationship with Vic. In many ways these two characters resemble one another and are on an equal plane. [9] As in Winchester '73 the two nemeses had a fight earlier in the film but in this case the fight ended in a draw. They are alike in other ways as well. They are in love with the same woman, Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O'Donnell). Lockhart even comes to take a job as foreman at The Half Moon ranch that is parallel to Vic's job as foreman on the Barb ranch. Neither is "an easy man" and their motives and moral integrity are not so far apart as they were in Winchester '73 where Dutch Henry was guilty of shooting his father in the back.

As André Bazin writes about Vic in his review of the film: "It is not clear who the traitor is, nor even whether there is one at all." [10] The calculated tyranny of his employee Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) to some extent excuses Vic's involvement in the business of selling guns to the Apache. As Bazin points out his involvement may look different in the eyes of Lockhart but to the viewer it is clear that Dave Waggoman is the more guilty of the two and that Vic "... did not will all the evil to which his first error condemned him" (op. cit.). Even the fact that Lockhart comes up from behind - as Howard Kemp (also Stewart) does in the opening shots of The Naked Spur - suggests that his motives may not be morally sound and that he would betray our sympathies by shooting Vic.

Hypersituated and Integrated Objects
In a seminal article published in 1963, [11] Charles Barr argues that Scope is not merely a format for epic spectacle but also facilitates subtle compositional effects. With the narrow image, especially when it was unaccompanied by sound, it was easier to make an impact by means of montage than it was within a single shot. With CinemaScope you can orchestrate a complex image unfolding in time. Scope yields a greater range for "gradation of emphasis" (p. 18) within a single sustained shot. What about the depth of field classics of Welles and Wyler shot in Academy format? [12] Is Barr not merely replicating what André Bazin had to say about the sleeping pill-scene in Citizen Kane (1941) - the bringing together of multiple units of information within a single shot: the pills in the foreground, Susan asleep in the middle ground, Kane knocking on the door visible in the background? Not exactly. The difference according to Barr is that in Scope filmmakers can parcel out emphasis within shots in a way that does not look as unnaturally forced or crammed as it would in Academy: "...on the smaller screen it's difficult to play off foreground and background within the frame: the detail tends to look too obviously planted" (p. 19). The empty glass and the bottle of pills in Citizen Kane are hypersituated and look too obviously planted, Barr might say (Fig. 12). [13]

The dimensions of the frame provide different ways for incorporating the iconography of the Western into a film's visual design. As opposed to the wide opening shot of The Man from Laramie, Winchester '73 opens with a unit shot: an insert of a rifle butt (Fig. 13). This shot would appear to substantiate Charles Barr's claims about the Academy format being good for isolating and pre-packaging information to the spectator so that we are only given one motif per shot.

Fig. 12. The glass and the bottle of pills in Citizen Kane.   Fig. 13-14 (Shot 1a-1b). A combined tracking and panning shot changes the framing of the first shot from a close-up of the rifle butt to a shot of the whole rifle including a more prominent signposting of the day of the contest: July 4th 1876 - the centenary of Independence Day.

The subsequent shot, however, raises some interesting questions. In the first shot the rifle is the only point of interest. In the second shot the rifle is now the reference point for the conversations of the surrounding characters (Fig. 15-17). One might say that this second shot is Winchester '73's attempt at a complex image with multiple focal points. It is certainly revealing of the strengths and weaknesses of the Academy ratio in this regard. One sees the strength of Academy in the use of the vertical dimensions of the frame. Besides the rifle the frame now includes a sign which reiterates and reemphasizes the where, when and what of events to take place in the course of the day. [14]

But the first part of the shot (Fig. 15-16) also illustrates the very problems of grading emphasis within a single shot in Academy ratio. The Western is a genre - so Bazin reminds us elsewhere in his review of The Man from Laramie - that must not sing loud but sing true (p. 165) and such tight packing of several units of information into one shot looks too good to "sing true." The shot does in fact - Barr was right - look unnaturally cluttered. Although aided by a camera movement it is mainly the speaking voices that provide the gradation of emphasis. They - rather than the compositional design - tell us where to focus our attention in the course of the shot.

Fig. 15-17 (Shot 2a-2c) A tilt brings another unit of information into shot: the three men at the back of the shot who are brought into the upper right corner of the frame. Then a rightward crane movement brings Lin and High-Spade into view.

