This wasn't the first time Stewart played a character with a dark side. Throughout It's a Wonderful Life George Bailey lashes out at the people he loves, exposing self-pity and violent rage beneath his sensitive persona; the character's like a psychological inversion of De Niro's Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. But in the westerns he made with Anthony Mann—among them Winchester, Bend of the River, and The Man from Laramie—Stewart's anger doesn't seem like the explosive product of bottled-up feeling, but cold-blooded and focused. (Alfred Hitchcock would elicit a similar effect from Stewart in Vertigo.)
By coincidence, the Siskel Center screened Lee Daniels's The Paperboy after Winchester '73. There's an unexpected turn in that movie from John Cusack, another actor associated with sympathetic everyman characters called upon to play a murderer. Cusack isn't as convincing a psychopath as Stewart; his performance, like most in The Paperboy, is exaggerated in such a way that it recalls a drag revue. And yet this has a lot to do with what I admire about the movie. Rather than imply that violence or racism or perversion are inherently part of everyone, it suggests more daringly that they're masks people wear—silly and grotesque, but easy to reshape.