Shane (1953, George Stevens)

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Shane is a George Stevens production first and a western second, but despite the fact that this crowd-pleasing ’50s touchstone is considered one of the least deserving AFI entries by most critics, and despite the lack of seriousness with which it’s approached by followers of the genre, it’s a strong and extraordinarily entertaining film — propulsive, intelligent, and surprisingly realistic, painting its vistas and its immersion in an unfamiliar lifestyle casually, which lends it an air of depth and authenticity. It remains somewhat confined and isn’t anything objectively or miraculously great, but it’s one of the more immediate films in its genre.

No one’s going to deny that Shane looks great; it was obviously designed to be a huge film, and it is, a clash of root-for-the-underdog and root-for-the-man-in-black sensibilities uniting a down-to-earth family man with a cowboy from the outside — each played gamely and believably by Van Heflin and Alan Ladd respectively — against nasty property-rich professional asshole Jack Palance, who is especially fun and who intends to burn everyone’s house and take their land, I think; I’m actually not sure what the hell he was up to but I know it was bad. Ladd brilliantly buries his icy toughness underneath a kind of boyish sensuality — there he is ordering soda pop from a bartender — and suffers fools patiently if not gladly; he’s intimidating but mysterious and calm, which lends his final explosion much of its cinematic grace. Heflin’s performance, as a man who immediately discerns that he’s in the presence of a greater hero than he and is nonchalant and accepting of it, is if anything even stronger, embodying a cheerful cuckold whose sad-eyed fixation is only on what’s best for his wife and family. Said wife is Jean Arthur, who came out of retirement for the role despite her distaste for Hollywood, and gives the multilayered, heartfelt performance of the picture, her duties and sympathies juggled but balanced, her face a beacon of love, fierce independence, and longing.

A premise so bare with the casting of someone like Palance sounds like a recipe for a bit of tongue-in-cheek, lively fun, but Shane takes itself quite seriously, which could easily have been disastrous if not for the shocking scene-for-scene adaptability of director George Stevens. Stevens offers equal proportions of everything, throwing incredible energy and visual/visceral charisma into each sequence; as opposed to the director who hurls the kitchen sink at the audience, he is restrained and conservative but incredibly passionate. Based on this evidence, he had learned a great deal since his 1930s blockbuster, the anemic misfire Gunga Din. Stevens spread himself too thin on that picture, which was unconvincing in its characterization and attempts at romantic development but equally (and curiously) unmoving when it stuck to action. Shane excels in both territories, and nothing else seems to matter all that much in the end. The romance is superb, leaving piles of things unsaid between Shane and Mrs. Starrett, who’s quietly stunned by him within five minutes of meeting him — their silent courtship peaks with a lovely dance scene made lovelier by Heflin’s calm watch over it, a menage a trois played solely in eyes. Meanwhile, the action is outstanding; the gunfights and altercations are like firecracker bursts amid the pretty landscapes, and the editing is beautiful — subjective, impulsive, driven by the rawness of the moment. If Shane is worth remembering for nothing else, keep that early barroom brawl in the lexicon.

The color vistas are nice too, of course, and the film does fine with both story — good pacing, good buildup, excellent (and surprisingly bleak) ending — and character development, thoughts communicated without words more often than not. The harshness, sophistication, depth of emotion all come across with a minimum of reaching. Shane can’t be a great movie because it just doesn’t reach high enough; that’s not to say it isn’t almost perfectly mounted.

There is, however, one serious debit: the kid, Joey (Brandon De Wilde), who appears to fall in love with Shane almost as quickly as his mother, is shrill and annoying. It’s difficult to imagine the story working without his loudly voiced emotional arc, but difficult in an intriguing way; was Stevens (or whatever party must have been responsible for the choice) afraid to make such a distinctly adult movie? Afraid that without the anchor of a child involved, Arthur’s attraction to two men might have overtaken the story? We’re given climaxes and rushes and murder and big bursting excitement, but there’s always the sense that the film is implying something it never actually states — which, considering Stevens’ own stadards as well as those of the American western, is all the better.

[Originally posted elsewhere with slight changes in 2007.]

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