When looking at various scenes throughout Winchester '73 it is true that the rifle is occasionally isolated in an insert shot (Fig. 18) or overtly hypersituated in a multi-unit shot (Fig. 19) but there are two important things that we must keep in mind. First of all, the rifle has a right to be hypersituated in Winchester '73 because it plays a more prominent role in the narrative (the film even bears its name) than repeating rifles do in The Man from Laramie - both as a structuring device and as the object of every male character's desire. [15] Second, Barr largely forgets - or at least underestimates - the resources of depth staging that were particularly evident in 1910s European cinema, for instance pre-revolutionary Russian cinema and Danish cinema. If one looks at the first scene at Riker's Bar from where Fig. 18-19 stem, one finds that the filmmakers also use more subtle effects of staging such as Dutch Henry putting the Winchester down at the bar as he shares a glance with the Indian trader Lamont (John McIntire) (Fig. 20). Later in the scene Mann will return to the same set-up and use it as a springboard for a slight detour in the development of the scene: As Dutch Henry and his men move over towards the guns that they wish to buy a subtle camera movement hides the rifle in off-screen space behind Lamont's shoulder (Fig. 21).

Throughout the scene Mann makes sure that we do not forget the significance of the rifle but he also makes sure that we sense that Lamont and Dutch Henry are fully aware of the real subtext of the situation - the ownership of the Winchester '73. However, Mann does not ram it down our throats. After the initial shot of Dutch putting down the rifle at the counter our attention is naturally drawn to the dialogue between Riker, Dutch Henry and Lamont about the guns - that they are missing and Lamont is selling. But Mann reminds us of the real subtext of the scene by letting the Winchester '73 pop up into the frame in the ensuing shot, a radiant gleam emanating from its barrel (Fig. 22). In fact, the same strategy can be witnessed in the second shot of the film (Fig. 15-16) and it is revived at the end of the film as the rifle rests in Lin's hands, its plaque radiantly gleaming to steal our attention (Fig. 23) before finally glances from Lin and High-Spade also come to rest on it.

Nevertheless, Barr was not altogether wrong about the deficiencies of the Academy format. Although the scene at Riker's is a veritable tour-de-force of staging it is nevertheless orchestrated in a series of relatively brief shots and not in complex long takes. Furthermore, Mann did not end the film on the shot of the subtly integrated object (Fig. 23) but concludes his film with a cut-in to an insert shot of the rifle butt - recalling the opening shot of the film.

Fig. 18. While Dutch Henry and his men are busy inspecting Lamont's guns he steals a glance at the Winchester '73. Fig. 19. The hypersituated object. Enhanced by glance. Fig. 20. The three men enter Riker's and Dutch Henry rests the rifle up against the counter in the centre of the shot.

Fig. 21. As Dutch Henry moves over towards the guns that they wish to buy a camera movement comes to conceal the rifle in off-screen space behind Lamont's shoulder. Fig. 22. The barrel of the Winchester gleams in the bottom left corner of the shot. Fig. 23. The subtly integrated object. Later enhanced by Lin and High-Spade's glances at the rifle.

A brief scene from The Man from Laramie illustrates how a rifle significant to the plot can be subtly integrated into the visual design of a CinemaScope Western. The scene in question occurs approximately five minutes into the film as Lockhart enters the Waggoman Mercantile to inform them about the three wagonloads of supplies that he wants to deliver. At this point in the film Mann has been stingy with information about Lockhart's goals and intentions. We know that he is out for revenge but it has not yet been fully revealed to us what or who it is that he is looking for. As Lockhart enters the Mercantile he steps over to the counter (Fig. 24). Given our limited knowledge we can easily miss the object of his glance: a repeating rifle hanging on the wall behind the counter. The scale of the CinemaScope frame yields a greater range for gradation of emphasis. The rifle does not seem squeezed into place. There is plenty of room around it. It exists there for us to search out. Its place in the composition is realistically motivated (credible) before it is significant to the narrative. It recalls Charles Barr's analysis of the bag of belongings that we continue to see flowing down the stream in Otto Preminger's River of No Return (1954): "[T]he spectator is 'free' to notice the bundle, and, when he does, free to interpret it as significant [...] The act of interpreting the visual field - and through that the action - is in itself valuable" (p. 11). [16]

As opposed to Winchester '73 we do not take the rifle to be significant because it has been singled out for us. In our scene from The Man from Laramie we are free to make a positive act of interpreting the significance of the rifle. In fact the rifle also has a slightly different function from the bundle of belongings in Preminger's film because there we pick out the bundle flowing down the stream in the background of the shot "because it is meaningful" (op. cit.); in our scene we can pick out the rifle because it has the potential of being significant.

One of the reasons why it is easy to miss the object at first viewing is that Mann cuts off our attention to Lockhart's doings by letting a hand slip into the left foreground of the shot (Fig. 25). This is where Mann reveals himself as being a filmmaker who uses the Scope frame differently from, say, Otto Preminger. Mann subtly integrates significant objects into the film's visual design but he does not want to relinquish the close foreground for dramatic accentuation. [17] Note, however, that when Mann uses the Scope frame to orchestrate action in several planes, the foreground motif is less imposing - its intervention more subtle - than the 'aggressively' hypersituated foreground objects in the Academy frame (see Fig. 12 & 19).

Fig. 24. Lockhart enters the Mercantile. A pan follows him over to the counter.
Fig. 25. A hand intrudes into the frame. Our first glimpse of the Indian store employee whose stature in the frame increases in the course of the film.

Looking at Anthony Mann's career one can trace an overall development - regardless of genre - towards working with ever more epic formats culminating with Super Technirama 70 (El Cid, 1961) and anamorphic Ultra Panavision 70 (The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964). [18] Nevertheless, there is no need to assume that the shift in image ratio necessarily reflects directorial maturation. Among critics as well as theorists both formats have their advocates and opponents. Various formats facilitate certain staging strategies. Nevertheless, Scope versus Academy ratio is not merely a discussion of stylistic alternatives. The staging strategies involved are underpinned by important theoretical suppositions.

The comparative analyses presented here suggest that some of the characteristics suggested by Barr about Academy and CinemaScope are certainly at play in Mann's Westerns but also that we should be careful not to view these as formulaic. We should acknowledge that filmmakers can transcend or at least bend the formal properties to the particular needs of their story. Mann certainly transcends the possibilities of visual design suggested by Barr about the Academy frame but he also shows himself capable of exploiting the visual staging possibilities facilitated by both Academy and CinemaScope - taking full advantage of the format that he was working within.

1 What I will have to say about CinemaScope will be more or less valid for other widescreen formats. The points made will mostly have to do with the dimensions of the frame - i.e. frame ratio - and less with other technical differences, e.g. whether it is an anamorphic process or not.

2 The films are Winchester '73 (1950), The Furies (1950), Devil's Doorway (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), The Man from Laramie (1955), The Last Frontier (1955), The Tin Star (1957) and Man of the West (1958). Mann's final Western was Cimarron (1960). These are the films referred to as Westerns by Jim Kitses in Horizons West (London: Thames & Hudson/BFI, 1969), p. 30. All of these films are also registered as Westerns at imdb.com although other genres are sometimes included. I have been able to see all of these except for The Furies and Devil's Doorway.

3 The Far Country was in 1.75: 1 and The Tin Star in VistaVision (1.85: 1). Mann's final Western Cimarron (1960) was in Panavision Anarmophic (2.35: 1) - the system which won out against CinemaScope.

4 Kitses grants that revenge also "affects the denouement of three others as well, Bend of the River, The Far Country and Man of the West" (p. 33).

5 Repeating rifles also play a role in Winchester '73 during an Indian attack with Lin (Stewart) devising the defense strategy based on his knowledge of the recent battle at Little Big Horn where Custer's troops were equipped with single-shot Springfield carbines whereas some of the Indians had repeating rifles.

6 Jean-Pierre Coursodon, "Anthony Mann," in American Directors vol. 1 (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1983), p. 241.

7 Edeson describes the shoot in "Wide Film Cinematography." American Cinematographer, vol. 11, no. 9 (September 1930), pp. 8-9, 21. Two photographs accompany Edeson's article and illustrate shots that "call for 70mm" (p. 8). Both are long shots - one of a stampeding herd and another - not unlike the opening shot of The Man from Laramie - of a wagon trail.

8 Here one can also compare to the way the Rocky Mountains match the Academy ratio of The Naked Spur.

9 There is a similar constellation of characters in Mann's Bend of the River (1952) where James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy play two characters with virtually identical backgrounds who become nemeses because they take a step onto the right and wrong side of the law.

10 André Bazin. "Beauty of a Western," in Jim Hillier (ed.) Cahiers du Cinéma vol. 1 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), p. 166. Translated by Liz Heron. Originally published as "Beauté d'un western," in Cahiers du Cinéma no. 55 (January 1956).

11 Barr, Charles. "CinemaScope: Before and After," Film Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 4 (Summer 1963), pp. 4-24.

12 In fact, the single unit/ single shot analogy is also a reductive view of Eisenstein's compositional predilections. Already in the famous essay on the dialectics of montage from 1929, Eisenstein makes it clear that his notion of collision is not restricted to collision between shots but also within shots, e.g. contrasts of light and dark or graphically opposed shapes within the same shot. Although Barr does not directly acknowledge that Eisenstein's principle of dialectical montage could include two units within one shot, he would no doubt find such formal contrasts too crude, contrived and schematic. Even in this case the image would be "predigested".

13 This is problematic to Barr because he adheres to a type of realist expressivity that was most clearly articulated by V.F. Perkins in Film as Film (N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1972), pp. 69-70. I.e., a stylistic choice must be credible before serving a significant narrative function.

14 If one looks closely this information already appears in Fig. 13 inscribed on the rifle plaque.

15 Jean-Pierre Coursodon even complains that Lin is "upstaged throughout the film by the prop and its successive 'owners'" (p. 242) because the route of the rifle through several people's hands causes the film to contain several episodes without Lin: The rifle passes from Lin to Dutch Henry to the Indian trader Lamont (John McIntire) to an Indian chief (Rock Hudson) to Lola's cowardly escort Steve to an outlaw (Dan Duryea) in cahoots with Dutch Henry, back to Dutch Henry before it finally returns to its original owner at the end of the film.

16 Barr's comment is an elaboration of V. F. Perkins' remarks on the shot in an article from Movie no. 2.

17 It is the hand of an Indian employee. Another token of the aesthetic potential of the Scope is demonstrated by the way in which this Indian gains in prominence in the frame in the course of the film. He appears in the background of shots until at the very end of the film he pops out of the background and into bright sunlight - bare-chested and in warrior paint - as he is revealed to be the leader of the group that is buying rifles from Dave and Vic.

18 The latter process entailed shooting on 65mm film which incorporated an anamorphic squeeze of app. 1.25: 1. When "un-squeezed" during projection this would - under proper circumstances - yield an aspect ratio of app. 2.76: 1.


Barr, Charles. "CinemaScope: Before and After," Film Quarterly vol. 16, no. 4 (Summer 1963), pp. 4-24.

Bazin, André. "Beauty of a Western," in Jim Hillier (ed.) Cahiers du Cinéma vol. 1. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985, pp. 165-168. Translated by Liz Heron. Originally published as "Beauté d'un western," in Cahiers du Cinéma no. 55 (January 1956).

Bazin, André. "Evolution of the Western," in Hugh Gray (ed./transl.), What is Cinema? vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971, pp. 140-148.

Bazin, André. "The Western: or The American Film par excellence," in Hugh Gray (ed./transl.), What is Cinema? vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971, pp. 149-157.

Bazin, André. Orson Welles: A Critical View. London: Elm Tree Books, 1978. Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Belton, John. Widescreen Cinema. Harvard University Press, 1992.

Bordwell, David. "Mise-en-Scéne Criticism and Widescreen Aesthetics," The Velvet Light Trap no. 21 (Summer 1985), pp. 118-125.

Coursodon, Jean-Pierre. "Anthony Mann," in American Directors vol. 1. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983, pp. 237-243.

Edeson, Arthur. "Wide Film Cinematography," American Cinematographer vol. 11, no. 9. (September 1930), pp. 8-9, 21.

Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form. Harcourt Brace: San Diego, 1949 [essays from 1928-1944].

Eisenstein, Sergei. "The Dynamic Square," in Jay Leyda (ed./transl.), Film Essays and a Lecture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982, pp. 48-65.

Fenwick, J. H & Armytage, Jonathan-Green. "Now You See It: Landscape and Anthony Mann," Sight and Sound vol. 34, no. 4 (1965): 186-9. An interview with Anthony Mann.

Gregory, Carl Louis. "The Early History of Wide Films," American Cinematographer vol. 11, no. 1. (January 1930), pp. 5, 29.

Howell, A. S. & Dubray, J. A. "Some Practical Aspects of and Recommendations on Wide Film Standards," Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers vol. 14, no. 1 (January 1930), pp. 59ff.

Kitses, Jim. Horizons West. London: Thames & Hudson/BFI, 1969.

Perkins, V.F. Film as Film. N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1972. Reprinted in 1993.

Prince, David; Peter Lehman; Tom Clark. "Lee Garmes, ASC - An Interview," Wide Angle vol. 1, no. 3 (1976), pp. 62-79.

Rayton, W. B. "The Optical Problems of Wide Film Motion Pictures," in Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers vol. 14, no. 1 (January 1930), pp. 50-58.

Schatz, Thomas. "The Western," in Hollywood Genres. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1981, pp. 45-80.

Schlanger, B. "On the Relation Between the Shape of the Projected Picture, the Areas of Vision, and Cinematographic Technic," Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers vol. 19 (May 1935), pp. 402-409.

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